The last time Shah Rukh Khan, India’s biggest romantic hero, took a public view on an issue, he had just turned 50. It was November 2015 and a month earlier, a Muslim man, Mohammad Akhlaq, had been lynched to death in his home on the charge that he had stored beef in his refrigerator. His son’s skull was cracked open as he tried to save Akhlaq’s life.

Khan was unequivocal in interviews, including to me. “Our religion [Islam] cannot be defined or shown respect to by our meat-eating habits. How banal and silly is that,” he said.

The trolls came for him as if on cue. He was mocked and sneered at. His nationalism was questioned. He was asked to go to Pakistan. His new release, “Dilwale,” a frankly mediocre and formulaic rehash, got shrouded in controversy.

Since then, Khan, who warned us that “religious intolerance will take [India] to the dark ages,” has slipped into a sullen shell, emerging only for tightly controlled and fluffy press interactions.

Khan’s middle-class roots, interfaith love marriage to a Hindu woman, full-throated embrace of multiculturalism and sardonic humor are among the many factors that made him a symbol of all that is bright, brilliant and possible about India and its pluralism. Now, his heartbreaking transition to a sad, apologetic and, above all, silent public figure captures all that is being corroded, debased and devalued in India today.

It is his kowtowing to the online lynch mobs that Khan might be reflecting on today as an anguished parent to 23-year-old Aryan Khan, who has now spent 17 days in jail on charges of drug use. On Wednesday, his bail was rejected by a special narcotics crime court. The matter moves to the High Court.

The mob has also shown its bullying muscles — and Islamophobia — this week in a case involving FabIndia, one of the country’s major fashion brands. An online advertisement for a new collection timed to Diwali was withdrawn after it used the phrase “Jashne-e-Riwaaz,” meaning “the festival of tradition.” A high-profile parliamentarian of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party was among those who led the charge against FabIndia, calling the supposed use of the Urdu language anti-Hindu and an instance of “deliberate attempt at abrahamisation.” In fact, Urdu is a language that originated in India, and linguists have pointed out that the words used in the campaign are a somewhat distorted mix of Hindi and Urdu. But the subtext is clear: Urdu is considered Muslim, so make an ugly noise.

India’s flawed justice system — and its supplicant, hate-mongering television channels — have often victimized non-Muslims as well. In 2020, actor Rhea Chakraborty spent nearly a month in jail after television stations accused her of bringing about the death of her boyfriend Sushant Singh Rajput, in a case that has meandered and floundered even after a medical report concluded it was suicide and not foul play.

But the response of the marauding mobs is very different when the accused is a Muslim. If they question the legal process or the idea of justice, it is their patriotism that is placed under scrutiny.

So, Shah Rukh Khan remains silent despite some glaring credibility issues with the raid on the cruise ship from which Aryan was arrested. A BJP worker and a private detective (who fled after being caught taking selfies with the megastar’s son) were not just part of the bust-up; they are on camera escorting the accused from the raid into custody. There is no charge of dealing or possession against Aryan. His lawyer denies consumption though the prosecutors have claimed WhatsApp chats as evidence.

Not many would disagree that Aryan Khan should be penalized as needed under the law if he has violated it. Nor is it my case that he has been arrested for being Muslim. But the utter absence of proportionality in the court’s response — in a justice system in which bail should be the norm rather than the exception — and the subsequent, often communal, gloating of toxic mobs is revealing.

Shah Rukh Khan and his son offer the perfect deflection. Who wants to talk about the threat from China or the economic and social impact of covid-19 when you can stargaze on prime time and pass judgment without due process? Throw in some Islamophobia into the mix and the distraction works even better. Virtual bullies feel empowered, while once-powerful heroes move into even deeper silence.

We have to admit that the intersection of poverty, prejudice, caste and class impacts who ends up in jail and for how long. Aryan may be a child of privilege, but data shows that Muslims, Dalits and tribal members are jailed disproportionate to their population numbers.

By contrast, the trial in the Dadri lynching case began five years after Akhlaq’s murder. His son, Danish — a gentle, smiling man, who miraculously survived after two brain surgeries and once dreamt of joining government — told me, “We are all hungry for a bit of love.”

Today, even Shah Rukh Khan, known for his onscreen personality as the king of love may be feeling the same.