Democracy searches for space in India

No one could have thought that the visit of noted Bollywood actor Aamir Khan to the site of twin agitations – the Bhopal gas tragedy as well as the Narmada agitation – in April 2006 in New Delhi would spark off a furor that would refuse to die down even after two months. His comments propelled Gujarat, the land of Mahatma Gandhi, to ban his latest film Fanaa.
Both the agitating groups have been protesting for their rights for over two decades and both wanted the highest authority in Indian democracy – the Prime Minister’s office – to give them a hearing. People from both the groups had gone on a hunger-strike to force the government to do something.
On a visit to the Indian capital, Khan decided to pay a visit to Jantar Mantar – India’s hotspot for launching protests and agitations – where the Bhopal gas victims and the Narmada farmers had pitched their tents on opposite sides of the road.
The Bhopal victims wanted compensation apart from other demands and the Narmada agitators – led by Medha Patkar – wanted the government to relocate people who have been ousted because of the construction of a series of dam on the Narmada river in central India.
A mere comment by Khan that the Indian government should listen to the woes of the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy and should rehabilitate villagers in the Narmada valley was quickly given a political hue by the Gujarat government.
Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, also known for his anti-minorities stance, does not accept alternative views easily. And when Khan voiced his concern over the tardy rehabilitation process at the Narmada valley, the BJP chief minister found an opportunity to gain mileage out of the dam controversy.
It is another matter that Narmada evokes such strong reactions in Gujarat that even the Congress party, which is a strong political opponent of the BJP, sided with the BJP’s irrational stand. The parties roused the passions of the common Gujarati so much that a youth even set himself ablaze in front of the lone cinema hall that was screening the movie.
Well, the film is doing well all over the country and as Khan said it is a loss for the Gujaratis that they could not watch it because of their government’s stand. The actor also refused to apologise to the BJP for voicing his opinion and maintained his posture that he was apolitical. Khan also promised to study the controversy over Coke and depletion of groundwater as he has been endorsing that company’s products.
What probably the actor did not realize when he made those innocuous Narmada comments in New Delhi was that he would end up enacting a real life role from his recent success – Rang De Basanti. This movie too was a roaring success and went down well with the Indian youth as its young protagonists successfully assassinate the country’s corrupt defence minister. Aamir Khan would have little known that he too would end up playing a young man in search of justice for his countrymen.

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