Javed Akhtar - India’s Uncle Tom Visits Pakistan

Javed Akhtar - India’s Uncle Tom Visits Pakistan
Noted Indian lyricist and famed actress Shabana Azmi’s husband, Javed Akhtar, recently visited Lahore.  He arrived for a festival on Faiz who had penned the famous hum dekhenge (we’ll see) poem of resistance. He called out Pakistan (not the army, not the establishment, not the TLP/TTP terrorist ilk) and held the country responsible for terrorism in India. His words were met by a thunderous applause, as is true of Pakistani figures who have made a career out of bashing the Quaid e Azam and Pakistan. Their tone-deaf approach with an air of self-importance ignores that Pakistan comprises of multiple voices that distinguish self-hatred from self-introspection. These include Muhammad Umair Khan, Ammar Ali Jan, Yasser Latif Hamdani, Aasem Bakhshi, Jibran Nasir, amongst so many other academics and activists that are too numerous to list here.

It is important to note that Javed Akhtar faces heavy scrutiny in India by large swathes of middle-class majoritarian Hindus who are complicit in the otherisation of Indian Muslims. They view present day Muslims as remnants of past Muslim invaders or at best as coward Hindus who converted to Islam. Absent from this narrative is the understanding that a free flow of cultural exchange could have occurred or that people would have freely converted to escape the horrors of the varna (caste) system and the oppression of archaic practices. These practices include suttee (self-immolation) of widows that they supposedly “willingly” underwent for their husbands or according to the current Indian narrative to escape the clutches of Muslim invaders. To date, such practices are valorized in devotional serials like Mata ki Chowki where the protagonist Vaishnavi willingly undergoes the suttee test set up by Yama, the god of death. Not to mention Bollywood movies like Padmavat that valorise this practice with colour fanfare and slow action movements towards the pyre.

Nonetheless, there are Indians on Twitter who were vocal that Akhtar should simply stay in Pakistan. Akhtar is a self-professed atheist, but he is coloured as a “closet Muslim” just as the Bollywood Khans with Hindu spouses are painted as “anti-nationals” or “jihadis”. An older video with Shabana Azmi also confirms that the institutionalised discrimination in housing society against Indian Muslims precedes the rise of Modi’s India. This means that the raw prejudice was always there since the days of Hindu consciousness of being a nation in 1872 long before Sir Syed or the Muslim League articulated the two nation theory. According to Muhammad Umair Khan, the Hindu version of the two-nation theory emphasized the separation of Muslims from the Hindu body to the western areas that comprise Pakistan today. In contrast, the Muslim version of the same theory was for greater political safeguards in United India failing which partition became inevitable much to the chagrin of Jinnah and to the glee of hardline Hindu groups.

It seems that even Akhtar’s atheist credentials or the Khan’s secular lifestyles are not sufficient to shield them from the prejudice of educated middle class Indians. So much for the “superior” Indian education system. It seems as if Muslims in India share experiences parallel to the black community in the United States, as there are calls for the boycott of Muslim businesses, cow mob lynchings, police complicity or indifference, and utter silence of the Prime Minister when members or affiliates of the ruling party openly call for the genocide of Muslims in India. All this apart from the routine discrimination in housing societies, the caricature of Muslims as “madrassachaps” and “jihadis” and blaming them instead of the system for their poor socio-economic status in India. Indeed, Muslims historically were behind the majoritarian Hindu community. Consider for instance education where Raja Ram Mohan Roy initiated modern education decades before Sir Syed arrived with the Aligarh Muslim University.

It is in this milieu that Akhar must choose his words carefully and prove himself more Indian than the average Indian. Viewed as such, he becomes the caricature of Uncle Tom, who must be excessively obedient to the majoritarian community and who betrays his own cultural and social community. It was this pressure that must have weighed on his head when he openly pontificated to Pakistanis experiencing an economic, political, and climate change crisis. Yet despite his outbursts against Pakistan, Islamophobic Hindus would still not accept him and view his words through the lens of taqiyya (dissimulation). Such is the tragedy of Uncle Tom.

Akhtar claims that India hosted Pakistani singers like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan but Pakistan did not do the same with Lata Mangeshkar. Only he would make such a claim and not someone like the legendary Amitabh Bachchan who does not need to prove his Indian credentials. Does Akhtar not realise that he had the privilege to come to Pakistan, call out Pakistan, and still receive a thunderous applause? What does that tell him about his own use of blanket statements against Pakistan? Is he free to make similar statements in India where even the most secular, multi-millionaires like Shahrukh Khan must remain strategically quiet on the witch hunt against his own son? Can he speak truth to power in India or will he remain content with picking a low hanging fruit by condescendingly addressing those who offered him hospitality and audience? Was he not at a loss addressing inanities by Indians against Faiz’s hum dekhenge when Indian Muslim students were brutally targeted for protesting the anti-Muslim citizenship act CAA? Additionally, where was his principled humanity on the floods that devastated a third of Pakistan?

Pakistan’s problems belong to Pakistanis. They have their work cut out for them from the oppressive treatment of minorities including Ahmadis to the lack of institution building including accountability, transparency, and devolution of power. These problems also include rent seeking by the elite and the proliferation of extremist groups like the TTP and the TLP, as the chickens have long come home to roost. However, unlike Indian Muslims that dare not cross their own government, Pakistanis do not shy away from internal critique for they have long held the establishment responsible for their economic and political woes. As such, Akhtar can learn from the grace offered by his Pakistani audience to avoid hyperbole and instead focus on uplifting his own community in a Hindutvist state. In essence, while Pakistanis must understand that they need to stop worrying about every other Muslim in the world, Javed Akhtar must recognize that playing Uncle Tom will still not endear him to majoritarian Indians.