The Apophasis Of Kamal Haasan’s Faith-Signaling

by Venu Gopal Narayanan - May 22, 2019 11:18 AM +05:30 IST
The Apophasis Of Kamal Haasan’s Faith-SignalingBollywood actor Kamal Haasan (Amal KS/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
  • Kamal Hassan claimed that Nathuram Godse, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, was the first terrorist of independent India, and a Hindu at that

    At the philosophical level, it is an electoral contest between parties who want to rise above caste by rejecting organised religion

    But the problem arises when people realise that you can only reject one religion; rejecting the others unfortunately means losing those votes

As India headed into the very last stretch of an interminably-long general election, the headlines were stolen by legendary actor Kamal Haasan at a rally in Aravakurichi, in central Tamil Nadu. He claimed during a campaign event for his party, the Makkal Needhi Maiam, that Nathuram Godse, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, was the first terrorist of independent India, and a Hindu at that. The statement’s timing appeared incongruous and out of place, because Tamil Nadu had gone to the polls almost a month earlier on 18 April. That was when overworked commentators realised that four legislative assembly by-elections in Tamil Nadu were due on 18 May. Very shortly thereafter, the press took the actor to the cleaners.

To start with, Kamal Haasan held to form by clarifying that he had spoken in Tamil, and that he meant to term Godse an ‘extremist’ and not a ‘terrorist’ (as if that made a difference). This nuanced definition was accepted by Swarajya editor R Jagannathan in his subsequent piece on the issue.

However, matters moved on, because in his latest press conference, Kamal Haasan made multiple references to terrorists. At one point, taking a question from Sam Daniel of NDTV, he replied, ‘I was talking about terrorists’. We may therefore infer that Kamal Haasan also had terrorism in mind when he chose to talk about Godse. This confusion merits close examination, because, beyond the odious semantics of terrorism-versus-extremism, lies a deeper problem – faith-shaming. The question has to be asked: what would possess an apparently intelligent, well-read, successful man like Kamal Haasan, to make such a preposterous statement? Why link Hinduism with terrorism (or extremism, if you want to split hairs)?

Surprisingly, the motivations are many, and symptomatic of our times. As readers shall learn in this piece, some of the underlying commonalities and fundamental motivations are inherent in a certain type, which spans the breadth from successful film stars and Laphroaig Liberals, through militant-activist student leaders typified by the ‘tukde-tukde’ slogan, Maoist insurgents, and to political parties indulging in vote banking.

Let us begin with a truism: it is accepted state policy that terrorism has no religion. We employ this approach to insulate innocent Muslims from the evil acts of terrorists who strike in the name of Islam. Governments do not allow an entire faith to be tarnished by the evil acts of a small group of deranged fanatics operating on the fringe of society. By this approach, the religious legitimacy of Jihadi terrorists too, remains tenuous and unjustifiable. This approach does not always work, nor is it implemented with anywhere near the efficiency one would desire, but it remains a useful tool to ensure harmony in society.

It was therefore surprising to watch Kamal Haasan stress on Godse’s Hindu identity during his campaign rally in Aravakurichi. He made it worse by prefacing it with a caveat – that he didn’t want people to think he was making this statement because the audience was predominantly Muslim. What are we to make of this?

The answer is one word – apophasis, a rhetorical device employed during speech, of alluding to something by denying that it will be mentioned. For example, to say to an obese individual in public, ‘I will never talk about how fat you are, no matter how much others force me’, is a classic example of apophasis. You talk about something by saying that you will not talk about it!

Therefore, one may infer that by stating publicly, that he would disregard the Muslim identity of those assembled in Aravakurichi, Kamal Haasan was actually implying the exact opposite – that he was talking to a largely Muslim audience, and that his audience should grasp those unspoken undertones. This may sound crazily convoluted, but readers are advised to first marvel at the magnificent subtlety of messaging employed, before frothing at the mouth at the actor’s blatant hypocrisy. In a perverse way, one could even marvel at the audacity of the man.

Now we come to the second part – speculations about why Kamal Haasan stressed on Godse’s Hindu identity in front of a largely-Muslim audience. These can be tackled at multiple levels.

At the political level, a fledgling party with little infrastructure, and packaged around the charisma of a famous film star, will necessarily seek to please all segments of society. Unfortunately, a novice’s enthusiasm allied with political immaturity blanks out that other truism – about not being able to please all of the people all of the time. Or, perhaps there is a backroom calculation, which cynically predicts that star charisma will retain the Hindu vote, even as another community is pandered to by the hype of ‘Hindu terror’.

At the electoral level, Kamal Haasan’s party, the Makkal Needhi Maiam, appears to belong to the sort which sees an electorate in base, simplistic terms of vote blocs. It needs every vote it can get, any which way it can. In the absence of any well-drafted economic policy which might be communicated sagely to voters, such parties tend to effect moral compromises with themselves, and resort instead to what might kindly be called, quasi-benign demagoguery. This includes the usual, formulaic approach of appeasement, a little fear-mongering, with a dash of Hindu-bashing. Apparently that makes you look extra secular (whatever that means).

At the personal level, things get slightly more complicated, and we must tread carefully here, because hurting Kamal Haasan’s sentiments even inadvertently, would undermine the premise of this piece. Thus, in generic terms, imagine a child born in a traditional Brahmin family, and brought up in a traditional atmosphere of hymns and rituals. As that child enters adulthood, he is attracted to the Communist ideology. Advocacy of social justice is his new ritual now, and the song of Marx his new hymn. He is guilt-tripped into rejecting that traditional way of life he was brought up in. A little later, he is attracted to an evangelical outfit and indulges himself in proselytising (as Kamal Haasan admitted to anchor Karan Thapar in a television interview). Then stardom strikes and these matters stay irrelevant, until the boredom of old age forces a self-righteous entry into public service. So a born-a-Brahmin-lapsed-Christian-atheist-Marxist brimming with charisma, could appear attractive and credible to certain sections, both in the rejection of his privileged Hindu past, and his empathy for a community painted as under threat from Hindu majoritarianism (again, whatever that means).

Call it unethical if you will, or realpolitik if you are a cynic, but the merits of that approach will be decided by the mandate such a party receives. The bottom line is that if Marxism can make a man turn away from his faith, is it a fleeting romance with Evangelism in his youth, or the ambitions of his dotage, which make the contempt complete?

At the philosophical level, it is an electoral contest between parties who want to rise above caste by rejecting organised religion, and those who want to rise above caste on the strength of scripture. The problem arises when people realise that you can only reject one religion; rejecting the others unfortunately means losing those votes. So for the atheist lobby, it is a calculated risk of sorts, because believers outnumber atheists by orders of magnitude. And yet, it is a risk political parties continue to take, by selectively linking terrorism with only selected faiths.

We see precisely this sort of hypocrisy (there is no other word) in the spirited defence put up by certain groups in the Ayodhya issue, for example, over support to Puritanism against a Triple-talaq ban, or in the Sabarimala episode. On each such occasion, the characteristic response from these groups has been to sacrifice the true tenets of Liberalism at the altar of electoral profit. Ergo, the blithe manner in which the bogey of ‘Hindu terror’ is employed as an electoral trope – in Aravakurichi and elsewhere.

Thus, the apophasis of Kamal Haasan’s faith-signaling is but the latest addition to a long and growing list. The apparent ethics of his statement will be staunchly defended by a loud and tiny brigade of Laphroaig Liberals. The response will be the mandate of 23 May. Wait and watch.

Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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