How Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war

Discrimination against religious minorities is a very real problem in both India and Pakistan, but did politicians really need to wade into this row?

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The Independent Online

Over the decades India and Pakistan have sparred over a variety of issues. The decades-old conflict in Kashmir, accusations of sponsoring terrorism and a dispute over water supply all come to mind.

However, a recent bone of contention between the two nuclear-armed neighbours should also be a cause of utmost concern for the international community. Caustic statements were given by Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik and the Indian Home Secretary RK Singh, wars have been fought on social media, and analysts (including yours truly) have been queuing to offer their own two cents.

So what is it that has irked the two neighbours? Was it a border dispute or a threat of nuclear war? Was it some new long-range missile tested by the Indian military? Or the code name for a Pakistani spy caught red-handed in Delhi? In fact, it was none of the above; it was Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan.

Recently the actor - known to his fans as 'SRK' - wrote an article in which he mentioned some of his views on religion, identity and terrorism. In it he referenced the problems he has faced travelling aboard, as a result of his religious background - problems which also inspired his hit film My Name is Khan, and its tagline "...And I am not a terrorist." He wrote: “Ironically, I was interrogated at the airport for hours about my last name when I was going to present the film in America for the first time. I wonder, at times, whether the same treatment is given to everyone whose last name just happens to be McVeigh (as in Timothy)”

However, where the article attracted most controversy was over troubles the actor faced closer to home. “I sometimes become the inadvertent object of political leaders who choose to make me a symbol of all that they think is wrong and unpatriotic about Muslims in India," he wrote. "There have been occasions when I have been accused of bearing allegiance to our neighboring nation rather than my own country – this even though I am an Indian whose father fought for the freedom of India. Rallies have been held where leaders have exhorted me to leave my home and return to what they refer to as my 'original homeland'.” 

The controversy gained momentum when Hafiz Saeed, chief of extremist group Jamaatud Dawa, advised Khan to move to Pakistan, if he feels unsafe in India.  “Shah Rukh will be welcome here", he said. Then, at a reception hosted by the Indian High Commission, Pakistan’s Interior Minister also waded into the controversy, saying “He was born Indian and would like to remain Indian, but I will request the government of India to please provide him [with] security. I would like to request all Indian brothers and sisters and all those who are talking in a negative way about Shah Rukh that they should know he is a movie star.”

These comments  irked many in India. The Home Secretary RK Singh commented:  "We are capable of looking at the security of our own citizens. Let him (Rehman Malik) worry about his own," Singh said. Frankly, he is correct.

Pakistan has its own Pandora's box full of problems with minorities, including discrimination against the Hindu community, some of whom have migrated to India as a result. One has to wonder what the Interior Minister was thinking by making such a statement? Malik later tried to cool matters down. He tweeted “Shahrukh Khan is equally famous in Pakistan and India. I am sure that threats to Mr.S. Khan are being handled as per the relevant Indian law.” And Khan himself clarified: “I would like to tell all those who are offering me unsolicited advice that we in India are extremely safe and happy. We have an amazing democratic, free and secular way of life.”

Yet the question arises why there was a need for the two countries to engage in such a childish squabble over some comments by a celebrity? Why was there a need to try and turn Khan into a disputed territory? Some people spend a lifetime looking for external enemies, and playing the victim card. However the biggest enemy is often the one which lurks within. Pakistan and India have enough of their own problems with endless poverty, environmental degradation and mammoth corruption. Relations have already been tense between the two countries in recent weeks. To top it by indulging in such petty spats is a useful way for politicians to play to the gallery and keep the people distracted from their ineptitude. That is the only lesson, if there was one, to have come out from this unfortunate episode.