Expectedly, in a political culture, where each action of the Narendra Modi government is condemned by the Usual Critics, the decision to terminate the services of the advertising agency handling the Incredible India account has been met with waves of protest at such “intolerance”. The implication is that the ad agency’s chosen mascot for the campaign, Aamir Khan, has been punished for his comments that his family felt “unsafe” in India. What has been left unanswered is exactly why an individual belonging to the highest income slab in the country, who is presumably surrounded by bodyguards, feels unsafe in the country that has been responsible for his renown and his wealth. There is more than a whiff of suspicion that the unflattering comments made about the situation in his country were caused by a desire to jump onto the Award Wapsi bandwagon, comprising those who have gone public bemoaning the supposed “loss of liberties” consequent to Narendra Damodardas Modi taking over as Prime Minister of India on 26 May 2014. Acts of intolerance towards free speech such as the banning of books, including in the distant past of the 1950s those penned by satirist Aubrey Menen, a work of Salman Rushdie in the 1980s and another by Taslima Nasreen in the 1990s, have taken place even in periods when neither PM Modi nor the Bharatiya Janata Party was running the country. Interestingly, India was the first country to ban Rushdie’s book, although the publicity generated ignited similar actions in other countries, including the placing of a bounty on the author’s head by Ayatollah Khomeini. In the case of Taslima Nasreen, the work which was found so offensive by some vocal elements, dealt with the discrimination faced by Hindus in Bangladesh, a situation which has been exhaustively documented in thousands of other works.
When Aamir Khan went public with his view that India was in the view of his wife “unsafe”, he became an internet search away from any individual watching his campaign boosting Incredible India. The contrast between the views on his country expressed outside the campaign and within its box is stark, and in many would create doubt about the message that India is a glorious country to visit, which it undoubtedly is. Certainly, there have been instances that are condemnable, but overall, millions of tourists come and leave the country each year, most delighted to experience the varied sights and sounds of a living civilisation stretching back several thousand years. However, provided a few locations are avoided that are well known to be less than completely safe, India is as safe as any other country in Asia, and indeed much safer than most. When Aamir Khan expressed his view that the opposite was the case, he lost both the moral as well as the intellectual right to be the brand ambassador for Incredible India. It would be akin to a heavy smoker being made the face of a campaign against cigarette smoking, or (in the words of a lady author), as though he said (through the newspapers) that his wife drank only Pepsi when he was the brand ambassador for Coca Cola. The chasm between his real views and what may be termed his “reel” views is vast, and may have been condoned were it about a movie. It is not. It is about a real country, his own. Aamir Khan’s remarks have the capacity to cause much damage to the international image of India, damage that would get compounded were he to get retained as the brand ambassador of Incredible India.