The Centre and the Maharashtra government must make it clear to the Shiv Sena that they will not be allowed to threaten Shah Rukh Khan with violence.

Now that he has come up with a radical plan for overhauling the country’s capacity to deal with terrorism and other threats to its national security, P. Chidambaram must turn his attention to a problem that none of his predecessors in the Union Home Ministry ever had the courage to deal with: putting goondas in their place.

The task is urgent and brooks no delay. After sparring with Shah Rukh Khan for several days over the Bollywood actor’s statement regretting the absence of Pakistani players in the forthcoming IPL cricket tournament and declaring that Mumbai belongs to all Indians and not just Maharashtrians, the Shiv Sena has now come up with an ultimatum: Mr. Khan must apologise or else the party will not allow his films to be shown in the city, India’s commercial capital.

For me, this contest is as nerve-wracking and stomach churning as any the IPL could throw up. Will this political tournament end with the jailing and prosecution of the Shiv Sena’s leaders and goons who are conspiring to vandalise cinema halls and beat up those who defy this ban? Or will it end with the desolate spectacle of an isolated Shah Rukh being forced to surrender before the ridiculous diktat of the Shiv Sainiks — the way dozens of artists, actors, musicians and politicians have done over the past two decades in the face of the cowardice of policemen, ministers and judges who refused to defend the rule of law?

Well placed to influence

As Union Home Minister, Mr. Chidambaram may lack direct authority to ensure either outcome in Mumbai. But with Maharashtra ruled by the Congress in alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party, he is certainly well placed to influence what happens next. Asked last week by reporters for his opinion about the exclusion of the Pakistani cricketers by the IPL, the minister echoed Shah Rukh Khan in saying it was a “disservice to cricket that some of these players were not picked.” As for the status of Mumbai, Mr. Chidambaram described the ‘Maharashtrians only’ thesis of the Shiv Sena and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena as “pernicious.”

In the face of the Shiv Sena’s latest ultimatum, delivered by no less a person than Manohar Joshi, Mr. Chidambaram should remind the former Speaker of the Lok Sabha about the rights the Indian Constitution guarantees its citizens. And he should publicly declare that not only will the Shiv Sena’s goondas and leaders be prevented from disrupting the screening of ‘My Name is Khan’ in Mumbai but that he himself intends to be present at the film’s first screening in the city.

A price Shiv Sena must pay

The Shiv Sena may be a recognised political party with an electoral presence at the state and central level but there is a price it must pay for being part of a democratic system. That price is fidelity to the rule of law and the principle of equality that is a basic feature of the Indian Constitution. For years, this party and its leader, Bal Thackeray, have tested the limits of the law by threatening and often actually unleashing violence on political opponents, trades unionists, religious and linguistic minorities and cultural personalities. Each time, the Indian system has proved too weak to defend the law.

When confronted by the mob power of the Shiv Sena, MNS or other right-wing groups, the police in India invariably give in to their demands, no matter how irrational or unreasonable, and force the targets of their illegal pressure to give up their rights. So art galleries anywhere in India think once, twice and a hundred times before exhibiting a single painting by M.F. Hussain, movie hall owners agonise over whether to show ‘controversial’ films or not, screenplay writers and movie directors allow politicians, pundits, granthis and maulvis to vet their projects before they are launched, scholarly works of history are banned because their contents do not conform with the cherished hagiography of some group or sect, writers like Taslima Nasrin are hounded out of the country by mobs who claim to have been offended by books they have never read, shops fear to stock Valentine cards because of threats by self-appointed guardians of morality and ‘Indian culture’.

The intolerance of the Shiv Sena (and now the MNS) may be the most virulent and violent but it is symptomatic of a sickness that has spread to every corner of the country. Shah Rukh Khan is a cultural icon, a face that the whole world identifies as Indian. If the Shiv Sena is able to silence him or make him take back his words by threatening violence, we might as well pack up and throw away the idea of India as a land where democracy and culture flourish. So how is this contest going to end? When confronted by mobs, each and every one of his predecessors in the Home Ministry chose the path of least resistance. Mr. Chidambaram cannot afford to fail the Thackeray test.