Remember the Moscow Olympics in 1980? Remember something called the U.S.S.R., the Soviet Union? The previous year, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Angered by this, U.S. President Jimmy Carter called for a boycott of the Moscow Olympics. If that seems like ancient history, it is: consider how dramatically the world has changed since then. But I’m not writing this article to tell you a slice of ancient history. I was reminded of these events by, of all things, something that has just happened to the actor Aamir Khan. Bear with me. The U.S.-led boycott was a terrible blow to the prestige of the U.S.S.R. They longed, oh how they longed, to retaliate. Lucky for them, the next Olympics, in 1984, was to be in Los Angeles. It had to be boycotted. Not so lucky for them, there was no reason, like the invasion of another country, that they could proffer for their boycott. So in the months leading up to the L.A. Olympics, the Soviets made plenty of noises about the crime rate in L.A., the smog in L.A., the apparent lack of security in L.A., any dirt at all on L.A. Then, not long before the Games were to start, there was some kind of demonstration, or maybe some violence by gangs, in L.A. At that time, the U.S.S.R. had not yet officially announced the boycott, though there had been all those noises. Some Soviet functionary pounced on this incident and used it to pronounce that these things happened all the time in the United States, especially in L.A., and therefore, Soviet athletes would feel unsafe there. Flimsy excuse to boycott the Olympics? But there it was. It would have to do. But then the functionary went on to say something very revealing: “Why doesn’t the U.S. simply ban these groups?” Promptly, American commentators went to town with these words. I particularly remember one who said something like this: “The poor guy! Don’t blame him. All he knows is banning stuff. He just doesn’t get it, does he, what the U.S. is about? Listen up and listen good, pal: in this country, we don’t ban things!” This is about all I remember of this incident. Though if anyone remembers it in more detail, I’d love to have my memory jogged. So why do I relate it here and now, and what’s the connection to Aamir Khan? Well, bear with me just a little longer. Aamir Khan, star of Lagaan and Rang De Basanti, made a trip to Delhi in April. Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan was on a hunger strike there, trying to draw attention to the failure to resettle and rehabilitate (R&R;) people displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada river. The builders of that dam are raising its height as I write this, without completing such rehabilitation. Apart from the inhumanity of this, it is a clear violation of orders from India’s Supreme Court, which explicitly asked for R&R; to be done “pari passu” (side-by-side) with construction on the dam. Not just that: in April, a three-member team of government ministers visited the Narmada valley and issued a very critical report about the state of R&R; in Madhya Pradesh, where over 70 percent of the displaced people are. They wrote, “The reports [about R&R; are] largely paperwork and it has no relevance with the situation on the ground.” This was the essence of the April protest in Delhi: to ask for proper R&R; to be done, to ask the dam builders to merely comply with the orders of the Supreme Court; and if this is not possible, to stop work on the dam until R&R; is done. “Pari passu,” after all, does not mean R&R; must happen after construction, or not at all: it means it must happen as the dam is being built. In a nutshell, this is the protest Aamir Khan lent his support to. He said it when he sat with the protesters in Delhi, and he has repeated it in print and on television any number of times: he simply wants to see rehabilitation done. (He has also said, and explicitly, that he is not against the dam.) That is, he wants no more than the project plans themselves call for, what the Supreme Court of this land itself has ordered. For saying that much, Aamir Khan has been damned by the leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party in power in Gujarat. They say he wants to stop the dam from being built. This is a serious accusation to make in Gujarat, because the dam on the Narmada has been sold there as an article of faith, famously “the lifeline of Gujarat.” There are problems with that characterization, but I’ll leave them for another time. In any case, there’s plenty of political capital to be made by accusing people of being “anti-dam.” Khan, these leaders say, is just that. Therefore he is “anti-Gujarat.” If that wasn’t enough, they have enforced a blackout on his latest film, Fanaa, in Gujarat. In late May, there was even an SMS that was widely circulated, giving away the ending of the film to deter people from seeing it. (I swear I am not making this stuff up.) And several of those leaders have demanded an apology from Khan. Of course, he has refused to apologize. “I will stand by my words,” he has said. Then, on May 26, rediff.com carried a report about the BJP criticism of Khan, quoting an anonymous BJP leader’s comments on the film star. He said, and the report was titled that way, “Aamir has been foolish.” So far, so good; just the usual. But the report ends by quoting this anonymous BJP leader saying this: “My advice [to Aamir Khan] is he should lie low and let the controversy blow over.” The poor guy. Don’t blame him. All he knows is “lying low” and letting “the controversy blow over.” He just doesn’t get it, does he, what some people are about? He cannot understand that some people will not easily “lie low and let the controversy blow over”; that they have convictions and live by them. From all I can tell, Aamir Khan is one such. May there be many more. A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.
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