How Shah Rukh Khan’s 2 am call checkmated Himanta Biswa Sarma

January 24,2023

Let’s first recount what has happened till now. A film titled Pathaan starring Shah Rukh Khan, one of the country’s reigning superstars, and Deepika Padukone, another accomplished star in her own right, will be released on January 25. A song from the film Besharam Rang (shameless colour), which was released earlier, created a nationwide controversy. 

A section of people, some leaders from the BJP, which is in power at the Centre and in more than a dozen states, and members of organisations such as Bajrang Dal, objected to the song as Padukone was seen in it dancing in a saffron-coloured bikini. They claimed that saffron is a revered colour among Hindus and showing a woman in a bikini of that colour and calling the song shameless colour was an insult to the religion and its followers. As expected, they threatened to boycott the film and stop cinema complexes from showing it.

On January 20, in front of a movie hall in Guwahati, a group of Bajrang Dal activists forcibly pulled down posters of Pathaan and shouted slogans saying that they would allow the film to be released anywhere in Guwahati. A day later, when journalists asked Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma about the incident of vandalism and the threat by Bajrang Dal activists, he retorted: “Who is Shah Rukh Khan?” The episode ended with Shah Rukh Khan dialling the phone number of Sarma at two o’clock in the morning and the chief minister assuring him of “maintaining law and order” and “ensuring no such untoward” incident in the state. Eight hours later, Sarma himself made a public disclosure of this conversation. As expected, Opposition leaders ridiculed Sarma for receiving a phone call at 2 am from a person he did not even recognise just a few hours ago.

So, what was Sarma’s motive when he refused to acknowledge one of the top stars of the country when a legitimate question was asked to him—if he would fulfilling his constitutional obligation to provide security to theatre owners on the face of such public threats and acts of vandalism. By not directly responding to the answer, was he extolling the acts of the Bajrang Dal activists? Did it mean even defiance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi? During the BJP national executive meeting held on January 16 and 17 in Delhi, where Sarma was also present, the Prime Minister asked the party leaders to refrain from making any “unnecessary remarks” on films. Modi said “some people give statements on some film” which overshadow the good work the party does. What Sarma announced after Shah Rukh Khan’s call could have been said in reply to the journalist’s question. Instead, he chose to make it a media spectacle. “If Shah Rukh Khan calls me, I’ll look into it,” he said, dismissing it as an incident of no big significance.

So, what was Sarma’s motive behind trying to make people believe that he doesn’t recognise one of the most popular public figures in India? Those who have followed Sarma’s political journey in Assam very well understand the political dynamics of such statements by the chief minister. He often makes “well-calculated casual-sounding” statements with either of the three intents—to avoid answering a question that has caught him on the backfoot, to dilute a crisis or controversy or to gain political mileage. In not recognising Shah Rukh Khan, Sarma wanted to dilute the incident around Pathaan in Guwahati and sought to appeal to his vote base by making it an issue of Hindu and Assamese pride. Make no mistake, he was answering the journalists in Assamese and in Assam. Refusing to recognise a personality around whom a question is asked is his old tactic to divert attention from the real issue. Some days back he feigned ignorance about Congress leader Jairam Ramesh who was his party colleague till 2015 when Sarma switched from the grand old party to the BJP.

More than questioning Shah Rukh Khan’s credentials, what the chief minister said in his following sentences is more important to decipher his motive. “There are many Shah Rukh Khans in Assam,” he said. It was aimed at provoking the Hindu and Assamese sentiments that such names now evoke in Assam. The people of Assam have long been struggling against illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and majority of these immigrants are Muslims. While there is a strong resentment against Bangladeshi immigrant in Assam—resulting in a six-year-long agitation and updating of the National Register of Citizens (NRC)—it was more about the fear of assault on land, language, and culture by outsiders. But the BJP has been successful in converting this religious-neutral sentiment into a Hindu vs Muslim issue. The emphasis on many “Shah Rukh Khans” was catering to this faultline.

It also helped him to divert attention from an incident which had brought embarrassment to his government. On January 17, the Gauhati High Court commuted the death sentences of the three convicts in the rape and murder of 59-year-old teacher Arnamai Bora in 2017 as Assam police could not conclusively prove rape in the court. The people of Assam felt betrayed by this judgement as Bora had become a symbol of the existential threat that the natives faced from the rising number of people of immigrant origin. All three convicts were Muslims of immigrant origin. A perception was building that Assam Police, under the BJP government since 2016, failed to deliver justice to Bora and to the larger Assamese society. Sarma could not have allowed such a perception take seed. He saw in Shah Rukh Khan an opportunity to use the star as a tool of mass distraction.

Showcasing Shah Rukh Khan as a threat to regional cinema, he sought to play the card of Assamese pride. He said he was more concerned about the release of Dr Bezbaruah 2, an Assamese film releasing in February and that he would go to watch Dr Bezbaruah 2 and not Pathaan. These statements were tailormade to earn him multiple brownie points in Assam, but the challenge to Shah Rukh Khan’s identity turned his game on its head. The national media picked up the statement and Sarma sounded like a fringe leader, not the master strategist armed with a PhD and law degree. Then Shah Rukh Khan trapped the chief minister in his own words: “I will take action if Shah Rukh Khan calls.” The 2 am call forced Sarma to publicly assert his constitutional obligation. He did have the media spectacle, but the script did not go as he had wished for. He picked up the wrong enemy this time.