Supporters of Hindu Sena, a right-wing Hindu group, burn posters of Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra during a protest in New Delhi, India. Picture: Saumya Khandelwal/Reuters
What was meant to be a rousing twist in a storyline became an exercise in extraordinary bigotry. 

On June 1, Quantico, the American television drama series headlined by former Miss World and Indian actor Priyanka Chopra, told a story about a terrorist threat to an India-Pakistan peace summit in New York City.

Only in this story of terror, Chopra, in her role as FBI agent Alex Parrish, discovers that the perpetrators are Hindu extremists looking to frame Pakistan for a nuclear attack on the city.

After the episode screened last week, the Indian right-wing in the US and India erupted. The vitriol directed towards the actor and US television network ABC bordered on sheer madness. Chopra was accused of betraying India and Hinduism. The right-wing announced that her career would soon be left in ashes.

But if targeting Chopra and ABC over a fictional plot wasn’t bad enough, the apologies to come were even more extraordinary.

First, the network said: “Quantico is a work of fiction. The show has featured antagonists of many different ethnicities and backgrounds, but in this case we inadvertently and regrettably stepped into a complex political issue. It was certainly not our intention to offend anyone.”

Then came Chopra’s statement: “I’m extremely saddened and sorry that some sentiments have been hurt by a recent episode of Quantico,” she wrote in a tweet. “That was not and would never be my intention. I sincerely apologise. I’m a proud Indian and that will never change.”

In criticising Chopra and ABC, Indian nationalists argued that there was no such thing as Hindu terrorists, and Chopra betrayed Indians and Hindus. This was borne out of the belief that only Muslims could be terrorists, and only Muslims deserved to be portrayed as such; terror is intrinsic to Islam and not to “us”.

Not only did ABC accept the narrative when it said it had entered a “complex political issue”, it unwittingly undermined every other issue it had fictionalised.

For her part, Chopra played right into the hands of the right wing by engaging in the precise language of their rage. She had accepted that it was unreasonable, hurtful and even anti-Indian to portray Hindus as terrorists. She also effectively conceded that being Indian meant being Hindu.

All this has left Muslims in India and across the world whose identities have been marred, dragged and abused endlessly by Bollywood and Hollywood for decades to ponder haplessly over the seemingly infinite tentacles of anti-Muslim bigotry.

American soft power has played its part in demonising Muslims, building a narrative of Islamist terror that has corroborated with the real-life war on terror by the US and its allies. As part of the politics of representation, Muslim male actors, or brown actors in general, were likely to get only “a terrorist role” in mainstream shows. There have never been any apologies; plots are hidden under a veneer of fiction.

Remember, this is the same ABC network that also until recently was basking under the open racism and Islamophobia of actress Roseanne Barr. It was only when she described Valerie Jarrett, an adviser to Barack Obama, as resembling the spawn of the Planet of the Apes that her show was cancelled.

Most pundits agreed that Barr had crossed the line. But few dared to exhibit outrage over the fact that she had made, in the same comment, a disparaging comment about Muslims, too. Only those who read her tweet would know that she had specifically said that if the “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby = Valerie Jarrett”.

For Americans, the Muslim Brotherhood is simply a terror outfit; they are not deserving of any humanity. Obviously for pundits both liberal and otherwise, the tremendous slight - the deliberate dehumanisation of the Muslim Brotherhood and therefore Muslims in suggesting that they procreate with apes - is not deserved of any disgust or disapproval. This is because anti-Muslim bigotry is mainstream and acceptable; it treats them as a monolith. As ABC said in its apology, unlike the India-Pakistan political conundrum, Muslims were not “complicated”.

Back in India, Bollywood is the single largest peddler of simplified narratives. What is Bollywood if not an amalgamation of stereotypes, an entertainment industry positioned to uphold nationalist sentiment? Rarely does Bollywood divert from the national agenda be it on questions of gender, security or religion.

Muslims are routinely stereotyped as terrorists, as citizens who need to prove they belong. The protest from the right wing accomplishes two things: it distinguishes between Indians and Muslims. It also makes it clear that it won’t tolerate even a singular depiction of a Hindu terrorist. The Hindu right wing knows how the depictions have controlled, managed and destroyed the lives of Muslims worldwide.

Responding to the apologies issued by Chopra and ABC, a Kashmiri lawyer called on Bollywood to apologise to Kashmir for films “Roja, Haider, Mission Kashmir and many others”, inferring the Kashmir story through an Islamophobic lens. Similarly, a Pakistani author wrote about Hollywood: “We’ll be here waiting for an apology from Homeland, 24, Tyrant, Rambo, Zero Dark Thirty, American Sniper, Munich.”

But even in Bollywood, it is not the first time that an Indian nationalist has been depicted as a terrorist or a saboteur of India-Pakistan relations. In 2004, a movie Shah Rukh Khan starred in, Main Hoon Na, told a story of a rogue Indian nationalist conspiring to collapse India-Pakistan peace talks. None of the madness followed suit.

Indian politics and social media has long reached peak intolerance for anything other than a single narrative about India and all that is seen as important to her interests. But the level of denial and psychosis among the Indian right wing have become insidious. Even more dangerous is to watch how the rest of the world is simply falling in line, apologising and normalising the indefensible.

* Azad Essa is a journalist based in New York City. He is also the author of Zuma’s Bastard (Two Dogs Books)

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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