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Singing the blues

If we have to be outraged about something, let it not be about the auctioning of a costume worn in a Hindi film, the proceeds of which are going to a charity

Recently, Film star Akshay Kumar and his wife Twinkle Khanna let it be known on social media that the costume which Akshay Kumar wore in the Hindi film “Rustom”, was to be auctioned. The proceeds from the auction were to go to an NGO which works for animal rescue.

This would, in normal circumstances, have been a heartwarming gesture. Except, the costume in question happened to be the uniform of a Naval Officer played by Akshay Kumar in the movie. The first to jump into the fray, in righteous rage, was Lt Col Sandeep Ahlawat. He appears to have taken offence to the auction and stated that he would drag Ms. Khanna to court and give her a bloody nose. (One hopes that this was meant metaphorically and not literally). He also went on to take a jibe at Ms Khanna’s blog, books and writing in a rather unofficer-like manner. The language of his letter proved that all officers are not gentlemen. Many more military officers and civilians have been vociferous in their protest against the proposed auction.

Coming to the issue at hand, there are a number of questions that need answering. Firstly, is a costume to be accorded the same significance and honour as a uniform? Does a prop attain the same significance as the item it depicts? If that were so, many of the intrepid member of the Karni Sena who vandalised the sets of “Padmaavat” would have been guilty of damaging sacred pieces of Rajput heritage when they ran amok during the movie’s shooting. We certainly need to draw a line between artistic props and symbols of honour.

Secondly, were Mr Kumar and Ms Khanna right in putting up a costume which depicted a military uniform for auction, however worthy the charitable cause? The answer is not so simple. On one hand, the uniform is certainly not for sale. It is not a piece of cloth. It is earned through sweat, blood and tears. It is worn with pride. On the other hand, it is also available for purchase in Gopinath Bazaar, Delhi Cantonment, by anyone without having to prove his identity. Clearly, this is not the first time a price tag is being put on a uniform. That said, Mr Kumar and Ms Khanna might have done well to consider how their move would go down with the defence community and society in general.

Thirdly, is the flak being received by the couple on social media justified? Criticism is everybody’s right. And when done so within the bounds of decency, there is nothing wrong with it. What is surprising is when “guardians of honour” launch ad hominem attacks, calling into question various aspects of the couple’s personal and professional life instead of merely recording their grievance about the particular issue that has got them riled up.

Military uniforms and medals hold a special place in people’s hearts because of the honour associated with them. Much more so than any civilian equivalent. When veterans returned their medals in protest against non-implementation of the One Rank One Pension Scheme, nobody termed them the “Medal Wapsi Gang”. However, when members of civil society returned various Akademi awards in protest against perceived government inaction against communalism, they were quickly termed the “Award Wapsi Gang”. Thus, Mr Kumar and Ms Khanna should have been aware that all aspects related to the military are treated with extra sensitivity.

The celebrity couple may indeed be guilty of insensitivity towards the exalted status the uniform enjoys in the minds of the public. It is, however, doubtful if they have committed any legal wrong by their actions. The ensuing criticism, if it had maintained the norms of decency and decorum would have carried more weight. At present, it is beginning to look like yet another instance of the eagerness to take offence which has become increasingly apparent in society over the years.