NEW DELHI: Actor Shahrukh Khan, during a Twitter townhall with a leading media outfit, said that he would be willing to give up his award as a symbolic means of protest against extreme intolerance in India.

"Yes, as a symbolic gesture I would give it up," the actor said, referring to the spate of other film personalities, artists, writers, scientists and others who have returned awards as a measure of protest in recent months. "I do think there is intolerance. There is extreme intolerance,” the actor added in a hard hitting statement.

Shahrukh Khan, when asked about communalism in the country, reiterated the importance of India’s secular fabric. When asked about his identity as a Muslim in India, the actor said: “No one can question my patriotism. How dare anyone?" adding that the biggest mistake a patriot could make was to go against secularism.

The film industry in India, which usually remains divorced from all things political, is divided over the issue of fraternity members returning awards to protest the growing tide of intolerance in the country. Those opposed to returning awards include actor Anupam Kher and filmmakers Madhur Bhandarkar and Ashoke Pandit. Actor Vidya Balan too said that she would not be returning her award, as it was an honour given to her by the country and not the government.

Others, however, have used the awards as a symbolic measure of protest. Filmmakers Dibakar Banerjee and Anand Patwardhan were among the 10 film personalities who have returned their National Awards in solidarity with FTII students and against growing intolerance in the country. The others who returned their National Awards include Paresh Kamdar, Nishtha Jain, Kirti Nakhwa, Harshavardhan Kulkarni, Hari Nair, and Rakesh Sharma.

Anand Patwardhan spoke to The Citizen from Mumbai. He said that national awards had always more meaning for him than international acclaim, particularly as his own was that ‘rare moment’ when the system had honoured the spirit of the Constitution by recognising what was seen by many as a controversial work. So the decision to return the national award, he said, was “very painful” and was certainly not a critique of those who had conferred the award but of the system as it was today.

Patwardhan’s response to those who were asking why the awards were being returned today and not earlier was, “look around, ask yourself, why are we doing this now?” He said that the country was being pushed towards fascism “but we are not there yet, so we have a chance, and need to step out and speak out.”

He said that unlike the allegations being made by some vested interests, he along with many others had taken strong positions over the years against intolerance and injustice. He said that he had protested through film against the excesses of Congress rule as in the Emergency and all along.

The filmmaker said that one of the reasons of course, was the support they all extended to the FTII students, and the second was the growing intolerance in the country visible in a series of continuous incidents. He said it was as if the intellectuals had “reached a moment of awakening in the country , across the board people are standing up and speaking out.”

Patwardhan said that while it was difficult to pinpoint one incident, the Dadri lynching was perhaps a turning point for many . “This Machiavellian murder where they go into a temple, force an announcement of beef being consumed in a particular house, and then go there and kill an innocent man” he said probably led to this nation wide realisation that “we cannot remain silent any longer.” And that this “nascent fascism” has to be resisted before it is too late.

Shabana Azmi recently spoke out in support of Patwardhan and others, saying that returning awards was an important symbolic gesture. "It is not an either or. Artists returning awards will also reflect their concern in their work but making a film writing a book takes time...Returning awards is a symbolic gesture that brings attention.Instead of damning them read the writing on the wall," Azmi wrote on Twitter.

Noted lyricist and filmmaker Gulzar too supported writers, poets and others who returned their awards. Referring to the killing of Kannada writer MM Kalburgi and other growing instances of attacks on intellectuals, Gulzar said, “The murder that has hurt us all is somewhere the fault of the system or government... Returning the award was an act of protest. Writers don't have any other way to register their protest. We have never witnessed this kind of religious intolerance. At least, we were fearless in expressing ourselves.”

Gulzar rubbished criticism that the decision of returning awards was politically motivated, as has been alleged by opponents of the move. "Never thought that a situation like this would come where a person's religion is asked before his name. It was never like this... What politics can a writer do? A writer just speaks from his heart, mind and soul. They are the conscience keepers of the society. They are the keepers of the soul of the society," he said.

Other film personalities have been vocally critical of intolerance. Whilst the FTII students strike was the catalysing factor for Patwardhan, Dibankar and others, the treatment meted out to Pakistani artists, including the recent cancellation of a concert by Ghulam Ali in Mumbai, has been a point of concern. Actors including Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah spoke out against the move.

Mahesh Bhatt was quoted by FirstPost after the cancellation of Ali’s concert saying, “It is my appeal to the government, to come up with a diktat. If at all they (Shiv Sena) want a ban for artists from Pakistan, send an official letter from the I&B Ministry that from so and so date in the future, you are not authorised to work with artists from other countries in any film.

"Let it come from the Centre in advance then at least we will be prepared. But nothing should be overnight. Filmmakers should not fall victim. I would request Uddhav Thackeray, who is a very rational and balanced person, to keep art and culture away from politics. It is unfair and unjust."

Mahesh Bhatt also spoke out when Shiv Sena members attacked journalist Sudheendra Kulkarni for organising a former Pakistan minister's book launch. "The attack on Sudhendra Kulkarni ridicules our constitution, shames our police, and debunks our claims to be a democracy,” Bhatt tweeted.

Others in the film fraternity were equally vocal. Rishi Kapoor tweeted: "Excuse me! This is ridiculous and unpardonable. And to address a media conference in this manner? Politics!"

Singer Sona Mohapatra said, “Dear Shiv Sena, Throwing paint on Sudheerna Kulkarni doesn't make you patriotic. If you remotely care, help fight our biggest enemy - poverty."

Actor-comedian Vir Das shared: "You think there's anyway to get some Mumbai buildings to write a book about Indo-Pak relations so that the Sena comes over and paints them?".

Musician Shaan tweeted, “It’s all getting ridiculous now” whilst TV host Mini Mathur said, “Intolerance at its peak! Guys don't wreck our country totally yet.. Let our kids at least get an idea of what it was.”

Actor Dia Mirza praised Kulkarni in the way he handled the incident. "Kudos #SudheendraKulkarni for not allowing intimidation and threat to weaken your choice,” she tweeted.