First columns of the year should herald new beginnings. But for me the year begins on a note of disquiet. And nothing exemplifies this more than the controversy around the film PK.
I saw the film before the #BanPK and #SupportPK hashtags began trending on twitter, before cinema halls were vandalised and before Uttar Pradesh's chief minister Akhilesh Yadav made it tax-free.
Who would have guessed that an entertaining but decidedly middle-brow film would have caused such a stir?
PK traverses already explored territory (OMG! Oh My God has been there, done that): The exploitation of religion. While its chief target is a Hindu 'godman', it is careful to include offenders from other faiths. The fact that it denounces blind faith in a country where religion, regardless of the colour of faith, feeds off poverty and illiteracy is to be applauded.
To say that PK isn't sufficiently critical of Islam or Christianity is to miss the point. The director could have focused on Christian missionaries, but how many of us would have identified with the film then? You could even accuse the director of cowardice and a fear of a fatwa by taking on Islam. Yet these arguments don't take away from the fact that PK is about charlatans who act in the name of religion (with a few well-deserved digs at the media too).
The subject of Right-wing ire is Aamir Khan who plays the lead. This is strange because actors enact roles. But social media is awash with images of Khan at Haj (real life) and question his sincerity as PK (reel life).
It's not a coincidence that the orchestrated attack on PK comes at a time when Right-wing muscle flexing continues. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi's most ardent supporters have finally had to frown at what they persist in calling the loony 'fringe'. But with Modi - a man not known for silence - refusing to utter a single word of disapproval, we are left to draw our own conclusions: He is either powerless (the kinder view), or else an accomplice in the narrative.
Modi's silence is worrying for three reasons. The first is because it has set off a sense of fear and unease amongst minorities and what the Right-wing rabble dismisses as the 'seculars'. A mock drill by the police in Rajkot stereotypes Muslims as terrorists. Reports of ghar wapsi programmes trickle in every day. And there is no reassurance from our prime minister.
Second, the silence coincides with a cascading noise. What began as love jihad now embraces a view that Nathuram Godse deserves both statues and a temple. What was once fringe is now mainstream with ministers appropriating Christmas as a day of governance rather than the birth of Christ. At one point does the head of the state deem intervention necessary?
Third and most worrying is that Modi's silence places a question over his stand on our Constitutional guarantees. The head of this country is sworn to uphold the Constitution. If our character as a secular republic is to be called into question by his party's affiliates who declare that India will be a 100% Hindu nation in the very near future, then surely the prime minister must make his position clear.
So, the new year begins on a sorry note of fear and loathing. What we have is McCarthy-style labelling, with both sides looking at the other with suspicion. (When I write in praise of Modi's Swachh Bharat Abhiyan a colleague asks me which side I am on.)
At colleges, where even unpalatable ideas must be debated, students at IIT Bombay question the choice of Subramanian Swamy as speaker. The liberals cheer when a news anchor chucks out a guest who sings the praises of Godse. Surely, freedom of expression, as long as it doesn't break the law, must equally apply to those we disagree with. But there is no longer room for nuance.
A historic mandate on the promise of 'achhe din' is in danger of being frittered away. The year has not begun on a promising note. I can only hope that there will not be a further downhill slide.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)