Among the many myths about Indian society is an ancient one — that we are, and have always been, a tolerant society. It is an old yarn to cover the prejudices, discrimination, oppression and violence that have, unfortunately, marked our history.
The intolerance is most pronounced when it comes to matters concerning identity — not religious identity alone, but every kind of strongly-believed identity such as caste, gotra, language, region etc.
Celebrate reformers, junk reforms
We celebrate the life of a Saint Ramanuja or an E V Ramasamy (“Periyar”) or a Mahatma Phule or a Raja Ram Mohan Roy. We hold out their lives as examples of how a tolerant Indian society allowed them large space to propagate their views while we conveniently forget the fact that few were actually converted by them to support the causes they espoused. I suspect that celebrating the reformers — while junking the reforms — is a way of atoning for our guilt and shame.
There are temples that still bar the entry of dalits. Every superstition and custom that Periyar campaigned against remains deeply entrenched and practised. In fact, some have acquired pernicious proportions. Time was when a Sikh and a Hindu could love, marry and live happily ever after in Punjab and elsewhere. Marriage between a Christian Nadar and a Hindu Nadar was common in Tamil Nadu. Today, in some parts of India, if a Hindu (boy or girl) is friendly with a Muslim (girl or boy), they are visited with grave consequences. The fact that there are more examples of inter-religious consortium cannot hide the other grim truth that there are many more examples of religious intolerance and persecution.
There is reason to believe that intolerance is on the rise. Look at the number of things that we ban – beef, jeans, books, cuss words, NGOs, websites, Internet services….
Look at the growing exclusiveness — Muslim candidates may not apply for jobs, single women are not welcome as tenants, this apartment building is only for vegetarians….
The intolerance brigades are now organising themselves and mutating into ‘movements’: ghar wapasi, love jihad….
It is intolerance that brought down the Babri masjid. It is intolerance that proclaims that all history written so far is a left-wing distortion. It is intolerance that finds fault with a thoughtful and insightful speech of Vice President Hamid Ansari that explored the many challenges faced by the Islamic community in India.
Intolerance and violence
Rising intolerance, inevitably, reveals its violent nature. We readily agree that the Taliban and Islamic State (IS) are intolerant and violent movements that have destroyed priceless monuments (the Bamiyan statues) and heritage sites (Palmyra). But we scarcely notice the violence involved in the attack on churches and pubs, in the excommunication of a young couple or in the expulsion of two students who shared affection.
The growing intolerance is extending to the realm of ideas. Atheism is taboo. Superstitions cannot be questioned. The warrior-king, Shivaji, cannot be portrayed as a secular ruler. Miracles cannot be exposed as fake. Charlie Hebdo cartoons cannot be reprinted in a newspaper. Result: Shireen Dalvi who reprinted the cartoons is bullied, Sanal Edamuruku who exposed a so-called miracle is threatened, and Govind Pansare (who portrayed Shivaji as a secular king), Narendra Dabholkar (who campaigned against superstition) and M M Kalburgi (who opposed idolatry) are murdered.
Such acts are in breach of the law, but when such acts are committed with impunity, the issue goes beyond the realm of law and order. It is no longer a question of simply finding the perpetrators, prosecuting them and punishing them according to law. The more important question is, how did these fanatics acquire a sense of being above the law and the Constitution? What gives them the confidence that they can get away with their crimes, they may not be prosecuted at all and, even if they are brought before the law, they can escape deterrent punishment?
The answer is several-fold: firstly, the State, especially the Executive, has many sympathisers with their cause and is often soft or inept in setting the law in motion.
Secondly, the fanatics believe the law can be bent. Bungling instead of investigation, delayed trial instead of swift justice, fines instead of imprisonment, parole instead of judicial custody, remission instead of serving a sentence, and mercy instead of justice have blotted the administration of law.
Thirdly, they are able to win social support that sometimes turns into support of the whole community or caste. The perpetrators remain anonymous and no one will come forward to expose them.
Fourthly, the punishment of death may bring the halo of martyrdom. There are some people who venerate Indira Gandhi’s killers almost on par with Shaheed Bhagat Singh. The destroyers of the Babri masjid are Hindutva heroes. Islamist terrorists are jihadis for whom the gates of heaven are open.
As intolerance rises, liberal thought, pluralism and scientific temper will suffer. The gainer will be polarisation. Communities will become more inward-looking, selfish, protective and violent.
The Pansares, the Dabholkars and the Kalburgis can only do so much to bring about change — and sometimes may have to pay the supreme price. Only the State — fearless, strong, secular and fiercely loyal to the Constitution – can stand up to, and roll back, the growing threat of intolerance and violence.
Do you believe that we have, or are building, such a State?