Fragility of tolerance

Muzaffarnagar challenges ingrained assumptions on secularism and diversity.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Published: September 19, 2013 12:16 am

Muzaffarnagar challenges ingrained assumptions on secularism and diversity.

The logic of communal politics is gathering momentum. There have been major clashes across UP. But worryingly,this trend is beginning to appear,albeit at a low level,in Bihar as well. There has been much discussion of the immediate political antecedents of the violence in UP: the deadly combination of criminality,communalism and administrative incompetence of the SP,the sordid propaganda of the VHP,the irresponsible rabble rousing of MLAs across political parties,the irrelevance of the Congress on the ground,and the fact that the opposition’s candidate for prime minister cannot speak with much moral authority on the subject. There are also larger sociological trends that are worrying. The violence is increasingly rural,taking place in the face of new economic mobility and competition,and dependent on new kinds of riot systems. To conclude that there is nothing to this violence except something like a bad electoral cycle at work would be to miss the enormity of what is going on.

We seem stuck in the same dreary pattern of violence since competitive politics came to UP in the 1930s. It is almost as if decades of democracy,growth and education have done little to dislodge the archetypal manifestations of hostility. A rumour legitimises a discourse of revenge; the same old propaganda of Muslim boys out to ensnare Hindu girls is given free rein by politicians,the standard blame mongering over which community started it,the morally sick metrics over which community got more sympathy,the creation of thousands of refugees,the same partisan media reporting. And then the usual homilies: only politics is to blame,communities always had good relations,the standard poems about humanity beyond Hindu and Muslim. So tired is the narrative that even the poetry of healing has a well-worn quality to it. Sins of omission and commission by the state are central to producing riots. But the suffocating structure of a discourse of identity that cracks at the slightest shifts in politics needs more attention. Our breast-beating about diversity is matched by the fragility of tolerance; the growth in democracy matched by infantilism over relationships between individuals and communities.

Some deeply ingrained assumptions have made us complacent. Data is hugely important for understanding social reality. But it often tells you yesterday’s story,and if not interpreted contextually,can create its own mythologies. We came to believe that rural communalism does not translate into violence. We came to believe that contingent political alliances between communities are harbingers of secularism. Much has been made of Jat-Muslim political cooperation in UP over the years. The alliances are important. But do these secular political alliances move the needle on the eradication of deep prejudice? As Paul Brass’s magnificent biography of Charan Singh reminds us,in Indian politics,the harbouring of prejudice and openness to political alliances have often gone together. Charan Singh himself was a great case of someone for whom secular political alliances and communalism went together. There is peace while the political alliances last,but the alliances themselves do little to fundamentally alter the structure of underlying relations. Bihar and UP illustrate this. Is it that our democracy has often been good at producing a kind of cold peace? The underlying structure of potential conflict remains,sensitive to the slightest political perturbation.

The second assumption is the entrenched discourse on diversity. It bears repeating that we need to move from a discourse of diversity to a discourse of freedom and human rights. Diversity,if not elaborated in the context of freedom,can be a fetter. The Indian discourse of diversity was about diversity alright,but it was about diversity where everyone had their place. From on high,diversity looks stunning. But this diversity can be compatible with imprisoning people in compulsory identities. It is compatible with the idea that boundaries should not be crossed; populations should not mix,and to view the world as a competition between groups is fine. There is no country in the world that talks so much of diversity. Yet no other country produces such a politically suffocating discourse of identity. Who you are seems to matter at every turn: what job you can get,what government scheme you are eligible for,how much institutional autonomy you can get,what house you can rent. Conceptually,there is no incompatibility between celebrating the diversity of the nation and refusing to rent housing to a Muslim just because they are Muslim. The diversity-based conception of tolerance does not work where the need is for boundaries to be crossed: people will inhabit the same spaces,compete for the same jobs,intermarry and so forth. Our moral discourse is so centred on diversity,pluralism and community,that it forgets the more basic ideas of freedom,equality,individual dignity.

The third assumption was that generational shifts would automatically produce a change in discourse. Often,riot prone cities can become calmer as economic prosperity induces the idea that people have more to lose because of violence. But in equal measure,it can unleash new forces of community competition. One of the big casualties of statism is that there is a temptation to reduce every problem to a problem of administration. The state has made serious mistakes. In public,middle-class spaces,at least,there is arguably more cultural ghettoisation than there was three decades ago. But there is also a total evacuation of any idea of proper,ethical relations among citizens. Even all our rights discourse is about claims on the state; it seldom touches on how citizens treat each other,what they say about each other,the assumptions they make about each other’s intentions. Just watch the videos of all the mahapanchayats to get a sense of the utter absence of moral leadership. Most citizens,thankfully,recoil from violence. But the moral psychology of separation still marks how citizens view each other. No wonder the Aadha Gaons of the 1930s still seem to be the Aadha Gaons of 2013,at least in this aspect.

We can only hope that a new political equilibrium will be able to keep the peace. But there is a gathering storm. In UP,the possibility of new narratives that unshackle us from the prison house of identities looks remote. In Bihar,the state has done much better in terms of doing what it could. But there is a danger that its story of hope will plateau. What will the new narratives be? The measure of the limitations of our democracy is that the past is about to come back to haunt in a major way.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi,and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’ express@expressindia.com

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