Towards unfreedom

There is little cogent or visionary opposition to the decimation of India’s secular and tolerant tradition

Written by Amartya Sen | Updated: July 4, 2017 12:36 am
intolerance in india, gau rakshaks, lynching, mob violence, india news, indian express news Does India’s tolerance of heterodoxy still hold? As we look around today’s India, the signs of tolerance seem to have faded fast. (Source: PTI Photo)

“Faith,” it has been said, “will move mountains.” It is an encouraging belief — when we need to move mountains. But in our day-to-day life, relying on unquestioned faith rather than on reasoning can be a big obstacle to leading an enlightened life, as Buddha discussed 2,500 years ago. Also, arguing and communication can restrain battles and bloodshed. To be sure, faith in good things can have many achievements (such as generating charity and philanthropy), but it can, in general, discourage the willingness to listen to others. And, faith in nasty things can cause cruelty and carnage.

The Inquisitions that blackened medieval Europe for more than five centuries drew on faith — in the perceived duty to punish heterodoxy and kill the perpetrators. India has been, I have tried to argue, fortunate in having a particularly argumentative culture. The argumentativeness of Indians may have encouraged the tolerance of heterodoxy, with debates and discussions restraining violent confrontation.

Historically, India has certainly been a refuge for persecuted minorities from many different lands — providing shelter and new homes to hounded Jews from the first century, harassed Christians from the fourth century, fleeing Parsis from the late seventh century and oppressed Bahais from the 19th century.

Does India’s tolerance of heterodoxy still hold? As we look around today’s India, the signs of tolerance seem to have faded fast. The country that welcomed people fleeing persecution abroad, and allowed the immigrating minorities to have their own beliefs and practices (and food habits), now harbours gangs of wild men hunting down beef-eaters, and killing people — very poor people — whose employment in the leather industry arouses the suspicion of faithful believers in the holiness of the cow.

A leading news agency that dares to include news that the ruling government does not like can have its founders raided on extraordinarily flimsy charges (NDTV can tell you about this, if you have not kept up with news about news).

Which side you back in a cricket test match could possibly place you in custodial arrest on the unbelievable ground of “sedition” as determined by the local bosses of the ruling party in control of the police force, completely in violation of the Supreme Court’s clearly stated rules on what kind of incitement to violence can constitute sedition (“Give him another googly” does not quite qualify). With the control of the police, sedition charges are coming plentifully — causing terror with spurious legality. Further, you can be beaten up while in custody (ask Kanhaiya Kumar, the student leader, also charged, rather implausibly, with sedition).

In the suppression of India’s tolerant tradition, the ruling party, the BJP, has clearly played a gigantic role. What is astonishing is how much tolerance of intolerance the political climate in India has been made to bear. It is as if stunned people are waiting in a daze for something to happen. Further, many people with evidently liberal instincts have been able to continue supporting the government for one reason or another, such as expected benefits from Narendra Modi’s economic reforms (what The Economist, the global magazine, calls “the illusion of reform”), while the country is made to descend down the ladder of intolerance and unfreedom.

We have to recognise that the freedoms that Indian society enjoyed in beliefs and practice always needed defence and support. Violations had to be opposed to correct the follies and to prevent their resurgence. India did, in fact, witness serious bloodshed in the communal riots in the 1940s, and insightful leaders had to offer resistance through their vision and determined political action. Mahatma Gandhi, in particular, provided leadership in combating communal violence, making big personal sacrifices and taking huge risks, in addition to presenting far-reaching political analysis. He fought with his life and he won.

We do not have, right now, leadership of a kind that Gandhiji — or Jawaharlal Nehru — could provide, nor what came from leaders like Jayaprakash Narayan. But is the opposition we currently see the best that India can do in resisting the decimation of its strong secular and tolerant tradition? Interestingly, there was much more cogent resistance in the 2004 general elections, opposing — as it happens — a far less extreme sectarian provocation, and indeed the Congress was richly rewarded for following a well-articulated and firmly secular strategy. But today it seems all quite different — and paralysed.

In the run-up to the election of the President of India, rather than presenting a visionary candidate for the presidentship, the opposition remained inert, waiting for the BJP to make the first move. The Congress, as the inheritor of Mahatma Gandhi’s tradition, could have gone for an intelligent strategy with national appeal. The much-aired name of Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who has great intellectual and evocative strength to animate political discussion about the right vision for India, did not evidently suit the present thinking of the Congress.

Instead, the Congress converted the contest into one of tactics rather than of strategies, and gave the BJP the first move. But at the tactical level, the BJP has proved itself, again and again, to be much smarter than the Congress (reflected even in the state assembly elections in Goa and Manipur earlier this year, where the Congress won more seats than the BJP in both states, but the BJP formed both governments with smart and quick alliances).

Meira Kumar is now the presidential candidate from the Congress as a second-move response to the BJP’s proposal of Ram Nath Kovind. Had she been put forward earlier as the well thought-out strategic choice of someone coming from a Dalit background, and having important political experience and vision, she could have attracted much more support than she would now be able to get as a belated tactical choice, after the BJP had already locked up quick support for their own Dalit candidate.

The battle that has to be engaged in India now is one of vision, with tactical support — not one of looking for some super-cunning tactics, without an integrating outlook. A vision, particularly of democracy, tolerance and even-handed treatment of all, can also be a powerful vehicle of good faith — backed by reason. The reasons have to be understood in a clear-headed way, looking both to India’s past and to its future, and they have to be lucidly shared with the people. A visionary strategy can command respect and loyalty in a way that outwitted tactics can hardly be expected to do. If this sounds like a call for change, it may well be just that.

The writer, a Nobel laureate in economics, is Thomas W. Lamont University Professor and professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard University

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