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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    Mallikarjuna Sharma
    Jul 7, 2017 at 12:05 pm
    BJP is Hindu communal and Congress and many other run of the mill parties are multi-communal, and the left is in the lurch. So no hope seems to be there for real democratic progressive movements and nothing to choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Hope some really wise and statesman like anti-Hindu as well as anti-Muslim fundamentalist progressive force rises and presents the third alternative. As for as Bengal is concerned Amartya Sen should be concerned about growing illegal Muslim influx from Bangladesh and drastic reduction of Hindu population in Bangladesh and the shameless policies of both Mamta and the Left of appea t of Muslim fanatic forces and the real danger of a movement for an Islamic Republic of Bangistan and the rise of ISIS there. This apart from the socio-economic chaos there is a pressing danger.
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      Ananth
      Jul 5, 2017 at 3:33 pm
      Mr.Sen, The very fact that you are able to write an article of this order and the same is being published by a prestigious News Paper shows that tolerance and freedom in India are intact. But the article doesn't speak highly of your understanding of such words when you are backing patently breakup forces like Kanhaiya or the blatant anti Indian view spewers NDTV etc. Historical tolerance has not served all that well for India when aggressors got a Nation for themselves. Gandhiji could not convince Muslims from breaking the country. Nehru, being agnostic, always brought down the Hinduism and Hindus and catered to others benefit only. His Hindu code bill was to interfere with Hindus customs but left it open for others. People didn't give mandate to Congress for their idea of secularism but with hand to mouth living condition had no time for such notions. Now with slight better position they are asserting themselves which doesn't suit your ideas. We are not convinced of your arguments.
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        Venkatraman Shenoy
        Jul 5, 2017 at 6:13 am
        Amartya Sen has shown that age does affect thinking processes. Three words stand out due to their repeated use in the essay: tactics, strategy and vision. The congress has shown that Sonia Gandhi has none of these in her thinking and hence it should immediately make Rahul Gandhi the party president and declare him the prime ministerial candidate not only for the 2019 elections but for all elections upto and inclusive of 2039. This is the only way congress can be saved, which will also save the country.
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          Ananth
          Jul 5, 2017 at 3:36 pm
          Good. Just check whether the party exists till 2019 and if so whether the people you mentioned are still with it.
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            Harry
            Jul 5, 2017 at 4:30 pm
            This is the only way congress can be saved, which will also save the country. True. We need Nehru family to lead opposition, rather than Ogress like Mamata or thug like Lalu Prasad Yadav. After all Rahul is bad among worst lot, not best among good lot.
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            rishi
            Jul 5, 2017 at 1:50 am
            Writing for the sake of writing.....this ancient man can no more read the writing on the wall......RSS-BJP-LedNDA's India is secular and tolerant of all the nuisance being created by people like him who behave as some left-over cancerous limbs of an outgoing congress that actually was absolutely intolerant of RSS-BJP combine for decades. My question to Amartya Sen : congress govt.'s "always" considered RSS and all those associated with it as criminals , would it be alright now for RSS-BJP Govt.'s to consider all congressis and their associates (including amartya the lunatic himself) as criminals too ! Would it not be a fair response to the miseries of millions of RSS-families nationwide who suffered severe pain and neglect of their basic human rights all those decades.....the "emergency" of 1975 being the culmination of such blatant violation of human rights by a colonial-congress ruthlessly intolerant of demographic righteousness(RSS) that commands the Nation's destiny now.
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              Venkatraman Shenoy
              Jul 5, 2017 at 6:19 am
              When Amartya Sen cannot even see the wall, how can he see the writing on that wall? He is too short sighted and narrow visioned, so that he has come to believe that the secularism practised by congress is the only secularism that is there for India to adopt.
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                Harry
                Jul 5, 2017 at 4:32 pm
                He is Bengali. His family ran away from East Bengal. We would like to hear his opinion about Noakhali and how brave Bhadralok fought there, by voting with their feet.
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              AA
              Jul 5, 2017 at 12:45 am
              Mr. Sen, did you write any article when Salman Rushdie was thrown out, when Taslima Nasrin was threatened, when Kashmiri pundits were killed or you started this hypocrisy now only?
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              1. R
                Ram
                Jul 5, 2017 at 12:15 am
                This frustrated old man is bringing disrepute to the les he holds. He clubs violent invaders who enslaved India to oppressed refugees, fully forgetting that it was Parsis/Zoroastrians who ran away from his favorite violent islamists to take refuge in Hindu India and I don' t think they have any complaint or allegations of discrimination at the hands of majority 'Hindus'. Ask real minorities like Jains/Jews etc. if they feel cuted! This communist j!hadi supporter is clubbing Yazdis and IS thugs both as refugees.. and he has no single word about Kashmiri Hindus who are made refugees in their own land by islamists in-spite being in India! Shame on such backstabbing traitors calling them self as 'liberals'. As an ad on he supports corrupt sold out media like NDTV....
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                  Phantom
                  Jul 4, 2017 at 11:49 pm
                  Very convenient to be judgemental after sucking upto the Congress mongerals all these years for this fake economist.
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                    RJ
                    Jul 4, 2017 at 10:56 pm
                    Most of this article is about the author venting his frustration that his political masters of the congress party lost power and his loss of the government perks and jamborees that his political masters used to bestow upon him. India is better of without parasites like him sucking off taxpayers' funds to hoist their failed, micky-mouse nehruvian crackpot ideas on the rest of us. What this senile guy does not understand is that there is a new India rising that is tired of being a poor underdeveloped country (because of the silly central planning ideas of this guy's hero Nehru), we are determined to turn India into a developed country within our life-time we are willing to give honest decisive leaders a chance lead us in that direction. The elephant is marching mongrels like Sen can bark at the elephant all they want we just spit on their faces and march on. We have bigger goals ahead. We have hundreds of millions of poor people that we want to lift out of poverty. So, buzz off!
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                      Ananth
                      Jul 5, 2017 at 3:46 pm
                      Wow! What a blast. You forgot about his dismissal from Nalanda University which he couldn't administer despite a large financial package and time given to the University to get going. He proved he is good for theoretical assertions with no,possible realisation of it. He had prior to Modi's win itself had set himself against him openly. So what objectivity we can expect from him now that Modi is ascending further with more and more people backing him.
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