The recently concluded Constitution Day saw legislators defending the Rights to Equality, to Freedom of Religion, and to Freedom of Expression of Thought. The opposition, in raising the “intolerance debate” in the ongoing winter session is pointing to the protests led by authors, scholars, historians, scientists, filmmakers (and most recently by Amir Khan and AR Rahman), to make the case that each of these inalienable rights is under attack. However, in this author’s estimation, couching what’s happening in India in the paradigm of ‘intolerance’ is conceptually obfuscatory and self defeating, however well intentioned it may be. There exist two parallel (and inter-connected) processes, and as a nation, we need to understand both separately, so we can address them with the importance they deserve.
First, what the opposition is trying to articulate is that every citizen of India is guaranteed the Right to Live with Human Dignity, which automatically vouchsafes constitutional protections for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” regardless of their caste, religion, gender, or ideological inclination. That social contract is undoubtedly under attack when civil society is suppressed because NGOs raise uncomfortable questions, or when bans are imposed on dietary choices, clothes and the mobility of women, or when scholars like MM Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and N Dabholkar (as well as RTI activists and whistleblowers) are murdered without fear of reprisal. All these represent severe assaults on freedoms of speech, expression, religion, and equality. Equally worrying are the unprecedented explosion of crimes against minorities (over 600 cases of violence targeting Muslims and Christians have occurred between May 2014 and May 2015). Many more have occurred since. Similarly, atrocities against Dalits have registered a shocking 19 per cent increase with over 47,000 cases in the last year alone.
Given the ideological inclinations and background of the people spearheading these attacks, there is a strong suspicion that the Sangh parivar has engineered (directly or indirectly) these shocking crimes against humanity. Meanwhile, when elected officials like Giriraj Singh, Sakshi Maharaj, Yogi Adityanath, Sadhvi Prachi, Manohar Khattar and Governors like PB Acharya and Tathagatha Roy spout blatantly divisive rancour, it is felt that the NDA government tacitly accepts (even endorses) these vile schemes that threaten the fabric of India. Thomas Jefferson once famously contended that “if a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.” While the laws of India are not unjust, there certainly seems to be no application of the rule of law, or of justice.
Mahatma Gandhi (like Martin Luther King and Aung San Suu Kyi elsewhere) resorting to civil disobedience as a non-violent means (even duty) to protest against unjust rulers is what got India freedom. It’s therefore perfectly legitimate for any conscientious citizen to question the NDA on its indecisiveness (or inability) to take firm action against the Sangh, which clearly operates on a set of primordial laws that seriously threaten the multi-cultural integrity of India. These citizens are merely asking their government to proactively defend and champion the constitutional principles on which it draws its legitimacy. Is that really so objectionable?
Second, hostility to diversity has become worryingly mainstream, and ‘tolerance’ is at the centre of that problem. Historically the word ‘tolerance’, or the earlier tolerantia (which mean “to bear or endure”), was used to convey the ‘self-restraint’ that a civil power condescended to display to infidels (depending on the state in question, this would mean Jews or Christians or Muslims) or with regard to ‘undesirable groups’ like prostitutes and lepers. India has also borne similar condescension, when the ‘civilised’ Raj tolerated its ‘uncivilised subjects’, namely us. As John Gray incisively pointed out, “when we tolerate a practice, a belief of a character trait, we let something be, that we judge to be undesirable, false or at least inferior; our toleration expresses the conviction that, despite its badness, the object of toleration should be left alone”. Therefore, when a case is made for tolerance, what is implicitly given tacit credence is that a particular community or groups of people need to be endured, however reluctantly, despite differences in faith or caste or ideologies.
So for the Khers to then contend that no one can call India intolerant and for his comrades-in-arms to mishandle journalists or abuse Amir Khan is not only misguided, but an insult to the sacrifices on which our country was founded. Similarly, it is equally wrong to posit that the Khers’ questions or rally are not legitimate. It would be perfectly all right for the Khers or the NDA to question civil society’s or the opposition’s approach to public policy, and their means of achieving India’s welfare (and vice versa). But they are not justified in denigrating them.
The dastardly assaults on minorities and dalits and the prevailing hostility towards anyone who disagrees with one’s views are deeply antithetical to the civilisational ethos of India, and indeed of humanity itself. The Rigveda argues “Ekam Sath Viprah Bahudha Vadanti”, which roughly translates as “the truth is One, but sages call it by different names. Much later, Emperor Asoka tried to actualise this, and his XIIth edict (“the faiths of others all deserve to be honoured…by honouring them, one exalts one’s own faith and at the same time performs a service to the faith of others”) is testament to this. Much later, Mahatma Gandhi repeatedly emphasised that differences should not just be accepted, but organically celebrated, something that our founding fathers and mothers tried to institutionalise in the idea of India.
Voltaire once argued that “I may disagree with you, but will defend to my dying breath your right to say it”. This is a critical time for India. How we conduct ourselves will lay the grounds for who we are, and who we want to be as a society. The true measure of open-mindedness would be for each perspective to not just be endured, but also celebrated. It is in that celebration of the unpalatable that India will truly be a plural society. We also need to ensure that the promise of this country is accorded to all people, regardless of their religion, caste, gender, birth or ideological inclination. It is that which will truly unite us and make us stand taller. It is that which makes India, India.