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Intolerance debate: The full speech that Shashi Tharoor was to deliver but could not

Our democracy, in the last 70 years, has been built on the idea that a nation may celebrate differences of caste, creed, conviction, colour, culture, cuisine, costume and custom, and still rally around a democratic consensus.

Written by Shashi Tharoor | New Delhi |
Updated: December 3, 2015 7:59:05 am
shashi tharoor, intolerance, india, lok sabha, bjp, politics Congress MP Shashi Tharoor.

Editor’s note: During the Lok Sabha discussion on intolerance on Tuesday, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor was allowed only four minutes for his remarks. This column is based on his notes for what was meant to be a longer, nearly ten-minute intervention.

I will be brief because speaking so late in this debate, I have no need to repeat what everyone else on this side of the House has already said. The incidents of violence in Dadri and other places, the murders of Mohd Akhlaq and three distinguished rationalists, the irresponsible and inflammatory statements dividing the nation into Ramzadein and others, wanting to put up statues to Godse, asking critics of the Government to go to Pakistan, all these have been cited already.

Instead I would like to respond to the Home Minister’s request at the start of our debate that instead of merely criticising the Government and describing the climate of mounting of intolerance in the country, that we should offer some practical suggestions as to what the Government can do to resolve this crisis.

My principal suggestion is that it is time for the Government to take its own slogans seriously and put India First. India’s great strength, and the source of much of its soft power and the respect in which it is held in the world, is our precious legacy of civilizational pluralism, coupled with our robust democracy. The Indian adventure is that of human beings of different ethnicities and religions, languages and beliefs, working together under the same roof, dreaming the same dreams.

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I remember how, in the Calcutta neighbourhood where I lived during my high school years, the wail of the muezzin calling the Islamic faithful to prayer blended with the tinkling of bells accompanying the chant of the mantras at the Hindu Shiva temple and the crackling loudspeakers outside the Sikh gurudwara reciting verses from the Granth Sahib – and two minutes down the road stood St Paul’s Cathedral. That was a daily sign of Indian pluralism. Today I am proud to represent Thiruvananthapuram, where in one location, Palayam Square, stands the Palayam Mosque, diagonally opposite stands St Joseph’s Cathedral, and nearby is one of the oldest Ganapathi temples in the state. And worshippers throng all three undisturbed, joyfully celebrating each other’s special days.

If America is famously a “melting-pot”, then to me India is a thali, a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast.

Our democracy, in the last 70 years, has been built on the idea that a nation may celebrate differences of caste, creed, conviction, colour, culture, cuisine, costume and custom, and still rally around a democratic consensus. That pluralist consensus is on the simple principle that in a democracy you don’t really need to agree — except on the ground rules of how you will disagree. One of those basic ground rules is respect for difference, not just respect but, as Swami Vivekananda so memorably put it, acceptance of difference. This rule ensures that our diversity is a source of India’s strength, not a weakness. And the responsibility of the Government is to uphold that idea of difference and to firmly, clearly reject any attempt to dilute it.

I plead with this Government to uphold this idea of India. Today, our Rashtrapati reminded us that Swachh Bharat starts in the mind; the real dirt, he said, is not on our streets, but in the minds of some of us. He is right. We are shamed when foreign newspapers report daily about the mounting intolerance in our country. The impression has already gained ground that India is now governed by obscurantist and reactionary forces determined to put minorities, rationalists and liberals in their place. This has caused incalculable damage to the global perception of India. The Kerala House beef-inspection incident occurred on the very day when 50 African leaders were in Delhi, every one of them a beef-eater. What would they have thought of the intolerance of their host country?

And it is affecting our national security too. A Bangladeshi friend of mine visiting Delhi that same week told me that Islamic fundamentalists in his country were having a field day attacking India as a place where it is safer to be a cow than a Muslim. This has wide implications abroad for the Government’s own agenda: We cannot simultaneously sell ourselves to the world as a land of pluralism, tolerance, Gandhianism and Atithi Devo Bhava, while promoting intolerance, communal hatred and minority insecurity within the country. The Government must know you cannot promote “Make in India” abroad while condoning the propagation of “Hate in India” at home.

I would like to give the Prime Minister a message through the Home Minister who is present here. (Don’t be alarmed, I wish to praise him, not to bury him.) Before the elections, we had seen a different side of Narendra Modi. At the election Rally at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan, Modiji was addressing a rally of some 3 or 4 lakh people when bombs exploded there. We later learned that the blasts had left six dead and over 80 injured. But he continued speaking calmly so that no one in the gathering got a hint of what was happening in the midst of that teeming crowd. His main message to the audience was positive: “Hindus have a simple choice – either fight against poverty or fight against Muslims.” Not surprisingly, he won widespread support for his “sabka saath, sabka vikas” vision.

In that situation, a divisive politician could have exploited the situation with inflammatory remarks against his opponents, or against terrorists of a particular community, for having tried to sabotage his rally. But Modiji seemed to realize that doing so could trigger communal carnage since the crowd might have turned on innocent people. At the conclusion of the rally, Modi advised people to disperse peacefully and avoid stampeding like situation so that they all reached home safely.

In other words, he resisted the temptation to take the divisive paths. What happened to that Narendra Modi? Where did he lose his voice? After becoming PM, Modi seems to have forgotten his own theme of inclusive politics. He has stayed silent while a shameful policy of political polarization has been pursued by senior leaders of his own party. These are bombs destroying the idea of India but he has fiddled while explosive words are being said.
None of the irresponsible statements by senior BJP figures have ever been repudiated by the Prime Minister. If he sincerely wished to say the right thing to the nation, this is what he should have said:

“As Prime Minister, I condemn such acts as unworthy of the civilization we are proud to claim as our own. As leader of the BJP, I call upon my supporters to desist in word and deed from statements and actions that can fuel or legitimize intolerance and violence against people of different views in our diverse society. Anyone who supports, incites or condones such behaviour will have no place in my government or on the Treasury benches. I will demand their resignations immediately and I will prosecute the wrongdoers to the fullest extent of the law, even if they belong to my party.”

Now that would be statesmanship worthy of a man who seeks to lead the whole of India. What a pity we cannot expect such words from our Prime Minister. But if he steps up and says this to his own party and to the nation, this debate will have served a useful purpose.

In concluding I would like to remind the House of two lines of Mohammed Iqbal:

“Mazhab nahin sikhata/ Aapas mein bair rakhna
“Hindi hain hum, Hindi hain hum/ watan hain Hindustan hamara.”

Thank you, Madame Speaker.

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