An unmistakable feature of any nation which professes to be democratic is the prevalence of tolerance therein. Tolerance is not merely a goody-goody virtue. It is vital because it promotes the receiving or acknowledging of new ideas and this helps to break the status quo mentality. Tolerance is particularly needed in large and complex societies comprising people with varied beliefs, as in India. This is because readiness to tolerate views other than one’s own facilitates harmonious coexistence.
A liberal democracy accepts the fact that in a free country, one can have different opinions and should have equal rights in voicing them. This is pluralism, and tolerance is its ultimate rationale.
Tolerance accords high respect for human rights, especially freedom of conscience and freedom of thought. Disagreement with the belief and ideology of others is no reason for their suppression, because there can be more than one path for the attainment of truth and salvation. Even if there is only one truth, it may have a hundred facets.
Intolerance stems from an invincible assumption of the infallibility and truth of one’s beliefs, the dogmatic conviction about the rightness of one’s tenets and their superiority over others, and with the passage of time, this leads to forcible imposition of one’s ideology on others, often resulting in violence. At present, the virus of intolerance has acquired global dimensions. Religious and political persecution has become rampant and curiously that too sometimes in the name of God Almighty or some Divine Power.
An intolerant society does not brook dissent. Suppression of dissent by censorship is an indispensable instrument for an intolerant authoritarian regime. Censorship, indeed, is its natural ally.
The necessity for tolerance has been internationally recognised. It is noteworthy that the Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations proclaims that to achieve the goals of the Charter we need to “practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours”. Another significant UN instrument is the Declaration of November 25, 1981 on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief which emphasises that it is essential to promote tolerance and requires states to adopt all necessary measures for the speedy elimination of intolerance in all its forms and manifestations. It is evident that there is an essential linkage between tolerance, human rights, democracy and peace.
Intolerance does not always emanate from official or state action but also from certain groups or sections in society. A not too recent instance was the determined effort to ban the exhibition of the film Ore Oru Gramathiley by a group of persons who regarded its theme and presentation as hostile to the policy of reservation of jobs in public employment and seats in educational institutions in favour of Scheduled Castes and backward classes. There were threats of attacking cinema houses where the film would be shown.
The Madras High Court in an incredible judgment revoked the certificate granted by the Board of Censors to the film and restrained its exhibition. The Supreme Court promptly reversed the judgment in a landmark decision, S. Rangarajan vs P. Jagjivan Ram, where Justice K. Jagannatha Shetty, speaking for the court, laid down an extremely important principle: “Freedom of expression protects not merely ideas that are accepted but those that offend, shock or disturb the state or any sector of the
population. Such are the demands of the pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no democratic society”.
Intolerance has a chilling, inhibiting effect on freedom of thought and discussion. Remember how Galileo suffered for his theory that the sun was the centre of the solar system and not the earth. Darwin was a victim of intolerance and was lampooned and considered an enemy of religion for his seminal work, The Origin of Species. Nearer home we have the example of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, whose efforts for reform, especially for the abolition of Sati, evoked fierce opposition because of intolerance. We must not revert to those dark days because when that happens democracy is under siege.
We must combat intolerance and its manifestations resulting in human rights violations by appropriate legal remedies. However, the crucial point is that tolerance cannot be legislated. No law can compel a person to be tolerant. Therefore, we must develop the capacity for tolerance by fostering an environment of tolerance, a culture of tolerance. Stereotypes and prejudices about certain classes and communities must be eschewed. Educational institutions have a vital role to play in this connection. The immense value of tolerance must be ingrained in the hearts and minds of the students.
Our Supreme Court’s judgment in Bijoe Emmanuel vs. State of Kerala is significant. Students belonging to the faith, Jehovah’s Witnesses, stood up when the national anthem was sung to show their respect but declined to sing along. The students were expelled by the school authorities. Their expulsion was upheld by the high court.
The Supreme Court reversed the high court judgment. Justice Chinnappa Reddy, who headed the bench, in the course of the judgment, observed that the students did not hold their beliefs idly or out of any unpatriotic sentiment but because they truly and conscientiously believed that their religion forbade singing the national anthem of any country. After a careful consideration of the issues, the Supreme Court concluded: “Our tradition teaches tolerance; our philosophy preaches tolerance; our Constitution practices tolerance. Let none dilute it”.
This is a classic judicial affirmation of tolerance. Let us resolve to promote tolerance in our multi-religious, multi-cultural nation and thereby strengthen and enrich our pluralist democracy which is the pride of our nation.
Certain fundamental duties have been prescribed by Article 51 A of the Constitution. To my mind, the practice of tolerance is the most fundamental duty of every citizen to curb the growing menace of intolerance.