Nayantara Sahgal returned her Sahitya Akademi award after the horrific incident in Dadri, which prompted her to complain about the “vanishing space for diversity”, about “people being killed for not agreeing with the ruling ideology” and about the Indian environment getting “worse and worse in the past 15 months”. By implication, the astonishing allegation was that there were far fewer communal incidents before this evil period. Several other artistes suddenly felt perturbed by this “rising intolerance”. It is also perhaps just a coincidence that this avalanche of anguish started and ended with the Bihar elections. Just when one thought this unfortunate trend was over, Aamir Khan made his “quit India” remark because his wife had started feeling “unsafe”. It requires serious consideration: Has India really become intolerant, particularly in the past 15 months? Are religious minorities now unsafe? Are they being systematically targeted and marginalised?
If one swallow does not a summer make, one Dadri does not make a country of 1.24 billion people intolerant. The clamour over banning beef, the disruption of Valentine’s Day celebrations, the chopping-off of a professor’s hand and the banning of the works of Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie are isolated, regrettable incidents and are not indicators of a nation’s intolerance.
A nation is intolerant when its constitution and institutions are intolerant. The Preamble to our Constitution declares India to be a secular republic. In Aruna Roy vs Union of India (2002) and S.R. Bommai vs Union of India (1994), the Supreme Court declared secularism to be part of the basic structure of our Constitution; it held that secularism denoted the positive concept of equal treatment of all religions. In the language of Gandhiji, it meant “sarva dharma samabhava” — equal respect for all religions.
Muslims constitute about 13.4 per cent of India’s population. In several states, Christians constitute a high proportion of the population. Article 25 of our Constitution confers on all persons, including non-citizens, a fundamental right to freely profess, practice and propagate their religion — a right that is exercised effectively to convert people to another faith every day. Articles 29 and 30 constitutionally protect the language, script and culture of minorities and give them the right to establish educational institutions of their choice. Can the same be said of countries that systematically target churches and individuals of other religions? Are we anywhere near Pakistan or Saudi Arabia?
The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, requires schools to block 25 per cent of the seats, free of cost, in favour of economically and socially backward students, including Scheduled Castes and Tribes. But this mandatory requirement does not apply to schools run by a minority community. Thus, a Ramakrishna Mission school has to allocate 25 per cent seats to poorer students free of cost but a St Anthony’s school or an Al-Akbar matriculation school need not do so. Such exceptions can be made only in favour of minority educational institutions under Article 15(5) of our Constitution.
And nothing manifests India’s tolerance for the views of the minority community, even if they are contrary to the laws of the land and the prevailing practices and customs of modern societies, more than the famous Shah Bano case. Married in 1932, Shah Bano, a Muslim woman, was thrown out of her home after 43 years of marriage. Three years later, in 1978, her husband divorced her by an irrevocable talaq. In 1979, the magistrate granted her a princely maintenance of Rs 25 per month (yes, that’s correct), which was enhanced to Rs 179.20 by the Madhya Pradesh High Court and later upheld by the Supreme Court in 1985. This triggered a storm of protest by the Muslim community; it was claimed to be an interference with their religion, which did not require the husband to provide for any maintenance beyond the period of iddat after the talaq. Iddat is a period of three menstrual cycles. Both Houses of Parliament then passed the ironically titled Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986, which took away the rights of divorced Muslim women to claim maintenance under the Code of Criminal Procedure. Parliament effectively overruled a Supreme Court judgment and restored the law as desired by the spokespersons of the Muslim community. And it is only the tolerance and respect for minorities, particularly Muslims, that has restrained our lawmakers from enacting a Uniform Civil Code for all citizens despite a mandate under Article 44 of the Constitution.
The selective expression of anguish by many Indian intellectuals is distressing. Looking back, not one artist complained about the extreme intolerance in the Kashmir Valley that drove out thousands of Kashmiri Pandits. Did anyone protest against the desecration of temples in the Valley? Is that less worthy of condemnation than the attack on churches?
The outcry against “rising intolerance” is wholly unjustified. Indeed, India has had an unfortunate track record of communal riots before and after Independence. But no one can deny that everything has been done by every Central and state government to protect the rights and privileges of all minorities. The right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by our Constitution does not, unfortunately, impose the duty to carefully examine the facts and the law before saying or doing something that causes serious damage to the reputation of India. The unfortunate existence of a few intolerant Indians does not make India intolerant — a distinction that our highly sensitive artistes, including Aamir Khan, deliberately choose to ignore.