Political Climate Columns

The age of intolerance

Some things have changed in India in recent months and they demand a great deal of introspection.

M. K. Narayanan
The nation is today witnessing an abundance of exuberance, and this is possibly well-merited. The Prime Minister’s forays to several countries across the globe have raised India’s prestige. India is today one of the few bright spots in terms of economic growth. The >International Monetary Fund has projected that India’s economy will grow faster than that of other major economies, China included. >India’s growth rate is expected to be 7.5 per cent in 2016, as against China’s 6.3 per cent. The country has become the most favoured destination for foreign investment; its trade deficit has shrunk.

Nevertheless, India cannot afford to ignore the dark clouds that are casting a shadow over the nation. These clouds do not stem from problems that are already in the public domain, from >‘Lalitgate’ to the >Vyapam scandal, or more recent setbacks such as the striking down of the constitutional amendment setting up the National Judicial Appointments Commission. They arise from more fundamental issues that could have a long-term impact. Hence, there is need for introspection.

India cannot behave like neighbouring Pakistan, which is solely obsessed with external threats and challenges — even granting that these are becoming more complex by the day. India needs to turn its sight inwards, from where the real challenges are coming. Unless dealt with properly, the result could be the tarnishing of India’s image as a pluralist and secular democracy — and the decline of a nation that prides itself on adhering to values enshrined in its iconic Constitution.

Serious challenge

Probably, the most serious challenge India faces is how to deal with a widespread impression that ‘an atmosphere of intolerance’ overlaid with ‘shades of authoritarianism’ pervades the country. It is worse that those in-charge are ‘feeding this tiger’. This perception cannot be dismissed as a mere figment of the imagination.

A string of isolated incidents, disparate in nature, but which seems to be having a polarising impact is possibly responsible for this. It would, however, be wrong — as is being attempted in some circles — to conveniently package this as ‘a contrived conspiracy’. The atmosphere in pockets of the country remains tense, and leaves little room for any blame game. It points to a sharply divided polity. This could spell danger, particularly in a multi-layered, multi-religious and multi-ethnic country like ours.

It is both difficult and confusing to put a date to this sudden and swift change in perception of the situation, but many of the events relate to the period July to October, and the impact cannot any longer be ignored or regarded as routine. The common refrain is the danger posed by majoritarianism, at the expense of minorities of every hue — religious, ethnic and linguistic.

One of the early triggers, perhaps little noticed at the time, was the misplaced criticism of Vice-President Hamid Ansari’s thought-provoking address to the All India Majlis-e-Mushawarat on the occasion of its golden jubilee. The orchestrated attacks by ‘majoritarian groups’, ignoring the fact that the Vice-President while referring to issues relating to Muslim identity and security also urged Muslims to think along plural, secular and democratic lines, seemed to signal the change in attitude. The subsequent murders of two prominent iconoclasts, >M.M. Kalburgi and Narendra Dabholkar, added to prevailing concerns about growing intolerance. A number of intellectuals expressed the fear that freedom of expression was under threat, and that all signs reflected growing intolerance of dissenting opinion. Quite a few returned their prestigious National and >Sahitya Akademi Awards, in protest against attempts to undermine secular values enshrined in the Constitution.

Events during September seemed to signal a rise in ‘pseudo-religiosity’ and ‘majoritarian inevitability’ — two phrases being commonly mentioned in the public discourse. One related to the ban on the sale of meat during the Jain festival of Paryushan. The other, and far more unfortunate incident, was the lynching of a Muslim by a predominantly Hindu mob in Dadri (Uttar Pradesh), alleging that he had consumed beef. The attack seemed pre-planned, rather than an accidental one-off incident.

Sliding further down the slippery slope of dogmatism and majority domination, and intent on proving that ‘might is right’, the Shiv Sena in October compelled >Pakistani Singer Ghulam Ali to cancel his concerts in Mumbai and Pune on one occasion. On another occasion it manhandled former Bharatiya Janata Party ideologue Sudheendra Kulkarni for going ahead with former Foreign Minister of Pakistan Khurshid Mahmud >Kasuri’s book launch in Mumbai. Both events have dealt a serious blow to India’s image as a nation that is inclusive in character, and capable of embracing contrary viewpoints.

Official reaction to these series of events has been weak and tardy, and this is a part of the problem. Condemnations of the incidents that have taken place have been few and inadequate, considering the incendiary nature of some of them. Even the Prime Minister’s reaction to the Dadri incident and the Ghulam Ali concert seemed mild, considering ‘the gathering storm’.

Most unfortunate has been the tendency in official circles to paint the string of events taking place across the country with a political brush. By no stretch of imagination could these incidents be treated as carefully orchestrated. Meanwhile, protests by intellectuals have been met with intimidatory responses viz., that they tend to be ‘inflammatory’, were in the nature of ‘manufactured protests’, and ‘a resort to politics by other means’. This has further polarised the atmosphere, and considerably raised the stakes in so far as the country’s image is concerned.

President Pranab Mukherjee’s has been the only sober voice in this cacophony. He appealed to the nation “that the core values of India’s civilisation that celebrate diversity, plurality and tolerance should not be allowed to wither away. He remarked that ‘these values have kept us together over the centuries. Many ancient civilisations have collapsed, but the Indian civilisation has survived because of its core civilisation values and adherence to them”.

Even thereafter, there does not appear to be any genuine desire for reconciliation. Nor is there any evidence to show that those in-charge believe reconciliation can prove more successful than the current obstreperous tactics of high-handedness. What tends to be forgotten is that if the different streams of dissent and discontent coalesce into a single stream, it could transform the protests into an emblematic crisis, of the kind that we witnessed in the mid-seventies.

Those in-charge must understand that this is the age of connectivity, when millions feel connected intimately through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other apps. As concerns grow, sharing of individual experiences among lakhs of people using the Internet could lead to a mighty ground-swell of protest that could deal a blow to the institutions of State. No one in India can forget how the Internet had a transformative impact in Delhi in December, 2012, following the gang rape of a young girl. It almost brought to a standstill the government of the day.

Preserving the pluralistic fabric of India is, perhaps, the most vital task for the country today. It ranks above economics and GDP growth. India has, at various times, demonstrated the strengths and limits of moral leadership. This is one such moment when leaders across the political spectrum should work together to sustain the inherent quality of a nation that has welcomed people of all faiths and all denominations for centuries. This is the time to take certain visionary steps rather than attempt to keep opponents off-balance. An image of India that seems to be fraying needs to be reversed. The growing distance between dissenters of current policies and the rest needs to be closed. India must demonstrate that it can accommodate widely different points of view within a common constitutional framework. Timing is important. The time is now, before matters get out of hand.

(M.K. Narayanan, former National Security Advisor and former Governor of West Bengal.)

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Printable version | Sep 16, 2021 6:11:11 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/political-climate-the-age-of-intolerance/article7810635.ece

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