The many shades of intolerance

Intolerance in India is discussed mostly within the framework of religion and not caste

August 13, 2021 12:15 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:29 pm IST

Mohammad Akhlaq’s mother shows his blood-stained clothes at Bishara village in Dadri. File

Mohammad Akhlaq’s mother shows his blood-stained clothes at Bishara village in Dadri. File

The Pew Research Center report, ‘Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation’ (June 2021), has provoked several critical articles, which mostly present its findings as being about Hindu-Muslim relations. The survey, however, presents comparative data pertaining to four other major religions: Christianity, Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism. Its conclusion, according to these articles, broadly confirms the growing influence of Hindutva politics on India’s social fabric. According to the report, “India’s concept of religious tolerance does not necessarily involve the mixing of religious communities. While people in some countries may aspire to create a ‘melting pot’ of different religious identities, many Indians seem to prefer a country more like a patchwork of a fabric with clear lines between groups.” However, interrogation of the conceptual foundations on which the report is premised could lead to a vastly different understanding of tolerance in India.

Falling into a trap

For instance, the notion of tolerance employed primarily relates to inter-religious issues. In Indian debate, the concept of tolerance has earned great presence ever since the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in 2015. In recent years, in discussions on prejudices or violence between Hindus and Muslims, the word ‘tolerance’ seems to have increasingly replaced the word ‘communal’, which dominated public discussions since the early part of the 20th Century, particularly since the Bengal Partition. Despite a considerable overlap in the connotations of these two terminologies, they are not the same. In the noisy political discourse around the Hindu Right, the erstwhile communalists have become the new nationalists — specifically, Hindu nationalists. An old communalist now calls himself a nationalist without shedding the skin of prejudices that he has been wearing all along. This has been possible owing to the well-oiled propaganda machine that the Hindu Right has been able to operate since the 1920s. Surprisingly, secularists of various shades have fallen into this trap. They have also accepted the deployment of the word ‘tolerance’ as completely normal.


India has historically been a tolerant country, it is further argued, and is now increasingly turning into an intolerant one, particularly after 2014. Since Indians were tolerant in the past, they must remain so now and in future. According to liberals, this is the most persuasive way to convince Indians about the virtue of tolerance. The Pew Survey endorses this line of reasoning.

Untouchability in India

But has India been a historically tolerant country? Untouchability has been practised for ages in India and it remains widespread in both urban and rural areas. We may ask: what is the relationship between untouchability and tolerance? By all accounts, untouchability is an act of extreme intolerance. That being the case, how can it then be argued that India has been historically tolerant? Strangely, the issue of tolerance is not seen in connection with caste and is argued exclusively in the context of inter-religious communities. But the ideas of caste and intolerance are deeply entertwined — empirically, conceptually and historically. The socially dominant group in Hindu society that practises intolerance towards Muslims or Christians has been practising the same against Dalits in an organised way as a custom. The latter is justified on the ground that Dalits are historically inferior, whereas Muslims are historically oppressive, violent and disloyal. The truth is that caste is the enduring source of intolerance and segregation, and the rest emanates from it. So long as this connection is not recognised, any effort to make sense of India’s growing intolerance would be shallow and misleading. The Pew Survey seems to make this fatal mistake. In the limited space it offers to caste, it neither recognises this connection nor introduces it to its theoretical framework that helps formulate its profound findings. And, strangely, it finds that a majority Indians do not experience widespread caste discrimination.

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Central University and is the author of the forthcoming book, Shikwa-e-Hind: The Political Future of Indian Muslims

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