PTH is grateful to Abhinav Pandya for writing this for PTH on request. The views expressed here are entirely author’s own and PTH does not essentially agree with some of the points made in the article.
Off late, tweets, Facebook posts, blogs and editorials have been written about the rising intolerance and fear in world’s largest democracy called India. Prior to this, many famous media personalities, civil society leaders, opposition parties , intellectuals and artists raised a voice in unison that India has become highly intolerant of dissent, minorities and anti-government opinions. In effect, this allegation was primarily directed against Prime Minister Modi and then against the BJP government.
Personally, for me the question becomes pertinent because in various international platforms I have represented India as a highly tolerant and multicultural society, so when people of the eminence of Irfan Habib and Romila Thapar talk of intolerance in India then the matter becomes worthy of investigation. This whole phenomenon of rising intolerance in a way coincided with the Bihar election campaign and the intense political churning that went on in India as a fallout of Bihar elections. This is the reason why the alleged phenomenon of increasing intolerance smacks of some dubious intentions. Surprisingly, the intellectual opinion and media coverage was heavily tilted in the favor of the ‘reality’ or ‘perception’ of rising intolerance. Now the question which arises is that:
Was it a reality in itself or it just a perception of a few which was being deliberately used to create an environment of intolerance to serve narrow political ends?
At this stage when the high-voltage political drama of Bihar elections is over and along with it also the award-vapsi (returning of the awards by artists as a protest against intolerance), one needs a rational investigation in this phenomenon because it has some very serious implications for India as, if it was just a perception which gained strength because of the 24-hour news channels and social media, then it proved itself capable enough to effect the course of elections, and it marks the onset of a dangerous trend which could just make the whole process of elections futile.
On a closer examination in an attempt to find causal relations between the events, it can be stated that a few scattered events across the country preceded this allegation of rising intolerance. Some of those incidents are the murder of writers like Kalburgi and Pansare, killing of Muhammad Akhlaq in Dadri over the rumour of beef-eating , killing of a person in Himachal who was allegedly trafficking cows, spilling of ink over Mr. Sudhindra Kulkarni (a public intellectual), during the inauguration of the book of Mr. Kasuri(ex-foreign minister of Pakistan) and lastly the spilling of ink over an MLA of J & K for throwing a beef party.
Now the question whether the few scattered incidents were the only rational basis for this global defamation of India or there was a hidden political agenda behind them needs a systematic investigation and critical analysis of the socio-political and cultural context, and the factual aspects of the aforementioned incidents. It was alleged that the writers were murdered by Hindu right-wing elements for their campaigns to expose sham miracles and godmen. The facts reveal that kalburgi was murdered in Karnataka (Congress ruled-state) and police has not yet found any substantial evidence proving the involvement of RSS or any other rightwing organization. The police (law and order) is a state subject in Indian constitution so the state government should be the first one to be questioned. Coming to Pansare, he was not just known for his anti-Hindu views, rather he was under threat for his campaign against toll-taxes and it is quite possible that he might have been killed by the toll-mafia. Finally, the murders of people who have opposed a religion are not just happening now i.e. in BJP’s government. They have happened earlier also and might as well happen in future because people are very sensitive and at times intolerant about their religious beliefs. And, it’s not just that only anti-Hindu activists are threatened but also the anti-Muslim and anti-Christian activists.
The murder of Muhammad Ikhlaq in Dadri was again in a state where there is a non-BJP ruling party and its complicity in inciting communal passions still cannot be ruled out. Secondly, the question arises that if a rumor of beef-eating had arisen in Dadri in 1980s during the Congress rule, would the people have reacted in the same manner. The answer could be yes or no both, but one thing is sure that Hindus emotionally and ideologically would never have tolerated cow slaughter be it in congress regime or BJP regime. To what extent this particular incident could be attributed to Modi or BJP’s rule at the center is a question which any rational and sensible citizen is intelligent enough to decide for her or himself. Similarly, Shivsena’s activities are not anything new and not even surprising. Even during the Congress rule, the Shivsena had vandalized western food joints and thrashed couples on Valentine’s day.
Hence, it can be argued that the aforementioned incidents provide an extremely weak evidence to justify the allegation of increasing intolerance which can solely be attributed to the present BJP government. Of course, it cannot be denied that such incidents in general could be labelled as the signatures of intolerance, but this kind of intolerance has always prevailed in India. When the elite intellectuals talk of India’s liberal traditions and multiculturalism they must not equate it with the western models of secularism. Indian society with all its tolerance and diversity has its own distinct features. Essentially, Hindus are very sensitive about the caste and religious symbols like cow and so are Muslims, and over the centuries of interaction they have learned to respect each other’s religious sentiments. It can be seen in the fact that historically beef eating has not been popular even among the Muslims in India. The Muslim emperors like Mughals, Nawabs of Awadh and Bengal strongly discouraged cow-slaughter and in some cases even banned it.
Now something which raises doubts on the intentions of the scholars is their selective outrage at the incidents of intolerance and dissent. They were never found to be returning the awards after anti-sikh agitations, slaughter of Kashmiri Pandits, terrorist attacks of Mumbai, suppression of Taslima Nasreen and Salmaan Rushdie, forcible conversion in tribal areas and the chopping of the hands of Professor T.Joseph in 2010 in Kerala by a handful of Muslim extremists (http://pamelageller.com/2014/02/christian-professor-hands-chopped-muslim-mob-blasphemy-accusation-found-guilty.html/) . In my personal interactions with some retired bureaucrats of India, I was told that the phenomenon of ‘award-wapsi’ is also because of the fact the largesse of the state for writers have been curtailed and the writers returning the awards hope to be rewarded in the next government.
Having argued about the feeble grounds for the allegation of rising intolerance, I would like to point out the cases which, in a very strong manner, indicate a phenomenon of reverse intolerance i.e. the intolerance for the BJP government. When the ex-foreign minister Salman Khurshid bitterly criticizes the prime minister Modi in Pakistan, and the famous chaywala-hater Mr. Aiyar goes to the extent of asking Pakistan to remove Modi, one feels a little doubt full about the integrity of such people making allegations of intolerance. When historians like Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib compare RSS and other fringe organizations with ISIS and Al-quiada, they sound intellectually dishonest at the worst or intellectually out of context at the best. The kind of jubilation which one sees on the faces of prominent journalists over the defeat of Modi in Bihar elections, at the hands of not-so-progressive-and secular- forces, and over the foreign-sponsored protests against Modi in UK gives a reason not only to doubt the truth of manufactured-perceptions like ‘rising intolerance’, but also to believe that there is some kind of innate hatred for BJP or I guess Modi, in the media and intellectual circles.
In this exercise, I am in no way opposing the democratic norm of criticism and dissent and the religious intolerance which prevails in general. But, the point I want to drive home is that criticism has to be responsible, rational and mature. Media is a fourth pillar of democracy and if people lose faith in its integrity then it can be immensely hazardous for democracy. If the criticism comes with a single-minded agenda of vilifying existing government or Modi, then it ends up weakening the credibility of the opposition itself. Any kind of false perception cannot stand the test of time and wisdom. Later or sooner, people come to know the truth. And, if this happens then any genuine criticism in the future will always be seen with skepticism. Further, this kind of irresponsible criticism with vendetta often generates a very bad picture of India in the international community. Sometimes, sitting in the geographical boundaries we create the intellectual confines for us without realizing the international fall-outs of our statements and acts, especially in the age of fast-paced globalization and the internet world where everything gets viral in a flash of a second.
A responsible criticism would have initiated a healthy debate on the issues like cow-slaughter, returning of the awards, official scrutiny of the foreign funds for NGOs, inadequate progress on clean India campaign and administrative reforms. An unbiased investigation will always result in rational argument. For example, while reporting about the scrutiny of foreign funds it should also be kept in mind that the unaccounted money coming through charities is being used for subversive activities.
In this entire exercise, I do not want to condone for all the instances of religious extremism or suppression of dissent. In fact, I wish to state it categorically that those instances of violence emanating from religious fundamentalism are reprehensible and condemnable in the harshest manner possible, and India as a nation must own them up and resolve for the root and branch removal of such intolerance. Lastly, it becomes intelligible to point out the inability of BJP to keep the ultra-right fringe elements in check as far as their public proclamations and activities are concerned. Many of them may not be officially related to BJP in any way but when the honesty of reportage is under doubt then there are all the chances that such elements would be presented as related to BJP and the government. Hence, the government must have a systematic policy on the issues of multiculturalism and religious plurality, governing and regulating such organizations and their activities. Further, the government must react in a pro-active manner to check the malign campaign and that can be done by setting-up an independent inquiry commission drawing its members from judiciary, civil society and academia which investigates the truth of rising intolerance in India.