Our tolerance to intolerance | India

Discussion on intolerance in India, invariably boils down to Hindu-Muslim binary. The term however has a much wider connotation. But, again, let's start with a salute to the Holy Cow.

Back in 2015, BBC India's correspondent Soutik Biswas had claimed that 'the humble cow is India's most polarizing animal'. Recently, India’s food fight has turned even more deadly. Mohammad Akhlaq allegedly consumed beef, placing himself on a similar footing as other grave offenders like murderers and pedophiles, and the events that ensued are a typical example of a seemingly noble proposition of protection of cow, being easily morphed into something inhumane by rabble-rousers.

Then of course there is the equally sacred issue of the Indian Army. These days, there are increasing incidences of zealous claims of patriotism and nationalism. The root problem in both cases is the same - anthropomorphization of the state as "Mother India" and cows as " Mother Cow" has inadvertently caused us to be overly protective of the country and the bovine. Also we often refuse to acknowledge the nuanced nature of these issues for the sake of cognitive parsimony, and merely choose to see things in black and white. Now, every time someone mentions the word "Army" our pupils dilate, and we get ready to pounce if he makes a statement which does not have the words 'courage' and 'sacrifice' in it, along with, preferably, a reference to Pakistan laced with a string of adjectives. It is not a question of whether army is infallible or corrupt , but whether we, as citizens of a functional democracy, have a right as well as responsibility to keep a tab on their public operations, particularly if it involves exceptional powers like AFSPA and results in death of Indians at the hands of the very organization that has always been hugely respected in our country.

In the process of hating we sometimes inadvertently tend to become more like the subjects of our hatred. We are so obsessed with being critical of a failed state, that we have now begun to cultivate their fundamentalist attitude within ourselves. A student of Delhi University roots for peace between India and Pakistan and is mercilessly bullied and harried by ardent followers of a particular ideology. Even central ministers, born in a state that has suffered enough due to border dispute with China, fail to empathize with the desire of a peaceful ecosystem that is naive, yes, but innocuous nevertheless. Overcome by nationalistic fervor, we tend to forget that peace and harmony are our USP. We have used this ideology to give valid justifications of a number of our foreign policy decisions including Non Aligned Movement (NAM) and even for our stand on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). While a majority of India still swears by it, the politics behind calls for and approval of such shaming and summary rebutting of individual views are often overlooked by even the educated Indians. A similar, but more evident exploitation of the prevailing nationalist sentiments was seen after Kanpur train derailment, when leaders at the top rungs of the government proclaimed that it was the work of ISI, when NIA itself was mum. If they were even a tad bit sincere in there allegations, surely, a poll rally at Gonda was not the best place to whine about it.

Just around that time, another self-proclaimed sacred institution of India decided, suo moto, to invoke the Prevention of Insults to the National Honour Act of 1971 and interpreted it somehow to squeeze in a mandatory ceremony before screening of every film. The bewildered petitioner tried to protest that all he sought was to prevent commercial use of the National Anthem, But the deed was done. The mighty pen had spoken. Soon after the verdict a bunch of pseudo-nationalists roughed up a man for not standing up during the anthem in a cinema hall, only to discover later that the man was wheelchair bound. "Oh, my bad", they shrugged and settled down right in time to enjoy the skinny actress shake her assets on a chartbuster rap with female bashing lyrics.

Meanwhile, a fifteen year old Nahid Afrin manages to get a fatwa issued against herself for engaging in satanic rituals like dance and music, and a sixteen year old girl from Kashmir is made to tender an 'unconditional apology' for 'unintentionally hurting sentiments' , after being bombarded with unsolicited religious advice and misogynistic abuse. Unconditional apologies are so much in demand these days. We might not have even heard of the term when we were sixteen.
In Ramesh vs Union of India, the Supreme Court of India famously observed that “the effect of the words must be judged from the standards of reasonable, strong-minded, firm and courageous men, and not those of weak and vacillating minds, nor of those who scent danger in every hostile point of view”.

Just to put things in perspective, in not so distant past we were also outraged when a seventeen year old 'juvenile' used a steel rod to gauge out the intestines of a student, ostensibly out of some childish curiosity. He might as well be perched on a bed somewhere giggling, that he got away without any 'unconditional apology'. At that time, the protesters successfully managed to stave off any political agents and what resulted was the single largest mass movement of recent times that did not involve even one political speech. That might as well be the most meaningful, spontaneous and necessary protest I have seen in my lifetime. The sad thing about it is that many of us have now forgotten about the fateful events of 16th of December. Why else would the Nirbhaya fund still remain underutilized. The particular spot on the Mohanlalganj-Memaura road is still not properly lit at night. The good thing, however, is that we will soon forget about Zaira Wasim and Gurmehar Kaur and Nahid Afrin too, and let them be.

Then there have been some trolls on celebrities too. Sonu Nigam, one of the most popular Indian male singers of our times, started off making valid point about loudspeakers shrieking at 4 AM in the morning, forcing the believers and non-believers alike to dispose of their comfortable morning dreams. But due to an insufficient reference to temples and Gurudwaras owing to word limit, his blue tweet somehow acquired a crimson communal tint and immediately lost their gravity. The tweeteratti, however, were more laconic and managed to celebrate his singing prowess as well as castigate him for his insincere comments, call it a publicity stunt and compare him to other singers, all within 140 characters. Similar admonition was meted out to Evan Spiegel when he touched a raw nerve with his 'alleged' comment in which he tried to shift the onus of low penetration of his ridiculous app in India to the incapacity of the 'poor' Indian to live in the moment. While Mr. Spiegel was perhaps excessively and peremptorily targeted, this perhaps was the result the general perception among the Indians that Western companies are never quite enthusiastic about releasing software products customized to Indian needs, while China is one of the first countries to get access to them.

Far away from the enraged Indian, but not so far, is the Indian bureaucracy, anchored in its security, with arbitrary, orthodox, intolerant politicians at its helm. It is unfortunate that even the more educated and polished ministers sometimes get it wrong. For instance, one respected union minister responded to a question by saying - "freedom of speech does not allow us to speak against our sovereign nation and will amount to sedition." This is against the interpretations of the supreme court in various cases, notably including those in 1962 and 1995.

Some of the clearest victims of  arbitrariness are documentary films and fictionalized biopics kept in check by CBFC and FCAT. In Indian Express Newspapers vs Union Of India, Justice E. Venkataramiah observed : “There could not be any kind of restriction on the freedom of speech and expression other than those mentioned in Article 19 (2) and it is clear that there could not be any interference with that freedom in the name of public interest” . Censorship has reduced to an oxymoron in today’s world Given the reach of television and the internet. For example Rakesh Sharma’s film on the Gujarat riots was stopped. It has been screened extensively in the country and abroad. Not even one protestation followed. Nevertheless, CBFC went on to ban 'The Painted House', 'Mohalla Assi' and finally 'Lipstick Under My Burka' for being 'women oriented'. The film bagged the Audience Award at Glasgow Film Festival, Spirit of Asia Prize and the Oxfam Award.

All these events however raise some serious questions about the state of affairs. Is an India, distracted by the tumultuous cacophony of enraged 'nationalists' indeed profitable to some sections of society? Have we set our priorities right when the courts send out moral dictums on the decorum in a cinema hall, while hundreds of acid attack victims wait for their 'tareekh'? Is it really possible to prove one's loyalty to the nation or community by slapping Amir Khan or Sanjay Leela Bhansali. These questions may seem rhetorical to someone closely following the developments, but even to the uninitiated it is at least a food for thought.

In this game of rage and enrage, while 'professional offendees' keep blaming each other, the 'Real Aam Aadmi' needs to understand that the fault does not lie exclusively with any particular section or ideology. Everyone has a stake in our precariously dangling democracy and so everyone needs to partake of the responsibility too. Let us all, the common men and women and students, take a break from all the shouting and slandering, sit back and filter out the more pressing problems and talk about it. The media, politicians and bureaucracy will follow. Our forefathers trusted us with democracy, let us redeem that trust.