Intolerant India: The Tolerance Test

There is a lot of fuss about India being intolerant these days. Initially, I thought it’s a trivial matter and it’s pointless to even give it a thought (Remember ‘A Wednesday’? I’m that common man who likes to discuss such matters over coffee and forget about it!). Then things started getting out of hand — blame the final rounds of Bihar elections, a long queue of Amir Khan haters, absence of a real topic for discussion or the new generation that’s getting too expressive on the social media.

Bammm…realization strikes. Seeing the newspapers and coffee shops packed with such discussions, I decided to dig deeper and understand the whole “phenomenon”.

Being a CA, I prefer the bottom-up approach of thinking (pun intended). I started with different hypotheses and tried to see which one we can align to more closely.

Hypothesis 1: H0 = Of course, India is intolerant!

Let’s take a step back and try to trace the roots of our ‘intolerance’. What better point to start than the freedom struggle? As we all know, beyond a point in time, our countrymen refused to tolerate the British oppression and intolerance. Shall we call that intolerance? I guess not. In fact, it begs the question — can intolerance of intolerance be called intolerance? Since that intolerance was against the oppression and denial of fundamental rights, when we won our freedom, we not being intolerant — merely brave and standing up to what is right. We wrote a fabulous constitution that ensured fundamental rights to all and sundry. It had several gestures that were way ahead of its time. Did we mutate into being intolerant post-independence? Let’s dig in…

Evidence suggests, the riots of 1984 and 2002 could’ve been avoided — they appear nothing more than realpolitik. And the same realpolitik extends to Kashmir where all it needs is a spark to call for the incidences of vandalism, stone-pelting, disturbance and a state bandh. Most people would suggest it is a political vendetta to overthrow the government or a result of the mess created by our politicians by annexing J&K.

While these do create an intolerant act, it’s a far way off proving that the people of the nation itself are intolerant. Let’s try a little harder to embellish the claim of India being an intolerant state.

Freedom of speech is perhaps the fundamental of all rights and guaranteed by the very constitution we spoke of. However, there have been a number of instances in the past where the freedom of speech has found itself in a difficult spot. Be it a ban on Satanic verses, fatwa against M.F. Husain, inability to provide security to Taslima Nasrin or arrest of cartoonists, there have been some dark stains which would make the people of art rethink before expressing their opinion.

It’s not uncommon for a movie (claimed to be inclining towards a particular religious group) to be banned by a state in order “to maintain law and order”. Recently, Aamir Khan found himself in the quagmire after he expressed his thoughts of leaving India. In the past, the movie PK was taken as a PJ on Hinduism and people couldn’t care less about the acting in Haider. Both movies were considered by some groups to be anti-hindu or pro-muslim (actually, a few people tend to take these two synonymously). After all, how can the citizenship of Aamir Khan, Adnan Sami or Sania Mirza affect our judgment of their contribution to the field of art/sports? Shouldn’t they be judged just on the basis of their talent?

But there’s a flipside too. The grossing of PK picked up after eruption of controversy around it. The Snapdeal app downloads shot up by a few notches on account of the free publicity it got out of #appwapsi campaign which was in fact intended to downvote the app on Google app store. You need to know what you are objecting to and curiosity is the best corporate fuel.

Cricket is a religion in India, agreed. However, I don’t think that stone pelting at gods’ homes is justified on losing a match or tournament. The (uncalled for) emotional attachment runs so high that we expect a price for the love and appreciation that we gave them in the good times. It is equivalent to asking the management of the company you invested in based on its performance, to compensate for the loss on share price fall.

There has been an increase in the number of instances of protests; again not sure what has increased — level of awareness, idleness or intolerance. Jantar Mantar has become an epicenter of protests — be it reservations, crop failures, corruption — you name it!

Recent Beef ban in Maharashtra has been carried out amidst a big furor. Wonder what might’ve happened if one of our 33 crore gods would’ve chosen hen as its vehicle or if it would’ve found special importance in the religious scriptures. Is there a possibility that people would’ve given-up eating chicken?

So what do we make out of it? Can we pin down ‘intolerance’ to a particular group — political party, religion or community? I will let that thought linger in your head for a bit.

Hypothesis 2: H0 = Intolerance in India, are you kidding me?

Despite being the biggest contributor of poverty reduction between 2008 and 2011, India still contributes to more than 30% of those living in extreme poverty in the world. Still we don’t see the protests like “Occupy wall street” to reduce the social and economic inequality worldwide. A farmer commits suicide rather than picking up his shovel and striking down the “exploiters of his fate”. Women across the country are commoditized and denied equal rights — and they bear the shame silently (yes, it’s embarrassing to be a woman in India!).

Boy oh boy, we tolerate a lot of things in India. Is it the lack of strength and will to question the status quo? Do you stay tolerant by not protesting and submitting to your fate and karma? And, this still doesn’t answer the question, WHO’s RIGHT? The ones who are protesting or the one who are tolerating it silently? We can take this up some time later.

Hypothesis 3: H0 = India always needed a pinch of intolerance?

A completely different way of looking at the whole debate is that India always needed some degree of rebellion and intolerance. It was encouraging to see people standing with the menstruating woman when she tried to enter the temple premises and a big-mouthed news reporter making fun of a self-proclaimed Godman.

A mix of uprising is welcome, especially after being plundered by different dynasties, then oppressed under the British governance and later being ransacked by political class. This raises another question — can intolerance be synonymous with the refusal to take shit from others?

Hmmm…Enough said! Time to conclude!

Despite my attempts to align with any of the hypotheses, I believe it is equally senseless to argue this point as it was before the beginning of this article. It’s like counting waves in an ocean and saying they have increased over time. So…if it’s not increasing intolerance then what is it?

There have been a number of arguments saying that it is propaganda before elections, media hype, and absence of a real issue or just a congruence of like-minded people who’ve got air from the media. With polls scheduled in four states(five including Arunachal Pradesh) this mid-year coinciding with the IPL, it will be interesting to see if this debate is able to get the mind share of the common man. They might be more inclined to discuss IPL scores in the cafeteria.

Lately, intolerance debate has been like a daily soap; it takes the centre stage whenever there is nothing else to see or discuss. Watch out if the intolerance debate crops up in the light of a ‘real issue’.

Written by:
Vaibhav Garg (Still learning the art of tolerance)

Special thanks to Suman Tiwari for giving up his sutta breaks for editing this article.

Views expressed above are personal.

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