Why are we becoming so Intolerant?

Published: Tue, 05/29/2012 - 11:13 Updated: Tue, 06/05/2012 - 08:17

The collective willingness to ban and burn books, intimidate authors, denounce this slight to that icon’s honour, is part of a creeping culture of political exchange in which public authority is all too ready to be coercive towards those it finds politically inconvenient

Harish Khare Delhi 

Consider the cast of characters of the controversy that has once again forced us to revisit the question as to why we have become an intolerant country: a cartoon dating back to 1949 finding its way into a  modern Indian history textbook; Babasaheb Bhim Rao Ambdedkar, one of the greatest minds modern India has produced; RamdasAthawale, a moffusilDalit activist who traffics in memories of historic grievances and injustices; Mayawati, the leader of the BahujanSamaj Party (BSP), who has shown a practised indifference to national opinion and opinion makers; and KapilSibal, a minister who takes pride in his suave  metropolitan connections and interests. All of them instinctively combined — aided and abetted by almost every political party —to produce an unedifying lapse into intolerance — and, worse, intellectual timidity. 

Admittedly, there can be more than one view whether the 1949 cartoon seeks to denigrate a figure who has emerged as an icon for the Dalit community as well as other liberal voices. Dalit scholars and others are very much entitled to draw attention to arguments and propositions in textbooks which they may find objectionable — and indeed have every right to take recourse to prescribed processes of review. What is disquieting about the cartoon business is the intimidating manner in which the entire matter was raised and “settled”; in particular, the total loss of intellectual self-confidence that the HRD ministry establishment displayed in the matter. 

The collective willingness to ban and burn books, intimidate authors, denounce this slight to that icon’s honour, is part of a creeping culture of political exchange in which the public authority is all too ready to be coercive towards those it finds politically inconvenient. Worse, recourse to the State’s coercive power is flaunted as a symbol of macho leadership. 

Recall how a few years ago the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat banned Jaswant Singh’s book on Mohammed Ali Jinnah. A BJP government muzzling one of the seniormost and widely respected BJP leaders! 

The Shankar cartoon episode is very much of a piece with the current popular discourse, which itself relies on a protocol of shouting prejudices and nationalistic slogans. Practices and principles of popular discourse have become unsettlingly intolerant and one-sided. There is hardly any debate; there is no effort made to discover nuances and complexities; and no one is left any wiser after all the shouting is over. And all the shouting is to be done only by a handful of self-authorised custodians of “public interest”. 

To be sure, this culture is perhaps a logical outcome of a politics of accusation, which has thrived in India for two decades now. This culture of accusation thrives on a section of the political class — and now increasingly vocal sections of civil society as well — hurling charges and blame at its designated rivals. We feel free to take liberties with a public figure’s character, reputation, record and privacy. Honest debate is discouraged and no issue is ever settled. Instead, a bogus morality play is put on, and in the process, otherwise neutral institutions like the higher judiciary, the Comptroller and Auditor-General, the Central Vigilance Commission,  the Central Bureau of Investigation and now, of late, even the otherwise apolitical Indian Army, get sucked into this game. 

We do grave damage to our democratic fabric and its promise of tolerance and reason.

Principles like freedom of speech and expression, the media’s right to report and expose, the citizen’s right to know, transparency, accountability and so on, are abused and debased for partisan political purpose. That is not all; these habits of accusation have become a game and the game is to be played for its own sake, irrespective of any genuine concern for the larger public good. As stakeholders in democratic India we all become unsuspecting accomplices in this game, which promotes neither fairness nor good governance, nor public reasonableness, nor tolerance.

There is hardly any debate; there is no effort made to discover nuances and complexities; and, no one is left any wiser after all the shouting is over

If there is one class or group that needs to be held accountable for this unhappy state of affairs it is our intellectuals, who have allowed themselves to be recruited into the nightly shows of bogus debate on television channels. The meretricious charm of addressing a “national” audience is apparently so overwhelming that otherwise thoughtful and articulate intellectuals and scholars reduce themselves to stage props for a hectoring television voice. 

In this elaborately staged argumentativeness, the terms of tolerance are defined — and, strictly — by a handful of media managers and bosses, each one of them content to practise his/her own version of  petty autocracy. Tolerance and respect for differing views is at best selective and tentative. 

It needs to be noted that the word “intelligentsia” has virtually disappeared from our collective vocabulary. It is no surprise. Historically, universities have been cradles of intellectual ferment; unfortunately, in India, the academic communities have become so overburdened with mediocrity and consequently so distracted with the allurements of a consumerist market that they have perhaps blunted their own tools and traditions of inquiry and reasoning. And that tiny segment of intelligentsia that does bother to take positions on issues of public choices has fallen prey to the seductive power of television.   

Those who would otherwise qualify to be members of the intelligentsia have allowed themselves to be put on the back-foot as being remote and unconnected to the “masses”— the very qualities of detachment and distance, the basic accoutrements of an intellectual life, are deemed disqualifications. It is a sad day for a society when its intellectuals cede to the television personality her/his dubious claim of speaking up for society. 

A society which does not respect its intelligentsia — or more precisely, a society in which the intelligentsia chooses to abdicate its responsibility — cannot possibly be comfortable with habits and practices of tolerance. Sooner or later it will fall prey to charlatans masquerading as gods and spiritual gurus. And, with gods, there is no dialogue, only one-way traffic in hectoring and posturing. 

This is what has happened to India. It was bad enough that the political leader over the years lost his self-confidence — as well as a concomitant moral confidence — that is so vital to robust function of institutions of democratic legitimacy; it is nothing short of a national disgrace that intellectuals in India have lost their voice and the requisite moral courage.  Rather than setting the tone and tenor of the debate, intellectuals have failed to speak up in ethical and moral terms, leave alone getting themselves heard or respected. 

In this elaborately staged argumentativeness, the terms of tolerance are defined by a handful of media managers, each one of them content to practice his/her own version of  petty autocracies

Recall, for instance, the anguished debate within the Left in 2011 on how to relate to the so-called Anna Hazare “movement”— whether or not “Left” activists should cheerfully corral themselves into an enclosure at the Ramlila Ground in Delhi. A section of the Left activists and ideologues was easily taken in by the movement’s Goebbelsian stagecraft, so assiduously financed and conceptualised by a section of the Indian corporate industry. 

So overwhelmed — and, indeed, overawed — were our intellectuals by the “anti-corruption” middle-class sentimentality that no one was willing to draw attention to the all too evident intolerant demagoguery of a village autocrat. A section of the Left came to believe that “people” were with the “movement”, totally oblivious to the tricks and tactics of how ‘reality’ is manufactured by the latter-day Joseph Goebbels.

The “intelligentsia” was absent or at best reduced to the status of cheerleaders in the carefully-crafted Anna carnival, which sought to create a kind of mass psychosis. While celebrating “democracy”, such forays into mass hysteria are deeply corrosive of the democratic spirit because there is an insistence on producing, what Tony Judt calls, a conformist public space. 

The collective willingness to ban and burn books, intimidate authors, denounce this slight to that icon’s honour, is part of a creeping culture of political exchange in which public authority is all too ready to be coercive towards those it finds politically inconvenient
Harish Khare Delhi 

Read more stories by Why are we becoming so Intolerant?

This story is from print issue of HardNews