Carnivorous Flowers of a Cruel Society

Websites, books, newspapers, cinema halls, magazines and mouths, all have to be thoroughly sanitised and only then opened in a country where narrow-mindedness and manual scavenging is everywhere 

Karen Gabriel Delhi

For more than a century now, perhaps since the time Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi began writing on Hinduism — indeed, attempting to forge it anew in the fires of anti-colonial nationalism and socio-religious reformism — Hinduism has been much touted as the most tolerant of all religions. Extending this, by virtue of the fact that Hindus constitute the majority of the Indian populace, it is argued that therefore India is the most tolerant of societies in the world.This has on several occasions been contested as being a myth perpetuated and sustained by the Indian State as much as by the academe, the media and various entities in civil and political society.

The argument against this, made from both within and outside the Hindu community, is that, far from being tolerant, the Hindu community in particular (and Indian society in general), is highly intolerant, or at least passively resistant to difference and alterity. The most commonly cited instance — for very good reason — of such intolerance in the Hindu community is of course the caste system, which has seeped into other socio-religious communities too.

In addition to this, there is the rich and widespread history of communal violence, predominantly between Hindus and Muslims, but also between Hindus and other communities, often Sikhs and Christians, and, further back in history, Buddhists. It may be said that these are recent developments, the results of colonial machinations and the infamous “divide-and-rule” policy adopted by British imperialism. While this is no doubt true, it is also true that the history of inter-community animosity is much older, and there are many recorded instances of violent conflicts between Hindus and Muslims prior to the British, as well as between Hindu sects (for instance, Vaishnavites versus Shaivites) prior to the arrival of Islam in India.

The British did not create the animosities between communities, they capitalised on what was already there, and cynically exacerbated them for their own political ends. Moreover, even if this is dismissed as being unfair to the colonised, the fact that the caste system — probably the oldest, most elaborate and enduring system of sustained stratification and humiliation ever devised by any human society — is a definitively intolerant and yet integral dimension of Hindu society in particular and of Indian society in general, irrefutably counters any easy claim to sweeping tolerance.

How then did the claim arise in the first place?

The myth that Hinduism is a tolerant religion was spun primarily out of the philosophical understanding of “sarva dharma sambhava”, which, essentially, proposes that there are many paths to salvation. This has been understood — and not without justification — to mean that all religions are equally valid and therefore must be equally respected. Mutual respect and tolerance of each other’s paths is thus assumed to be a prerequisite in this particular understanding.

Its proponents cite the history of the absorption of “foreigners” into the Indian milieu, as evidence of the common practice of this philosophical understanding. Greeks, Huns, Sakas, and so on, were all absorbed, we are told, into the great flux and flow of the “community of communities” in the Indian subcontinent. However, hidden in these pronouncements are multiple intellectual prestidigitations that, typically, leave intact the reality while producing an illusion of change. 

First, respect and tolerance of a religion does not automatically imply that its practitioners are tolerated — a difference that has allowed bigots the world over to proclaim respect for a religion while zealously persecuting its followers. This is evident as much in American presidents’ claims that they respect Islam while tacitly fostering anti-Islamism and Christian fundamentalism as in the BJP’s Iftarand Christmas parties that go hand-in-hand with their assertions that India is a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu country).

The term ‘tolerance’ implies a potential to become intolerant at any moment. It also invokes the idea of a ‘norm-al’ majority that tolerates the ‘ab-normal’ practices of the minorities, who must feel beholden for such tolerance 

Evidently, it is easy to respect and tolerate an idea — but not its practitioners.

Therefore, and second, a religion, like any other idea or concept, acquires reality and identity only in its practice. In the practice of it, it gains a reality and an identity that has as much to do with its ideas and concepts as with the everyday, lived realities and identities of its practitioners, and their position in a larger organisation of social and political-economic stratifications. Which is why while beef-eating is widespread among the poorer sections of society regardless of their religious affiliations, it tends to be less common among the more affluent sections, again, regardless of their
religious affiliations.

So, religious intolerance is as much an expression of clashing viewpoints as it is an expression of the tensions between two (or more) socio-economic groups and the inequities and hierarchies between them. The proposition “sarva dharma sambhava”, that moots the equitability of paths, is in fact at odds with the material realities within which the “sarvadharmas” are practised.

Third, while the idea of “sarva dharma sambhava” is laudable, it is also at odds with the injunctions of the caste system. To be effective, something like a “sarva karma sambhava” — a mutual respect and tolerance of all work (profession, vocation, occupation), that crucial caste marker — ought to have had been in place.

Of course, this is not the case, and caste identity — which is closely related to the work one does, and therefore to one’s position in the systems of production, exchange, consumption and reproduction — is riddled with intolerance, disrespect, exploitation and abuse. It expressly promotes hierarchies and inequities, precluding any possibilities of mutual tolerance and respect for the varieties of work and workers in it. Consequently, intolerance and disrespect is routinised, pervades the domain of the mundane and quotidian, and inevitably extends to the domain of the religious, regardless of high philosophical claims to the contrary.

Fourth, the notion that “sarva dharma sambhava” works because it led to the absorption of many “foreign” elements into the Indian socius, is alarming on several counts. It suggests that there is a basic template to understand what constitutes a “dharma”, which will in turn permit the application of the principle of “sarva dharma sambhava” and the consequent absorption of any heterogeneous elements.

One question that arises immediately is, of course, who is “absorbed” by whom and on what terms? To the extent that all religions become marked as identity markers, in a context of identitarian politics, the programme of “absorption” becomes inevitably one of conversion (where are the Greeks, Huns and Sakas today?), and “absorption” is seen for what it is, an euphemism for conversion. And the vexed question of conversion then raises a host of separate issues: not just about voluntary and involuntary conversions (from the point of view of the converted) but about who may be permitted to convert and under what circumstances (from the point of view of the converter) — which brings us back to the point about the template for what constitutes a “dharma”.

The caste system — probably the oldest, most elaborate and enduring system of sustained stratification and humiliation ever devised by any human society — is a definitively intolerant and integral dimension of Hindu/Indian society 

There are all kinds of anomalies here: Zoroastrianism, for instance, saw neither conversion nor any other kind of absorption; Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism have witnessed both conversion and absorption but have retained their separate identities; while Christianity and Islam have witnessed conversion (to and from Hinduism, however understood) but have steadfastly resisted (or not been permitted) absorption.

The tolerance that leads to absorption is evidently a highly selective one, and I shall say more on this shortly. 

Apart from these considerations, there is a peculiarity about the idea of tolerance which suggests that its proponents may be right, and that its critics, however well intentioned and secular in spirit, may be off the mark. The term “tolerance” implies a latent potential to become intolerant at any moment. That is, it connotes a norm to which there are exceptions that must be tolerated (but also need not be tolerated). It therefore also invokes the idea of a “norm-al” majority that tolerates the “ab-normal” practices of the minorities, who must feel beholden for such tolerance.

This profoundly patronising attitude and disposition on the part of its practitioners registers the unequal power relation in which the minority is entirely dependent on the majority’s will to tolerance,rather than on any systemic guarantees (and we saw how that worked in the cases of Gujarat and Kandhamal).

This tolerance is voluntary rather than mandatory (if it is mandatory, one is no longer tolerating, one is being restrained from becoming intolerant). Finally, it can be selectively applied, precisely because it is voluntary. And this is how one can make sense of the selective absorption noted earlier.

In this sense, to say that Hindu (and Indian) society generally is tolerant is not inaccurate: we loudly, proudly and not inaccurately proclaim the fact that we are and have been highly tolerant of all kinds of heterogeneity. But this claimed tolerance is profoundly problematic: it is not the solution to the problems arising out of diversity and heterogeneity, rather, it is, as I have argued, a part of
the problem.

What, then, is the solution?

There are no easy answers. We need to accept and genuinely respect difference. And tolerance is a necessary but insufficient part of such acceptance.

But, even acceptance would prove insufficient as long as it remains voluntary; so the State must itself explicitly seek to inculcate and constitutionally sanctify the acceptance of difference. However, how can the State accomplish this successfully without also simultaneously addressing the problem of differences arising out of socio-economic inequalities and imbalances — which it obviously cannot ask its citizens to accept?

It is not mere prolixity that we need, but the polyphony of varied but equal, and iconoclastic voices. We need voices that are self-reflexive, engaged and accountable

It seems that what is required is not (just) the promotion of tolerance and acceptance but the active intolerance and rejection of the conditions that produce and reproduce inequalities, oppression and exploitation. And that, surely, cannot be left to the State alone.

That job lies equally with civil and political society, and the intelligentsia. And in this case, the physicians — irrespective of their class, caste, creed, gender or sexual orientation — must first heal themselves.


The recent Ambedkar cartoon controversy has stirred up the hornets’ nests of caste and censorship. With regard to the latter, the free-speech advocates have traditionally taken a blanket position on all expression even while the problems of hate speech and the violence of representation have been cognised. Those in favour of censorship have brought up issues of relative socio-economic and cultural power and control over the media. Both sides have somewhat caricatured each other since the 1980s.

It is true that in a caste-ridden, deeply patriarchal, highly inequitable country like India, free speech often degenerates into hate speech with impunity. But again, political and sexual censorship are advocated at the drop of a hat. It would be foolish to believe that KapilSibal and the government’s response to the cartoon issue is guided by anything besides cynical self-interest (remember #IdiotKapilSibal on Twitter?).

Given our deep ambivalence toward sexual expression, and given the nepotism, self-interest and casteism in most spheres of public life — from politics and big business to academics, journalism, cinema and the arts — there is a tendency to censor for one’s own good rather than to regulate for the public good. Given the highly unequal nature of our society, it may be necessary to regulate not what is spoken, but ownership of the media and, concomitantly, who gets to speak, about what, at which forum and under what circumstances.

Serious journalists have been decrying the loss of editorial control, and the virtual vanishing of more than 85 per cent of the population from the news. Academic texts and syllabi are being decided by nescient politicians and sycophantic babus and implemented by their minions in the university. So it is not mere prolixity that we need, but the polyphony of varied but equal, and iconoclastic voices. More than ever, we need voices that are self-reflexive, engaged and accountable.

Something like a ‘sarva karma sambhava’ — a mutual respect and tolerance of all work (profession, vocation, occupation), that crucial caste marker — ought to have had been in place

So, part of the solution is the cultivation of a genuinely critical and democratic culture, in place of a highly self-protective coterie system. Rarely does one meet an Indian who is willing to be not offended or doesn’t personalise even the most innocuous and impersonal of matters and spaces. The list of avowedly offended people and groups crosses all divides and is ever-growing.

Websites, books, newspapers, cinema halls, magazines and mouths, all have to be thoroughly sanitised and only then opened in a country where narrow-mindedness and manual scavenging is everywhere. Those don’t offend. And not because of our famed tolerance. But because of what lies at the heart of our predicament as a country and a democracy: the rank indifference and self-absorption of the middle and upper classes, political society and our voracious corporate sector.

It is indeed the case that this segment is moved to tears and rage by a slight or an inconvenience, but stare dry-eyed at or turn away from the sight of the human tragedy that confronts us every day even in this world-class city that is powered by the migrant poor.

So what does this mean for our democracy?

Worldwide, democratic institutions have been put under severe pressure by predatory capitalism resulting in the spiralling intolerance of religious fundamentalism, racism, and ethnic chauvinism in Europe and elsewhere. There is, therefore, all the more reason to reinforce, institutionalise and internalise cultures of accountability and democracy. However, intuiting the general agreement here among the elite for a ritualistic approach to democracy, and among politicians and their corporate masters — who are efficiently dismantling it a mere 60 years into its life — will not be easy. No wonder political censorship has become
so important.

Today, what we need is a free, fully informed and open debate on the nation and the state of the nation (pun intended). AmartyaSen speaks about the argumentative Indian; if ever we were so, it was once upon a time: today we are just touchy and quarrelsome.  

Dr Karen Gabriel is Associate Professor, English, and Director, Centre for the Study of Gender, Culture and Social Processes, St Stephen’s College, Delhi University


This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2012