India is being brutalised by intolerance and the State is dismissive of it
Ratna Raman Delhi
Something very strange is happening in India. We are the world’s largest democracy, second only to China in so far as the numbers go. The pundits have declared that we have managed our demographics very well, unlike China, which is struggling with an ageing population. India, on the other hand, by steering clear of the one-child formula, has a greater percentage of young people, who will, given our human resource abundance, usher in a great future for the country.
Is this an occasion for great cheer? Is India shining and gleaming, with the promise of so much youthful, vibrant energy? Are Amartya Sen’s ‘argumentative Indians’ standing at street corners or in the marketplaces, discussing ideas and speaking out their minds? Or, to borrow from the words of one of our out-of-fashion nationalist leaders, Rabindranath Tagore, are Indians in the 21st century living lives “where the mind is without fear and the head is held high”?
No, we are a long way off from that hallowed space. The truth is that our national fabric has been broken up into bizarre ghettoes breeding communal hate, complete disdain for means and a muddled, mediocre end that is sought to be achieved by partisan politics.
We are busy repositioning ourselves on the international arena as a nation of movers and shakers and producers. Our Prime Minister travels from land to land, even revisiting lands sometimes, in the hope of luring economic capital to India. Bringing foreign investors to our soil, he is convinced, is the magic mantra for progress. Bijli, paani, makaan and sadak will, of course, come together, once the dukaan has been set up and made functional.
Once centres of learning, albeit religious, were the source of sustenance around which towns and cities were built. In our modern democracy, the trade centre is positioned as the new hub. Ideas have been replaced by deals. Instead of focusing on material development on a small-scale basis, we have pitched it as the nation’s magnum opus.
What does all this have to do with intolerance?
Probably, pretty much everything. In the first place, the material lot of a large number of Indians needs to be improved. Many people in India live below the poverty line, coping with abject poverty, rampant ill health and illiteracy. We should remedy this by greater distribution of resources, improving infrastructure, fostering public institutions and building up a welfare state and setting standards and benchmarks of excellence to improve the situation at the grass-roots level.
We are hoping quick-fix solutions will come in from foreign shores. If there is a problem with our waste disposal system or with our sewage lines, a plane-load of officials goes off on a junket to some foreign country to find a solution to the problem. Clearly, all the Internet mileage and the indigenous talent that the State is boasting of serve very little actual purpose.
It is bad enough that all our protocols in modern allopathy come to us from Western shores. Now we are ready to outsource industry, agriculture, education and pretty much everything else to global players. While we wait for succour to come from distant shores there has been a great deal of unrest within the country. Ordinary and extraordinary people are being brutalised because of how they think, what they eat and where they pray.
Is this a recent phenomenon? The rising intolerance that is now visible because of an active media, following up on exchanges that are becoming increasingly shrill, is neither really recent nor new. It has existed in our psyches, perhaps from the beginning of time. History and war are standing testimonials to human intolerance for anything that is unfamiliar.
Intolerance based on religious differences is a word that found its way into the lexicon in the 18th century. Religious intolerance pushed the First World into the Second, and subsequently allowed both worlds to overpower the Third, while vivisecting people outside of their immediate communities with great gusto. Multiculturalism, against the backdrop of our collective history, is a fairly recent phenomenon.
If we bring a troubled and troubling discourse to it, it is because intolerance is a habit of the human mind that is difficult to transcend or overcome. While the origins of the word ‘intolerance’ were once shrouded in the contexts of religious differences and conflicts, intolerance in the modern context has to do with a varied range of issues. In fact, our first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, formulated the Panchsheel Agreement as recently as 1954. Panchsheel (five virtues), signed as part of the India-China treaty, spelled out the basis for peaceful coexistence between nations. While the principles of Panchsheel could not avert the India-China war a decade later, they definitely allowed for a nascent germination of non-alignment with regard to chauvinistic positions. This could have been a transformative Indian\Asian\Eastern idea!
Non-alignment from all partisan causes and chauvinism could have been consolidated as the position of the Indian State. This element is, however, completely absent from our national rubric today. We have been an intolerant people for a long time. Intolerance has been the hallmark of the stratified, unequal, hierarchical societies we are all a part of. We have reaped countless harvests of intolerance by sustaining differences of religion, caste, class, colour and gender. It has been altogether too easy to polarise ourselves along sharply divisive lines.
Censoring books, painters and authors has been part of State policy for a considerable period of time. Appeasing right-wing groups of all denominations, be it the Shah Bano conservative lobby or the Ram Mandir brigade, has also been part of political stratagems. Graham Staines, Babri Masjid, Godhra et al are the markers of our movement from the 20th century into the 21st.
In the last decade, tens of hundreds of Indians have been singled out and ostracised, deprived of livelihoods and even killed in different parts of the country. Some have been attacked because of their religion, others for their opinions and perspectives, yet others for their gender or lack of upper class and caste origins. This is a body blow to any notional ideal of peaceful coexistence that we might have harboured.
Many writers, who have spent lifetimes thinking deeply about civil societies, have returned their national awards in protest against the inability of the State to defuse the situation. This is a far better response than that of watching with horror elected representatives coming out with vitriolic speeches and justifications of heinous acts of violence and killings.
What should statesmen do if they find terrible crimes are being committed? Speak for the need for calmness and attempt to assuage hurt, pain, fear and shock and ensure justice. None of this has been done. Instead, the people of India have been reminded of the Emergency of 1975 and of the riots of 1984 as if the current blot on our collective psyches can in some way be erased by summoning hideous hobgoblins from the past.
If a nation’s writers are returning their awards as an indicator of their disappointment, surely the State should sit up and take notice? Instead, the Home Minister flies into a diabetic rage and declares this to be a manufactured protest. Gravitas demands that he take seriously the unhappiness and anxiety of creative people in his country. He has been so overwhelmed by the possibilities of economic productivity that he is unable to see the grief, shame and horror that is the result of activities being carried out by the purveyors of communalism, casteism, and sexism.
Instead, the media has drawn our attention to the battlelines between two intolerant factions whose opinions regarding the returning of awards are being chiselled in stone: one avers that awards must be returned to highlight outrage and disapproval, the other expresses outrage that writers are dishonouring the nation by returning their awards. Meanwhile, a third group in the wings accuses the returners of awards of being politically motivated. And India continues to simmer, bubble and boil.
Awards may be relinquished if they have been received and such a gesture does not damage any nation’s intrinsic worth. Parties in power normally occupy an enigmatic, sphinx-like position whenever there is a crisis. Or, as in the case of the present dispensation, they maintain status quo while allowing each and every petty official of the State to routinely shoot their mouths off and refuse to take action against all manner of rabble-rousing. The return of awards and the protests by a cross-section of the academic community should signal a wake-up call for the rest of the nation.
What is giving India a bad name is the viscous sludge of violence and intolerance which seems to be spreading and enveloping us all. It is all very well to throw up statistics and say that such events have happened in the past, and that each act of intolerance is a stray incident, not an epidemic, and what we see every other day is only a local law and order problem.
Such arguments can only be countered by asking: Why should a multicultural society in peace-time have any law and order problems? Is there a civil war going on, that the State is either unwilling to own up to, or intervene in, it in order to end it? There have been ugly events, grisly fracas and outbreaks of violence resulting in deaths because of intolerance. The victims have been vulnerable people: men, women, children, wise, scholarly, missionary, the unlettered and the impoverished.
When a book is banned; an artist exiled, gagged or eliminated; someone’s face painted black; a woman raped, little children burnt to death; a man lynched; communities mauled, intimidated or butchered; homes and churches burnt down – each of these acts shrieks out our intolerance and fills us with shame and horror, revulsion and shock. Intolerance stalks us in the streets, through lines of honking traffic, in daily displays of discourtesy in public places. Intolerance jostles us into an indecent lack of empathy in crowded trains, at turnstiles and busy intersections. Intolerance continues to rear its head through our self-righteous perception of the unfamiliar and the unknown as a threat. Intolerance is the unstructured fabric in which the entitled cocoon themselves, leaving the rest of humanity out in the cold.