Tolerating Dissent In A Democracy: The Role Of 'Banal Nationalism'

23/12/2015 8:22 AM IST | Updated 29/08/2016 7:06 PM IST
Shvetal Vyas Pare via imagechef

Tolerance has become a contested signifier in India today. Narendra Modi's government is accused of undermining the routine tolerance that allowed members of different religions to co-exist in relative peace in India. The roots of this debate go to a movement whereby authors and then filmmakers returned any government awards that they had won as a protest against certain practices of the government and the increased environment of intolerance in India. Academics joined in the protest, and the debate persists, with all sorts of people presenting their arguments for why the country is intolerant. Or tolerant. The debate rages on most strongly over social media, with articles from both points of view being extensively linked and liked.

The questions "Is India tolerant?" and its parallel obverse "Is India intolerant?" are both meaningless. Some people in India are tolerant, and some are not. The accusation of intolerance implies both quantitative and qualitative increase -- there are more intolerant people now than earlier, and these intolerant people also have greater power and access to resources than earlier. The quantitative charge has been refuted: thus, for example, this article, which claims that there is no data to support the claim of intolerance. Numbers answer differently to different questions; different government departments offer different data on the number of communal incidents in India.

One of [the govt's] primary tasks is to address the concerns of its citizens and take dissenting opinion into consideration... And this is where the government has failed.

The major problem with reducing the discussion to numbers, however, is that they are inherently limited when it comes to examining issues involving people. For example, if 200 people vote that India is tolerant (or 2000 or 20,000), while 199 vote that it is not, does the intolerance faction then 'win'? If those who believe that it is tolerant can find another two people to support their claim, does that mean that the 200 who voted for intolerance automatically become incorrect as they have now shifted into the numerically inferior position?

One retaliatory argument to the above statement would be that this is exactly how democracy functions: the winning faction is always the correct faction. While this is true of the election of any government, it is not true of the day-to-day functioning of a government. A government is as much of the people who did not vote for it as of those who did. One of its primary tasks is to address the concerns of its citizens and take dissenting opinion into consideration as far as possible.

We can bring in other numbers here too, such as assigning numbers to the income and/or education levels of those who are voting. When your education or income exceeds a certain level, any system is easier to access and all networks, institutional or otherwise, are far more tolerant of you than of those below you in the pecking order. A college-educated Muslim man may automatically find India more tolerant than a Muslim man who did not get that kind of education. In this case, both these people have one vote each, but this equality is not equitable. The intolerance that the latter feels may not necessarily be only due to communalism, but he is definitely locked in a grid of deprivations based in class and religion.

The most successful counter-move to the intolerance controversy has been the commingling of criticism and lack of patriotism...

And this is where the government has failed. Perhaps numerically things are not as different in India today as they were five years ago. Perhaps each of the communal incidents reported in India can be contextualised. Perhaps the FTII students need to stop protesting and deal with whoever the chairperson is. None of this changes the fact that this government has not taken dissent seriously. Governmental institutions have ignored protests even as some of its ministers have attacked and dismissed the protestors. The Prime Minister has chosen to stay silent or voice platitudes on these issues. The FTII students are still fighting even as the outlook remains grim.

Supporters of the government may applaud the "strong position" of non-negotiation taken by the government. A strong position against one segment of the population, however, may become a strong position tomorrow against another segment of the population. This government knows how to contain non-state sanctioned violence, something as simple as turning off the Internet of one entire state for five days. The Patels who were protesting at that time have strong financial resources and are not really a marginalised community. This is also an indication of the government's willingness to prefer suppressing different forms of protest rather than negotiating. That the Indian government routinely turns off the Internet in Jammu Kashmir and the North-East and is willing to implement that policy in any part of India should tarnish its claims to democracy.

Just as nationalism can be banal, so can evil. We have to be careful that we do not slip into the latter...

The most successful counter-move to the intolerance controversy has been the commingling of criticism and lack of patriotism: any comment against India is recast as an act against the nation, the nation not as the space of everyday existence but as the imagined and imaginary motherland. This has led to a flurry of responses that defended the plural and secular fabric of India. Such responses both incite the everyday patriotism of citizens as well as reinforce it. A false sense of crisis is created ("by calling us intolerant all these people are criticising everything we stand for"), and this crisis creates feelings of solidarity and courage made manifest by defending that which is perceived to be under threat ("our country is not intolerant, there are four Muslims in my office and they always get to pray on Fridays").

Michael Billig developed the term "banal nationalism" to highlight the ways in which the rhetoric of a number of different players -- whether politicians, reporters or "common people" -- draws upon unquestioned assumptions about what it means to be a member of a nation. In this case, banal nationalism makes it possible to say without irony that one cannot tolerate being accused of any kind of intolerance. Just as nationalism can be banal, so can evil. We have to be careful that we do not slip into the latter even as we exult in the former.

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