11/12/2015 8:14 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Rising Intolerance: A Reality Or Smoke And Mirrors?

Bollywood actor Anupam Kher, third from right, and other supporters of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party march toward the Rashtrapati Bhawan or Presidential Palace during a protest in New Delhi, India, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015. Kher on Saturday led a march to counter the protests by writers, artists and others who say they are alarmed by a climate of religious intolerance and violence in India. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

There's been an impassioned debate about rising "intolerance" in the world's largest democracy recently, with a flurry of tweets, Facebook posts, blogs and editorials on the subject. This debate took off in earnest when a number of writers, historians and scientists returned their awards to protest against a country they felt had become highly intolerant of dissent, minorities and anti-government opinions. In effect, this allegation was primarily directed against Prime Minister Modi and the BJP government.

Personally, the question becomes pertinent to me because in various international platforms I have represented India as a highly tolerant and multicultural society. So, when people of the eminence of Irfan Habib and Romila Thapar talk of intolerance in India then the matter becomes worthy of investigation. The whole phenomenon of "rising intolerance" coincided with the high-stakes Bihar election campaign - this is why the outcry smacks of dubious intentions. Surprisingly, most intellectual opinion and media coverage was heavily tilted in favour of acknowledging this discourse of intolerance as reality.

[I]s it just the perception of a few that was deliberately used to create an environment of intolerance to serve narrow political ends?

However, is this "intolerance" indeed a reality? Or is it just the perception of a few that was deliberately used to create an environment of intolerance to serve narrow political ends?

At this stage, when the high-voltage political drama of Bihar elections is over as is the "award wapsi", there is a need for a rational investigation of this phenomenon because it has some very serious implications for India. If it was just a perception which gained strength because of the 24-hour news channels and social media, then it proved itself powerful enough to affect the Bihar poll verdict, marking the onset of a dangerous trend which could just make the whole process of elections futile.

To begin with, what gave rise to this chorus against intolerance? The answer lies in a number of scattered events, including but not limited to the lynching of a Muslim man over rumours of beef consumption, the murders of three intellectuals in separate incidents and an ink attack on Sudheendra Kulkarni ahead of a book launch by a former Pakistan foreign minister.

Now, what needs a systematic investigation is whether these scattered incidents were the only rational basis for this global defamation of India or whether there was a hidden political agenda behind them.

To begin with, the murders of writers MM Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare led to speculation that they were targeted by Hindu right-wing elements for their campaigns to expose sham miracles and godmen. The facts reveal that Kalburgi was murdered in Karnataka (Congress ruled-state) and the police has not yet found any substantial evidence to prove the involvement of the RSS or any other right wing organisation.

The police (law and order) is a state subject in the Indian Constitution so the state government should be the first to be questioned. Coming to Pansare, he was not just known for his anti-Hindu views, and had invited considerable ire for his campaign against toll taxes; it is thus quite plausible that he might have been killed by the toll mafia. It is also worth noting that murders on the basis of religious disagreement are not a new phenomenon, and anti-Hindu activists are at threat just as are anti-Muslim or anti-Christian campaigners. It is true that many people are sensitive - and indeed, intolerant - when it comes to their religious views, whatever be their hue.

The murder of Muhammad Akhlaq on rumours of eating beef in Dadri was again in a state ruled by a party other than the BJP; its complicity in inciting communal passions still cannot be ruled out. Secondly, the question arises that if a rumour of beef-eating had arisen in Dadri in the 1980s during the Congress rule, would the people have reacted in the same manner? The answer could be yes or no, but one thing is sure that Hindus emotionally and ideologically would never have tolerated cow slaughter, regardless of the regime. To what extent this particular incident could be attributed to Modi or the BJP's rule at the Centre is a question that any rational citizen is intelligent enough to decide for herself.

Similarly, the assault on Sudheendra Kulkarni was engineered by the Shiv Sena, a party known for such shenanigans. Even during the Congress rule, the Shiv Sena vandalised western food joints and thrashed couples on Valentine's Day.

[E]ach of these incidents is an example of intolerance, but of a kind that has always existed in India.

From the above illustrations, it is clear that there is weak to no evidence to link these events or justify the allegations of intolerance being levelled against the BJP government. Seen in isolation, of course each of these incidents is an example of intolerance, but of a kind that has always existed in India.

When the elite intellectuals talk of India's liberal traditions and multiculturalism they must not equate it with Western models of secularism. Indian society, with all its diversity, has its own distinct features. Essentially, both Hindus and Muslims are very sensitive about their respective religious symbols, and over the centuries of interaction they have learned to respect each other's sentiments. It can be seen in the fact that historically beef eating has not been popular even among the Muslims in India. Some Muslim emperors, including the Mughals and the nawabs of Awadh and Bengal, strongly discouraged cow-slaughter and in some cases even banned it.

Now, something that raises doubts on the intentions of the scholars is their selective outrage at the incidents of intolerance and dissent. They never attempted to return their awards after the anti-Sikh riots, the slaughter of Kashmiri Pandits, terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the suppression of the voices of Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie, forcible conversions in tribal areas and the brutal attack on Professor T Joseph in 2010 in Kerala by a handful of Muslim extremists. In my personal interactions with some retired bureaucrats, I was told that the phenomenon of 'award-wapsi' is also because of the fact that the largesse of the state for writers has been curtailed and that those returning their awards hope to be rewarded in the next government.

Having argued about the feeble grounds for the allegation of rising intolerance, I would like to point out cases which strongly indicate a phenomenon of intolerance towards the BJP government. When former foreign minister Salman Khurshid bitterly criticises Prime Minister Modi and praises Nawaz Sharif, and the famous chaiwala-hater Manishankar Aiyar goes to the extent of asking Pakistan to remove Modi, one doubts the integrity their allegations of intolerance. When historians like Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib compare RSS and other fringe organizations with ISIS and Al Qaeda, they sound intellectually dishonest, if not ignorant. The kind of jubilation one saw on the faces of prominent journalists over the defeat of the BJP in the Bihar elections (at the hands of not-so-progressive-and secular- forces) and over the protests against Modi in UK provide a hint that there is a deep bias in certain media and intellectual circles against the PM and the ruling government.

In this exercise, I am in no way opposing the democratic norm of criticism and dissent, and nor am I supporting any form of religious intolerance. The point I want to drive home is that criticism has to be responsible, rational and mature. The media is the fourth pillar of democracy and if people lose faith in its integrity then it can be immensely hazardous for the very institution. If the criticism comes with a single-minded agenda of vilifying the existing government or Modi, then it ends up weakening the credibility of the opposition too.

This kind of vendetta-driven criticism often generates a very bad picture of India in the international community.

Any kind of false perception cannot stand the test of time and wisdom. Sooner or later, people come to know the truth. And when this happens then any genuine criticism in the future will always be viewed with scepticism. Further, this kind of vendetta-driven criticism often generates a very bad picture of India in the international community. Sometimes, sitting within our geographical boundaries we create intellectual confines without realising the international fall-outs of our statements and actions, especially in the age of the internet world where everything gets viral in the flash of a second.

A responsible criticism would have initiated a healthy debate on issues ranging from cow-slaughter and the returning of awards to the status of foreign-funded NGOs and success (or lack thereof) of government schemes like Swachh Bharat. An unbiased investigation will always result in rational argument. For example, while reporting about the scrutiny of foreign funds it should also be kept in mind that unaccounted money coming through charities may be used for subversive activities (in the last two years Rs 1700 crore arrived in installments to promote Wahhabism in India).

Once again, I do not condone any kind of religious extremism or suppression of voices. The BJP's inability to keep the ultra-right fringe elements in check as far as their public proclamations and activities are concerned is indeed a matter of worry. Many of them may not be officially related to the BJP, but in a context where the honesty of reportage is in doubt, the government could well bear the brunt of their actions. Hence, the government must have a systematic policy on issues of multiculturalism and religious plurality, as well as governing and regulating such organisations and their activities. Further, the government must react in a pro-active manner to check the campaign to malign it, and that can be done by setting up an independent inquiry commission -- drawing its members from the judiciary, civil society and academia - to investigate the truth of rising intolerance in India.

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