10/11/2015 8:14 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Guilt By Association? Deconstructing The Narrative Of Intolerance

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Yuji Sakai via Getty Images
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For some time now, I have been meaning to address the issue of rising intolerance in India and the returning of awards by writers and artists. Yet, every time I came close to penning my thoughts, the issue, with its fog-like mystic quality, would slip from my grasp. In order to avoid that outcome, I am sacrificing prose for linearity and listing questions, which in my opinion need to be addressed:

a. Has India recently become more intolerant than before?

b. Is the central government by commission or omission responsible for the rising intolerance?

c. If yes, then what corrective steps are in order?

d. If not, then is the cry of intolerance meritless? Is the government needlessly being dragged into a controversy, or is the government still required to address the issue even if it is not directly responsible?

Has India recently become more intolerant than before?

There are four logical ways of answering this question:

i. Yes.

ii. No.

iii. India was always intolerant, it's just that the horrendous acts attract more attention now than earlier.

iv. India was and is tolerant, it's just that the aberrations attract more attention now than earlier.

In my opinion, a fifth option is perhaps most accurate -- a country like India cannot be adjudged on the scale of tolerance or intolerance. India on one hand is tolerant of all the chaos that defines her, from extreme forms of personal, social, political and religious freedoms that obliterate every sensible attempt at orderly co-existence. We tolerate pollution, riots, acts of terrorism, desecration of our environment, complete chaos in the name of religious festivities and procession; let's face it, being Indian means being resilient and tolerant in the face of systemic anarchy.

"The Central Government is being lynched at the altar of intolerance on account of its legacy and associational linkages. "

Then why is it suddenly India is being accused of being intolerant? Three incidents, which are often quoted as examples of rising intolerance, are the Dadri lynching, the murder of rationalist Kalburgi and the standoff at FTII. Whilst the first two are undoubtedly ghastly and unpardonable acts, the FTII quagmire is more a result of systemic malaise than intolerance. Now the question arises, is there any causal connection between these incidents or for the sake of construction and convenience of narrative are we unnecessarily viewing them all from the same frame of reference of intolerance? It is no one's case that the protagonists in these incidents are the same. Is it justifiable then to take three non-related incidences and rope them together by the string of intolerance? I am not even remotely condoning the incidents but if we start viewing every dreadful occurrence in the country from the same viewpoint then every remote act -- good or bad -- can be interpreted as part of a grand design. The question that we need to address is whether the alleged grand design exists or is sought to be constructed?

In my opinion, no such grand design exists. The Central Government is being lynched at the altar of intolerance on account of its legacy and associational linkages. And that answers the second question raised at the beginning of this article. In India every party has a legacy, which it cannot shed. The previous government for reasons well recorded was viewed as corrupt, sections of the present government have been accused and perceived as being communal and many state governments are viewed as casteist and/or parochial. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with these relics, they cannot be ignored as they are entrenched in public psyche.

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Add to this the burden of expectations, which came with the electoral wave that the present government rode on and you have the perfect set up for blaming the government for every ill that plagues the country. Prime Minister Modi was elected with unprecedented enthusiasm and was viewed by many as panacea for every problem faced by the country; it's a cross he has to bear. No one would have accused his predecessor of being responsible for rising intolerance in the country, as Dr Singh was never viewed as wielding the same degree of authority and clout as Modi. More than intolerance, the promise of achche din has become the albatross around the government's neck.

"More than intolerance, the promise of achche din has become the albatross around the government's neck."

Public memory is short-lived and its vision can be moulded by narratives designed by mass media. In 17 months, the populace seems to have forgotten the economic nightmare that the country had witnessed for many years. At a time when the governance agenda is taking priority over the electoral agenda intolerance has risen like a bogeyman to haunt the government. In all the news reports that I have read about rising intolerance and returning of awards, there is no clarity as to how the central government is liable for law and order acts which fall under the domain of state governments. Those returning awards would do the country a great service if they can elaborate how the rising intolerance is on account of the central government? There is almost a deliberate conspiracy of silence in this regard.

The issue can also be analysed from a semantics perspective. While the term intolerance in a linguistic and social context is inherently incapable of being defined, the term law and order is a well-recognised and perceivable phenomenon. We are grappling with an indefinable entity, which can be styled to include every incidence of social unrest. This amoeba-like occurrence will succeed every time in the face of concrete reality like failure of law and order which as a result of singularity of its meaning will always be defeated by a pluralist concept like intolerance. It is worth recognising that the defeat is not numerical but philological.

The last reason why the government is perceived to be responsible for rising intolerance is because of associational linkage. In law, there is a principle of interpretation called noscitur a sociis, which means that the meaning of a word is ascertained from the accompanying words. Similarly in politics a government is judged by the company it keeps. With every stray communal remark coming from its quarters or offensive comments on a public figure like Shah Rukh Khan, the government gets unnecessarily painted by broad black brush of condemnation because of association.

"Even if the government is not responsible for the rising intolerance, it would still need to take corrective measures."

This brings us to questions number three and four. Even if the government is not responsible for the rising intolerance, it would still need to take corrective measures. The country is stuck in a Panchatantra-esque scenario of a man carrying a goat on his shoulders when on account of repeated assertions of three thugs he starts believing that he is carrying a dog. Unless the government acts both to curb isolated incidents as well as counter the prevailing narrative, the cry of intolerance will turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the first front the government faces constitutional embargoes, as law and order are state subjects but nevertheless it would do well to rein in fringe elements and issue timely corrective statements rather than letting the narrative slip away.

My biggest concern behind writing this long piece is that this debate over intolerance unless settled would result in dual casualties. The first well-recognised sufferer would be governance, which after a long period has come back on track; the second graver but unrecognised victim would be freedom of speech and expression. The growing menacing cry of intolerance regardless of its authenticity would result in self-censorship. Artists, writers, columnists all alike would start silencing themselves out of fear of offending (actual or perceived) sensibilities of others without overt pressure from any specific party or institution of authority. Intolerance arising out of external acts is combatable, internal silence is not. The government, not on account of reason of guilt or under burden of false allegations, but for the reasons that it is in power and that it bears the constitutional mandate must act in a credible and decisive manner to put an end to this fear psychosis of intolerance.

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