08/01/2016 8:32 AM IST | Updated 22/02/2017 5:26 PM IST

Rubbing Out The Myth Of Intolerance

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NEW DELHI, INDIA - MARCH 7: The largest National Flag measuring 60 ft X 90ft flutters atop 207 ft tall flag pole at Rajiv Chowk on March 7, 2014 in New Delhi, India. The concept of monumental flagpoles was conceived and introduced by the founder of the Flag Foundation, Naveen Jindal in 2009. The first monumental flagpole measuring 207 feet was installed at Kaithal in Haryana. Ever since, the foundation has installed flagpoles at 12 such places in the country. (Photo by Ramesh Pathania/Mint via Getty Images)

The best possible answer I found to the question of whether India is intolerant was hidden away in the bestseller The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. One character speculates on the whereabouts of another, saying, "Perhaps he had settled in India, a place so diverse that even a restless soul like his could have made it his home."

The recent "intolerance debate" was sparked by few extremely unfortunate incidents, including, among a few others, the murder of a rationalist in Karnataka and the lynching of a Muslim man in Uttar Pradesh. The media coverage of these incidents reached a frenzy when a series of writers, historians, filmmaker and scientists returned their state awards to register their protest against "intolerance", in a phenomenon that came to be termed as "award wapsi". As they returned their awards, these intellectuals laid the blame for the incidents of violence and religious intolerance squarely on the shoulders of the BJP government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

[C] olossal failures of "rule of law" were intentionally painted in the light of religious fundamentalism to malign the ruling establishment

History reflects the present and mirrors the future. While it would not be correct to question the integrity of each of the 'award returnees", it is an open secret that most of them have biased and preconceived historical notions about the BJP. The arguments and concerns of these writers ring hollow for several reasons.

For one, while they fulminated against the BJP government as the centre, nary a mention was made of various state governments and their failure to maintain law and order. Now, few would need reminding that law and order is a "state subject" which falls under list II of the Indian Constitution. However, colossal failures of "rule of law" were intentionally painted in the light of religious fundamentalism to malign the ruling establishment and, as a consequence, tarnishing India's reputation on the international podium. They cherry-picked aberrations in this vast country to make a sweeping generalisation. If one swallow does not a summer make, one terrible incident of lynching doesn't make our entire country intolerant. Interestingly, the sudden cessation of "award wapsi" after the Bihar Assembly elections has led to speculation that the entire brouhaha was an orchestrated campaign with the complicit support of the opposition party through a proxy of individuals committed to a similar ideology.

It is a matter of record that all these individuals who have returned their awards were neither seen nor heard during much more calamitous conditions, including riots in Anantnag (1986), Bhagalpur (1989), Meerut (1987) and Muzaffarnagar (2013). They didn't protest even when Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses was banned or when Taslima Nasrin was hounded and kept under house arrest. They maintained intriguing silence over MF Husain's disrespectful paintings of Hindu deities. Is it just a mere coincidence that all these incidents didn't shake their conscience once, or does it indicate a clandestine agenda? I strongly believe that, apart from isolated incidents, there is no intolerance in the country. Conversely, I don't believe that tolerance can be defined as an adherence or bias towards one particular ideology.

[A]s long as this nation continues to run on its Constitutional principles and laws, intolerance may exist politically but not practically.

In my opinion, the question of intolerance has two facets - one is legal and the other is political.

It is an undisputed fact that the law ultimately prevails and thus is dominant over politics. A country becomes intolerant only if its Constitution and the laws which govern its people are intolerant. This certainly cannot be said about our Constitution and laws, which are far more tolerant than many others. It is tolerant to the extent that the Supreme Court of India opens at the wee hours of the night to hear the petition of a convicted terrorist and continues to hear till barely an hour before his scheduled hanging. It is only the deeply entrenched tolerance and immense respect for the values, customs and socio-religious affairs of the minorities that has hitherto restricted our legislators from enacting a Uniform Civil Code despite a clear mandate under Article 44 of the Constitution. Had India been intolerant, the well-known singer Adnan Sami would not have requested for Indian citizenship. The persecuted writer Taslima Nasrin, a true victim of intolerance, would not have wished to spend her entire life in India.

I still remember an interview of Balasaheb Thackeray to Arnab Goswami in May 2011, in which he openly said, "I don't believe in democracy." It is hard to imagine someone living in China or Saudi Arabia questioning the way of their governance. It is the beauty and the extreme tolerance of our nation and democracy that allowed a man like Bal Thackeray to be an active and powerful member of the political class without believing in its democratic system. Therefore, as long as this nation continues to run on its Constitutional principles and laws, intolerance may exist politically but not practically.

This is an edited version of an article that was first published here.

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