The Intolerance Myth

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Is India as wretched as it is being portrayed by a section of the intellectual class?

Arguments have a shorter life in this country, and, invariably, they are more incendiary than insightful, more spectacular than substantial. Enters Aamir Khan, Hindi cinema’s Peter Pan with an oversized conscience, and we are back to the noisy theatre of intolerant India, a wretched place worth running away from. Elsewhere, debates take a longer time in words, ideas and data before coming to a conclusion—or a pause. In Britain, the rhetoric over the extension of the franchise lasted almost 60 years. Arguments over the last US war in the Middle East lasted barely a year before the Tomahawks were unchained. Even by Indian standards, the intolerance debate was pretty spontaneous. From the spate of awards being returned in protest against the murder of three activist-thinkers and a villager to the near-silence after the BJP’s electoral rout in Bihar, it lasted barely 60 days. Aamir Khan altered the script, and the noise level in the intolerance constituency has gone up considerably.

Hang on. Is there enough empirical evidence to substantiate the claim of the anguished minority? Do four killings, however horrible, make India an intolerant country? Can slogans be substitute for evidence? There is evidence but it points in the other direction. Even as the protests were reaching a high-pitch, the US think-tank, Pew Research Center released a report Global Support for Principle of Free Expression, but Opposition to Some Forms of Speech last week (on 18 November).

Its findings show that far from being a hate-filled country, in certain respects India fares much better than Europe and North America when it comes to religious freedom. As many as 83 per cent of the respondents felt that it was ‘very important that people can practice religion freely in our country’. More importantly, only 26 per cent respondents felt that ‘people should be able to make statements that are offensive to minority groups publicly’. Ideally in a free society criticism of minorities should not be a problem. But in India correctness has warped the definition of freedom of speech: a low percentage of persons open to criticism of minorities is not considered lack of freedom but ‘secular behaviour’. This figure is two percentage points less than the freedom to make offensive statements to one’s own religion and belief. The number of respondents affirming that people should be able to make statements offensive to minorities is 67 per cent in the US; 51 per cent in France; 27 per cent in Germany and 52 per cent in Canada. On paper, these are societies more liberal than India.

One other interesting number from the Pew report that can serve as a ‘time snapshot’ of this process is the changing number of those who believe that religion is an important aspect of their life in India. Between 7 December 2013 and 12 January 2014 (Winter 2013-14), Pew Research found 72 per cent of the respondents in its survey saying that religion was very important in their life. This number rose to 80 per cent by Spring 2015 (the results of which were released in the 18 November report), an increase of eight percentage points. The number of those saying that religion was somewhat important for them fell from 20 per cent to 15 per cent in this period. Those who claimed that religion was not important at all fell from a rather low 3 per cent of those surveyed to an almost insignificant 1 per cent during this period.

The large number of respondents with strong religious belief and equally strong belief in freedom of religion tells a story that is at odds with the noise about religious intolerance. Perhaps one should not take these numbers too seriously, liable as they are to periodic revision in the mood of those surveyed. In any case, surveys are ephemeral and prone to errors. One conclusion is certainly permissible: four murders—deplorable as any murder is—in a country of 1.2 billion people cannot be used to claim that India is intolerant. That would be a travesty.

A number of alibis can be cited in favour of writers, intellectuals and actors. For one, intolerance should not be measured by the number of those dragged out of their homes and killed. That will be a grisly statistic to measure the loss of tolerance. It is also possible to argue that there’s no linear, one-to-one, correlation between intolerance and the number of those killed in religious violence. Human insecurity—when driven by fear— is beyond numbers. But that begs the question: what can serve as such a correlation? It is one thing to seize and decry murders being described as “unfortunate incidents” by party spokespersons and ministers, but something very different to provide a positive framework to explain violence in the name of religion. Lest one miss it, Indian intellectuals do have an ‘explanation’ for what is going on: secularism is in danger.

Once upon a time, this served as an explanation. It is doubtful if it serves that purpose today. The content of secularism, the debasement of the expression—if not its practice in India—is a well-known theme that has been explored extensively. The debate on the subject—from the days before Independence to the criticism mounted by Ashis Nandy and TN Madan—has looked at the substantive meaning of secularism and its shortcomings. Any idea, however esoteric it may be, does not stand alone: it has a lineage and a time in which it thrives. Take away its ‘ecosystem’, and the idea will wither away. In the history of ideas, this is a well-known phenomenon. Fabian socialism was the product of a certain period in Britain’s history. Similarly, Marxism as a political force owed its existence as a viable ideology to the many socialist revolutions in the 20th century. These, and other ideas, don’t hold the centre stage now; today they occupy respectable spectator seats.

That is the fate of secularism in India as well. Its heyday was the period from 1965 to 1980 when political centrism was dominant. Much of this had to do with the arithmetic that was necessary to win elections nationally. At the state-level one could pander to sectional interests even back then, as Congress losses in the 1967 elections in many states showed. But at the national level one had to balance out a number of constituencies: rich farmers versus big business; the middle-class against regional interests; and the core of minorities against the huge mass of ‘Hindus’ in Northern India. If this was not sufficiently complex, then the cross-caste and cross-regional appeal of these identities had to be considered.

It is against this background that one must see why certain political ideas thrived while others did not. It is not surprising that the economic liberalism of Swatantra Party withered on the vine while Congress’ steel-plant socialism cruised on smoothly. Similarly, Hindu conservatism did not stand a chance against an all-embracing ‘secularism’. Both ideas— socialism and secularism—owed much to the political calculations and electoral arithmetic of that time.

The high tide for these ideas came precisely at that moment when political centrism experienced its worst crisis and democracy touched its nadir, during the Emergency. It was at that moment the words ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ were inked into the Constitution itself. A reading of the Statement of Objects and Reasons to the 42nd amendment—that inserted these words in the Preamble—and the voices raised by intellectuals today are virtually indistinguishable in their objectives: furthering the high ideals of secularism and socialism. The only, rather inconvenient, difference being that Indian democracy is far more robust today, cheerfully accepting even the most outrageous arguments about the spread of intolerance in the country.

From 1980 onwards, these ideas entered a stasis. With the result that socialism is now almost extinct. Secularism needs to shed its historical baggage as an idea used to legitimise centrism. As an ideal, it is certainly worth cherishing; as a practice, it needs reformulation.

It is this aspect of secularism’s evolution as an idea that the crop of protestors today refuse to address. The blame for this rests squarely on intellectuals. It will be facile to say that the material interests of this class—government patronage—are solely responsible for their cussedness. There is no doubt that the Narendra Modi Government’s refusal to ‘engage’ with this class threatens these interests but there are strong structural reasons for the inability of our intellectual class to re-appraise political ideas.

India’s intellectuals—as compared with their peers in, for example, the US—have played an exclusively ideological function with little or no scope for involvement in the running of the country. In America, it is possible for a Henry Kissinger or a Condoleezza Rice to become Secretary of State. The shuffling of academics and think-tank intellectuals between governments has been a routine feature under most US presidents since the last century. This experience of dealing with the day- to-day problems of one’s country is an experience that cannot be substituted with even the most careful thinking about practical problems. In the US—where a fierce polarisation exists between the two parties that run the country—this has created a class whose judgement is tempered by a much closer engagement with reality. There is no doubt that intellectuals serve ideological purposes everywhere, but in India this is the sole task handed to them. This has been accepted without question in a fashion that puts even colonial obsequiousness to shame.

The results are obvious. Clinging to outdated concepts while economic and political plates of the country have shifted tectonically over the last quarter century is the most important, and glaring, instance of obstinacy. An inbred intellectual culture leading to sterile analysis is another outcome. Individual comparisons are invidious and perhaps even unfair. In the din of incoherence that has accompanied the ‘debate’ on intolerance; the most reasonable statement by an Indian intellectual has come from the historian Romila Thapar in the form of a book based on a lecture: The Public Intellectual in India (2015). The format of the book—with Thapar as a lecturer in conversation with five panelists—superficially resembles the Tanner Lectures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. In the Tanner Lectures, a degree of vibrancy and honesty always prevails. If an Antonin Scalia is called to speak on Originalism (1995), one respondent is a Ronald Dworkin, providing a spirited riposte; If a Frans de Waal builds a case for ending moral anthropocentrism (2003), no less than a Christine Korsgaard takes the mantle of defending human distinctiveness. In Thapar’s case, all five respondents merely amplified what she said, turning the event into nothing more than an echo chamber. Substantively, it is painful to compare The Public Intellectual in India with a work that comes closest to its spirit: John Rawls’ The Idea of Public Reason Revisited (published along with The Law of Peoples, Harvard University Press, 2001).

All this is baneful for India. On the one hand, technology has administered a sort of ‘supply shock’ to politics. Politicians can now reach out to voters through Twitter and Facebook, making centrism a relic of a technology- deprived age; electoral campaigns are managed in backrooms where managers tell politicians what to do and not the other way round. All this is happening even as firestorms rage on Twitter. On the other hand, intellectuals have audiences that are shrinking by the year. So when Modi is advised to ‘engage’ with intellectuals, it is not surprising that the advice is politely ignored. The intellectual is in a recess; the campaign manager is hyperactive.

It is natural that there should be slippage from rationality in this vortex. Careful historians end up writing op-eds that celebrate the return of a convicted politician to Bihar’s political firmament; Writers with impeccable conservative-leanings engage in intellectual gymnastics at such speed that their gait—intellectual or otherwise—appears perfectly normal. A notch above mere writing, one where substantial interests are involved, careful think-tankers can switch their political outlook almost overnight. Between the two classes—op-ed-mongers and policy wonks—it is the inability of the latter to distinguish between reality and mere noise that is disquieting. In an intellectual milieu forged in India’s centrist age, this should not be surprising.

Twitter cannot match careful intellectual deliberation. The emphasis has to be distributed over all three words of the last expression. But that is not something that can be dictated by politicians. The gauntlet has to be picked up by intellectuals themselves. There is reason to doubt if that will happen.