Open Essay

An Indian History of Tolerance

Faisal Devji is reader in Indian History and Fellow of St Antony College at the University of Oxford, where he is also director of the Asian Studies Centre
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Between the secular and the civilisational

During a lecture some years ago in Vienna, the philosopher Charles Taylor remarked upon the fact that tolerance seems to have become a bad word in our day. This might be the case, he suggested, because it often implies a hierarchical and majoritarian form of sufferance, rather than the full and equal recognition of difference that democracy demands. In phrases like ‘zero tolerance’, for example, we see the way in which a word that had once been a liberal virtue, has come now to represent a vice so great as to put liberalism itself at risk, with everything from veils in Paris to miniskirts in Riyadh and sometimes even Bengaluru capable of becoming intolerable.

The irony of this situation, argued Taylor, is that while such criticism of tolerance emerged among intellectuals on the Left, it has since come to characterise politics on the Right, as if to show how intertwined opponents in a parliamentary system can be. For ‘zero tolerance’ is a policy as valid for juvenile rape in Delhi as it is for the lynching of those who eat meat in Dadri. Tolerance presents a problem for our lexicon, in Taylor’s view, because it tends to imply a degree of contempt for those whose differences we must suffer. This is why those advocating it are often berated, especially by left-wing critics, for their lack of a more fulsome commitment to equality.

And yet the attempt to eliminate not just hierarchy, but also contempt from our social and political relations, ends up enforcing agreement upon us all. With its roots in the ideological requirements of communism as much as fascism, such an injunction to agreement, including ‘political correctness’ on campuses, turns dissent into treachery across the political spectrum. This is why Charles Taylor ended his lecture in Vienna by calling for the revival of tolerance precisely as a form of contempt, one that precludes agreement, even as an ideal, by acknowledging the necessity of dislike and enmity in all social and political relations. He would in other words recover the concept’s liberal history.

In India the history of tolerance overlaps with but is also quite different from that of liberalism in the West; for one thing, it goes well beyond the desire for agreement to manifest itself as a call for love. This is why its partisans complain of ‘hurt sentiments’ when their beliefs, practices or prophet are insulted, rather than confining themselves to arguments based simply on majoritarian power, minority rights or religious dogma. While it tends to be dismissed as mere rhetoric, the fact that the language of hatred in India happens to be expressed in the vocabulary of love is a significant phenomenon.

To place Hindus and Muslims in the hierarchical relationship of elder to younger brother, for example, as during the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, is to conceive of them as intimates who, for this very reason, are capable of betraying each other. This is not true of racial and other forms of intolerance in Euro- American societies, where demands for respect tend to be couched in straightforwardly juridical if not supremacist terms. It is some version of justice or right as a liberal idea that has traction in the West, not the vocabulary of kinship and love that we shall see characterises both ‘intolerance’ and non-violence in India.

Indeed it is possible to argue that those—rightly or wrongly —accused of intolerance in India have always used the vocabulary of brotherly love to describe their enemies. In some cases this love even becomes erotic, such as when Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, in his book Essentials of Hindutva, described the history of Hindu-Muslim relations by invoking Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. His rival, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, thought that this persistent if unequal vocabulary of love provided the basis to convert hatred into its opposite.

In his turn, the Mahatma’s own rival, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was convinced of exactly the opposite, arguing that it was the fraternal intimacy between these communities that made for the violence of betrayal. His solution was eventually to partition their common home as any disputed paternal inheritance might be, so as to turn brothers joined in a blood feud into friends bound together by contract. But of course this turned out to be no solution at all.

The language of love, it is important to note, characterises only communal relations, and not those of caste. For as Gandhi himself pointed out, Hindus and Muslims were related as equals and so could be defined by mitrata or friendship, while upper and lower castes had to be related by seva or mutual service, given their unequal histories. This difference can be observed even today, in the way in which the categories of tolerance and intolerance are deployed mostly to describe religious or communal rather than caste relations. The current debate over ‘intolerance’, then, deals largely with attacks on rationalist writers who allegedly impugn Hinduism or Muslims who are suspected of transporting, killing or consuming cows. There is no public ‘controversy’ over caste atrocities, which might nevertheless be more frequent and characterise all religious groups in the country.

As a modern concept, tolerance has always referred to the liberal order emerging from Europe’s wars of religion. And its English usage in particular names not an individual virtue so much as an institutional effect. The philosopher John Locke, for instance, argued that tolerance had to be produced by ordering society in such a way as to attach men to selfish interests rather than base passions or even noble ideals. Such interests were to be defined by property or possessions more generally, which therefore constituted the principle of a social order guaranteed by states that enforced its ownership and exchange through contract.

Even if successfully implemented, of course, such an order can never be complete, and gives rise to its own forms of conflict, particularly that of class. And if class as opposed to caste or community has never dominated conflict in India, this is because property, in the view of many Indian thinkers since colonial times, does not determine social relations there. In the absence of capitalism as the dominant mode of production represented by bourgeois society, this meant that Indian interests could only be partial ones, created through the necessarily limited agency of the Raj.

Gandhi described the colonial state’s efforts to produce interests as a strategy of divide and rule, in which the Raj constituted itself as a supposedly neutral arbiter between religious and other groups, handing out privileges like separate electorates that took the place of property. But since this process remained confined to a very small segment of India’s population, it was not interest but passions and ideals that he thought defined social relations there. The problem was how to convert this intimate language of love and hate into a source of stability and non-violence. Unlike the Mahatma, who thought interest was a bad principle for social relations even if it were possible in India, Savarkar and Jinnah sought to address the problem that passions and ideals posed political life by subordinating them to interests, if only by making the nation state into a kind of communal property. But the most successful effort along these lines was no doubt that of BR Ambedkar, who after independence turned Dalits into an interest group by investing them with property in the form of reservations.

If property and so interests do not fully define social relations in India, which are frequently dominated by what the old-fashioned terminology of political thought calls passions and ideals, then tolerance cannot exist as the institutional consequence of a liberal order. Might it therefore remain a personal virtue to be inculcated like traditional virtues more generally? This is indeed how tolerance is often spoken about, but there is also another and contradictory way in which the category can be conceived, which is as a civilisational inheritance.

Advocates of Hinduism and Islam have from the 19th century sought to refute European criticism of their religions by claiming that they were in fact inherently virtuous in comparison with Christianity or at least Western civilisation. While Muslim apologists boasted about the egalitarianism of their faith, with its purported lack of racial and other hierarchies, at least among believers, Hindus tended to broadcast the tolerance of theirs, with its acceptance of diversity and difference. Yet both these virtues were also linked to unequal and even violent relations of other kinds, whether based on caste or sect, gender or genealogy.

In the various reform movements that sought to cleanse Hinduism and Islam of their alleged and embarrassing accretions during the colonial period, virtues such as tolerance and egalitarianism were exhibited more as medals won in a competition with other faiths than as ideals to be inculcated individually. While men like the Mahatma, then, did try to make tolerance into a personal and so genuine virtue in traditional terms, for many others it became a mere label if not a way of idealising the reality of social hierarchy as a respect for difference.

Insofar as tolerance was linked to the logic of caste, in Ambedkar’s view, it was not simply a virtue born out of oppressive necessity, but one that was also enthralled by the apparently conquering egalitarianism of Islam. The only way in which Hinduism could come together as a unity, he thought, was in paradoxically imitating Islam if only by taking it for an enemy. But if it was the communal riot that made for Hindu unity, as Ambedkar argued, then tolerance had to be sacrificed to power at least in the initial instance, serving therefore as a most ambiguous and even posthumous ideal.

Here, surely, is an example of the intimate relations that mark ‘intolerance’ as the coming together of love and hate in India. Now a polytheistic religion, of course, can easily tolerate difference, generally by including it within a hierarchical order, as the Buddha was eventually made into an avatar of Vishnu. And though such a procedure is not unknown to Islam in India, with some Ismailis, for instance, also seeing Ali as an incarnation of Vishnu, monotheism has more difficulty with such inclusion. At most it can absorb religious difference by destroying its externality and spiritualising it. This is why wine, idols and a feminine deity, all proscribed in Islam, have been obsessively invoked even in Muslim religious culture.

Despite the many episodes of violence that marked religious relations in India, not just Hindu and Muslim, but also Buddhist, Jain, Christian and Sikh, there was never an attempt by one of them to expel or entirely exterminate another, at least when compared to Europe’s relations with Jews and heretics or her wars of religion. And yet unlike the way in which Europe eventually institutionalised tolerance, India’s religious history has rarely figured in her constitutional development and therefore remains lost to political thought there. At most, Islamist thinkers sought to revive a juridical and highly discriminatory vision of tolerance drawn not from history but scripture.

In the case of both of India’s great religious traditions, then, but especially that of Hinduism, tolerance came to be seen as part of a civilisational inheritance, rather than the product of a political order or even as a moral ideal. Nationalists like Jawaharlal Nehru emphasised the civilisational character of Indian tolerance in a way that didn’t essentially differ from Savarkar’s formulation, by making the case that India included and transformed all those who came within her ambit, with the Mughal Emperor Akbar and his great-grandson Dara Shikoh seen by both men as the greatest examples of this process.

But Nehru, of course, didn’t stop at lauding tolerance as a distinctive trait of Indian civilisation. In good liberal fashion, he went on to give it a political reality through secularism as a constitutional provision. In many ways, this served to formalise the colonial state’s politics of religious neutrality, which is why the same accusations of partisanship to one or another community continue being made against its post-colonial successor. But the latter also engaged with religion in a much more active way, as the political philosopher Rajeev Bhargava has argued. For while the Raj had been answerable only indirectly to Indians, and relied upon the support of a few groups of elites, the state in Independent India is much more sensitive to public opinion and even more so to popular mobilisation.

In this new and vastly expanded democratic context, religious identities are ever more being pressed into interests, at least rhetorically, as when certain castes or communities are described as vote banks, or special interests to use the equivalent American term of opprobrium. Whether or not they represent such captive constituencies, it is noteworthy how the good liberal category of interest is subjected to criticism here, as if it runs the risk of undoing the language of love that we have seen characterises ‘intolerance’ as much as non-violence. And yet secularism itself has become an impregnable virtue, with nobody in India, barring some intellectuals like Ashis Nandy, willing to abandon it.

Unlike large parts of the Muslim world, everyone in India professes to be secular, so that even Hindu nationalists will deride their opponents for being ‘pseudo-secular’. What people mean by the term differs, of course, with one person’s conception of minority rights seen by another as unjustified privilege. Yet the major criticism of Nehru’s constitutional secularism remains the same as in colonial times. Jinnah, for instance, had contended that by assuming a political character, Hindus and Muslims constituted a permanent majority and minority. And in so doing they prevented the emergence of interests in the liberal sense, where the shifting fortunes of political categories formed on class and other lines made democracy possible by allowing a minority to become a majority.

It was because he thought that Hindus and Muslims represented permanent and so undemocratic majorities and minorities that Jinnah had advocated the country’s partition, which he thought would cut minorities down to size in both its successor states and so undo the need for a permanent communal majority as well. Some version of Jinnah’s argument continues to define Hindu nationalism in particular, for which the majority has lost its political integrity due to its very size and therefore fragmentation among different parties, while it is the minority that supposedly remains an undemocratic factor in Indian politics, by preventing the emergence of truly liberal interests there. What remains unclear is whether the majority should mimic this minority or if the latter should dissolve itself in the former.

It should now be clear that tolerance as a liberal category has for a long time now been problematised in India by a debate about the possibility of interest in a society defined more by caste and religious identities than property. Indeed the language of ‘intolerance’ is itself torn between the desire for and repudiation of interest, sharing as it does the focus on love that also characterised Gandhi’s vision of non-violence. Disingenuous or not, it is important to recognise how such narratives define the conversation on intolerance. Peculiar about its latest manifestation, however, is that secularism has altogether dropped out of the picture.

It was the literary historian Anjali Arondekar who, at the Goa Arts and Literature Festival a few weeks ago, brought this to my notice. The debate over ‘intolerance’ today, she pointed out, doesn’t invoke secularism or a liberal order at all. It is as if tolerance has become a purely civilisational attribute, and in particular a Hindu one, that recent incidents of violence against rationalists or Muslims appear to betray. And for the moment Muslim forms of intolerance are irrelevant, not least because very few people outside the circle of believers today consider that religion to be defined by tolerance in the first place. When they do occur, therefore, Muslim forms of intolerance aren’t seen to betray the faith. Does the absence of secularism and its constitutional provisions from the debate on intolerance over the last many months indicate a rejection of interest politics, given its failure to capture public opinion on either side of the issue? Or does the focus on tolerance as a civilisational trait, and perhaps even a moral virtue, suggest a revival of Gandhian themes having to do with the making of an ethical subject? Perhaps the shift is not a decisive one, and merely illustrates the long-standing ambivalence of Indians over the meaning of tolerance.