Open Essay

In the Echo Chamber of Tolerance

TCA Srinivasa Raghavan is a senior journalist and columnist. He is the author of Dialogue of the Deaf: The Government and the RBI
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Has India become a wonderland where Mad Hatters rule the political roost?

Back in 1988, after a difference of opinion I had with the editor of The Indian Express for which I was then working, I applied for a Reuters Fellowship to Oxford. The essay that accompanied my application argued that India had become less liberal and that this tendency would persist. Reuters rejected my application but Neville Maxwell, who ran the programme, decided to offer me a place for a year. It is startling to find that almost 30 years later, the misgiving I had then still persists. We are back to arguing the same points now as we saw during the largely silly ‘debate’ in Parliament. The only difference between the 1980s and now is that the debate is more vociferous and less informed now. We have to thank TV, which thrives on vapidity, for that.

Having watched the debate to see how our ‘leaders’ view the problem, I think five simple facts need to be kept in view while deciding if India—as a whole, all 1.2 billion of us plus the Constitution, the Judiciary, the bureaucracy, Parliament and everything besides—has become less ‘tolerant’. Let us do this by focussing on politics, provocations, logic and interpretation.

Empirical evidence cited by Siddharth Singh (‘The Intolerance Myth’, 27 November 2015) in this magazine suggests India has not changed. But educated Indians prefer perceptions to data, prejudice to precept and hype to honesty. I would even venture to suggest that the more educated they are, the more their minds get closed. It is a variation on what RK Narayan once said about bad taste, that it is most visible in people who think they know best. This applies equally to the Left, Right and the Centre and, amongst them, to the learned as well as the ignorant.

The first of the five facts we need to bear in mind while judging India, no less, is that the blanket accusation is not an offensive strategy; it is a defensive one. It is the desperate political ploy of a politician whose brains do not match his bravado, or his acumen, his audacity. He is the hereditary boss of a pathetic bunch of self-seeking carpetbaggers, several of whom have amassed obscene amounts of wealth. In the 13 years this boss has been in politics, he has not managed to win a single election. Yet he is feted by his followers as a gift to India from our own holy trinity, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. But why, if India has become intolerant, tolerate this fellow who has lived off the taxpayer for all his 45 long and vacuous years? Who pays his bills?

Second, by extension, it’s the effort of the rump he leads in Parliament to divide the country over non-issues in the forlorn hope that, three-and-a-half years from now, this will help increase its seats in the Lok Sabha from 44 to 272. The orchestrated defence of India’s Muslims is a part of that effort. It has been in place since 2003. But for Muslims to go back to voting for the Congress, pigs will have to grow wings first. Their plight is local where the Congress does not exist anymore.

Third, it helps distract people from the corruption of his party, some of it very near or at the top of its totem pole. ‘You branded us corrupt so we will brand you as communally intolerant, so there!’ But triumph in the face of folly merely looks silly, not heroic, and contrived, not spontaneous.

Fourth, it supplies a handy tool to negotiate with the Government on issues that range from the national to the personal, from agreeing to the GST to cases in court. ‘We will block legislation over this issue in this session of Parliament unless you stop bringing us to book over our misdeeds.’ But tails manage to wag the dog not because the dog is intolerant but because it is tolerant.

Last, it gives the electronic media one more chance to make some (more) money via feigned anger and egregious expostulation. Poorly educated TV anchors with laughable college degrees, some even from Oxford—though happily none from Cambridge—have been given a licence to traduce an entire people. This, if you ask me, is a cause for real worry. But the media will sort itself out.

The Prime Minister, his party and its cohorts are not blameless, however. They invite trouble on a weekly basis if not sometimes on a daily basis. If it’s not Mohan Bhagwat, head of the RSS, it is some lowly MLA who sounds off on women, Muslims, Christians, Pakistan and whatever takes his fancy. No topic is too complicated or too simple to attract these persistent inanities. And, as though speech were not enough to create a sense of foreboding in people who, even if they are prejudiced, are clearly intelligent, there are the actions. Oh, the actions, you know—bans, beatings, threats, as if India is run by a mafia and not by elected governments, no matter how incompetent.

Loyalty to the Prime Minister—whose tastes in the arts would be limited to the crude, if not in their simplicity, and in the sciences, devoid of common sense—has become, if not the only, the most important criterion for appointments to jobs that require both sensitivity and sensibility. Narendra Modi hasn’t yet reached the hyperbolic heights of Lyndon Johnson, who once said of Hubert Humphrey, “I want him to kiss my arse in Macy’s window at noon, and say it smells of roses.” But he is getting there. Yes, he is getting there.

His party meanwhile thinks it is enough to be (more-or-less) free of big ticket corruption and the masses will sleep easy at night. It hardly occurs to the BJP that having religion as its political and social identifier necessarily posits it against other religions. It thinks all India needs for greatness is for each Indian to be a good Hindu, not a good Indian. It defines Indianness by Hinduness, which to it is a condition both necessary and sufficient. That this may seem intolerant to adherents of other religions and even to Hindus who argumentatively have a different view of their culture, doesn’t occur to it. So from ‘Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain’ in the 1980s, it has now become ‘Hum sab Hindu hain. Aap bhi Maulvi sahib, et tu padre.’

IN THE 1970S, the Black Panthers in the US used to say to Blacks who wanted to adopt more peaceful methods: ‘You either belong to the problem or to the solution. If you belong to the solution join us; if you belong to the problem, we will take care of you.’ That, pretty much, is the BJP’s belief system and when people point out this is scary, it looks as surprised as a small baby who has farted and got scared. Only, the BJP, instead of being scared, becomes even more belligerent, which makes it look even more intolerant of other religions.

The issue, however, is not of intolerance, though that is a good label to paste on its back. India is as tolerant or intolerant as it ever was. The issue is confusion. The BJP is a party now lorded over by a man whose perceptions of grey, in comparison with the previous Prime Minister that the BJP supplied, are rarely in evidence. His black and white, good or bad, this or that approach to governance makes people wonder: is this guy speaking the truth when he says we all need to live peacefully? Or is it just a way of getting what he wants at the moment?

His speeches are beguiling and they leave you mesmerised; but his silences leave you bemused and morose. His flights of fancy when he does speak would have bested Warne and Murli, Bedi and Prasanna, Gibbs and Grimmet. As the weeks go by, though, he will find that the wicket is getting flatter, and try as he might, flight by itself isn’t enough any longer; he needs to turn the ball and that, as Bihar showed, just ain’t happening.

In a democracy, when people feel unsure about what may happen to them if they say something, they protest. And they do so in groups rather than individually because that way they feel safe as they can’t be singled out by the foot soldiers of the mafia. Aamir Khan has spoken out on his own and been targeted and told to go to Pakistan. The writers who returned their awards did so singly but in quick succession, which, for all practical purposes, turned them into a group. No goon has gone after them, nor have they been asked to go somewhere else to live. Which brings up Muslims again: what’s this nonsense of their constantly being asked to go to Pakistan?

It is almost 70 years since Partition and even then it was mostly Punjabis and Bengalis who were affected by it. Indian Punjab hardly has any Muslims left (though many Bangladeshis are now resident in Indian Bengal). How can you ask a Tamil or an Oriya or a Marathi or a Telugu Muslim to go to Pakistan whose culture is Punjabi but whose sanskaras have become Uttar Pradeshi after 1947? And yet the mob—as yet thankfully small—from time to time gets up on its hind legs and begins to bray.

In the field of logic, this is called the Fallacy of Composition. It happens when you infer that something is true of the whole from the fact that it is true of a part of the whole. It is like saying the whole basket of apples is bad because you found one rotten apple in it. It is the exact counterpart of what the Congress is doing: just because some Indians are intolerant, the Congress is alleging that all of India (except itself) has become intolerant. In the 1980s, however, it had no difficulty in targeting Sikhs.

But let us leave the nutters and the Opposition aside. What does the Government think about protests and protestors? An effort is being made even by some people with a respectable intellectual provenance but who are loyal to the Prime Minister that it is not the BJP or Sangh Parivar that is in the cross-hairs of the protestors, it is the Prime Minister himself.

Well, two questions then: so what if the Prime Minister is being held to account, and what’s wrong with protesting in a democracy if someone says ‘You can’t eat this’, ‘You can’t say that’ and ‘You can’t do all of that either.’ When did Hinduism become a proscriptive culture? What happened to ‘Sarve bhavantu sukhinah, sarve santu niramayah, sarve bhadrani pasyantu’ etcetera? Does ‘sarve’ mean all humans or just Hindus? If so, is the Parivar evolving a Hindu version of Islam’s kaafirs and Judaism’s kofers? Will such an idea of Ahl al-Kitab work for Hinduism which draws inspiration from over 200 such books? Is the Gayatri Mantra to become Hinduism’s answer to the Lord’s Prayer? How can a way of life as richly textured as Hinduism be reduced to a single book and a single prayer?

In the 68 years that India has been in independent, constitutional existence, this debate has to be the most pointless one it has ever seen. It’s the creation of an effete ‘leader’ charged with reviving a dead party. Other foolish politicians, this time from the Sangh Parivar, have given him a handle to beat them with. He is using the Parliament’s floor to prove he can become the next Prime Minister. The current Prime Minister doesn’t take him or his party seriously at all and has become complacent. Nevertheless, he oscillates between jubilation and self pity.

The majority of Indians, however, are indifferent. They have other things to worry about. But some are wondering if India has become a wonderland where Mad Hatters rule the political roost.