The Autumn of Intolerance in India: A Global Contemporary Historical Analysis


As a proud Indian who holds several beliefs which are exact opposite of the majoritarian views, I have a strong urge to speak out in the debate on “intolerance” raging in our country and since my training has been in the field of history, I decided to use it in making my arguments.

Let me start this article by saying that I would like to agree with the leader of the “Tolerant India” movement Anupam Kher who said that India is the most tolerant country in the world[i]. If the case was otherwise then the official language of New Mexico and Arizona in the US would have been Spanish and those of Kerala and Mizoram would have been Hindi. But it is not so. I have divided this article into 4 parts, in the first part I use a metaphor to show why the above mentioned assertion from the “tolerant India” campaigners is from a wrong perspective and hence not applicable to the present day “intolerance” debate in India. In the next two parts I use examples from contemporary US and European history respectively to show the importance of tolerance and in the final section I present what needs to be done to carry forward this current discussion on “tolerance”.

Part 1- A Metaphor

If both you and your friend is served tea and you realise that your tea has more sugar than your friend’s, an important question to ask would be whether that amount will be sufficient for you or not? Your neighbour might be a diabetic patient who may not even need sugar or he might be a tea connoisseur who looks down on people consuming sugar with tea.

The US enlarged itself from being just 13 small colonies of the British Empire to being the 3rd largest country in the world (by area). It also first became the biggest economy in the Americas and then the biggest economy in the world. But while the US achieved these great feats it also, at the same time committed the genocide of the Native American people, practiced slavery and did not even give basic political rights like voting rights to a large sections of its citizenry till the 1960s! But on the other hand the dreams of forming a strong united and a large Indian nation was shattered even before it could be conceived via the actions and events surrounding the partition of 1947. In short, the partition took place because two groups of people were not tolerant of each other’s demands. This in itself was a stark warning from history to what intolerant behaviour could results in because Indians could and also often have divided themselves into many more than just two groups of people like for example into North Indians and South Indians, into upper castes and lower castes; even divisions which could be conceived as largely benign outside India like vegetarians and non-vegetarians has resulted in bloodshed in India.

So, it will be safe to conclude here that the US is like the diabetic patient who did not need/want sugar in its tea while India just cannot do without sugar in its tea of tolerance. This shows that the dangers posed by intolerance to the very existence of India will not get alleviated by just asserting or showing that India is more tolerant than X or Y country.

Part 2- Other comparisons with the US

Another reason which troubles me in this intolerance debate when I compare India to the US is the defeat of the US at the hands of religious fundamentalists. Here, I am not referring to the factors inside US like the climate change deniers or Planned Parenthood attackers but specifically to the USA’s “war on terror”.  Religious fundamentalism has been recognised as the root cause for both the current “intolerance” debate in India and also the “terrorism” that USA fought against in their “global war against terror”. It is obvious that the only war in US history which could be compared with their “war on terrorism” is the “Cold War”, because both were primarily ideological since there is a limit to which you can fight militarily against abstract concepts. But if we consider all the important parameters by which the US is supposed to have won the Cold War, it immediately becomes clear that using the same parameters the US seems to come out in the losing side in the “War against terrorism”.

There are two basic reasons why the US considers it won the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Firstly, because at the end of the Cold War the Soviet Union became very weak and broke up into numerous parts and secondly because its primary successor country-Russia seems to be more agreeable to the US policies like democracy and free trade.

Being more agreeable to the victor has been a time tested notion which underlies the phenomenon of signing treaties at the end of wars. For example, at the end of the Second World War- Japan “agreed” with the US and adopted a pacifist constitution and at the end of the First World War, Germany “agreed” to the victors’ “rent-seeking” conditions.

Let us now consider, what has happened after 14 years of the US having declared war on terrorism. Its main target Al-Qaeda just like US’s former enemy broke up but unlike its former enemy did not become weaker. Now they have thousands of recruits instead of just 100s, and have spread in countries everywhere from West Africa to China. Additionally some of the groups which broke off from the Al Qaeda like the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant or ISIL are now considered to be even bigger and more powerful than Al Qaeda.

Now let us look at the “agreement” part. Which party has agreed more with the other? Have the groups like Al Qaeda and ISIL moderated their stand and agreed to recognise some basic human rights? Absolutely Not. But on the other hand what has the United States done? It enacted laws like the Patriot Acts which violate the basic rights of its citizens, started holding prisoners indefinitely, without any chance of them standing trail for their crimes, used wide spread physical and mental torture on prisoners to acquire information,  refused to apply the rules of Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War which they justified by calling these prisoners “terrorists”, killed its own citizens after holding secret trails, put millions of their own citizens, not even accused of any crimes under surveillance. So, it is quite clear that the US has agreed with religious fundamentalists and has decided that the concept of “human rights” might have been overhyped. This is the reason why, I have concluded that the US has lost its war against religious fundamentalism.

The fact that the country with the most powerful military and economy in the world, and which had a much better record in protecting human rights than India, could lose its war against religious fundamentalism, should send alarm bells ringing here in our country. Some people might try to draw a distinction between Islamic extremism and extremism based on other kinds of religions. But that would be a worthless exercise. Just take the last two years for example; both Hindu extremists and Muslim extremist have killed atheists in India and Bangladesh respectively. Buddhist extremists have killed Muslims in Burma, and Christian extremist have killed Sikhs in the US. People may raise doubt on the existence of mass intolerance in our society but what cannot be denied is the presence of religious extremism. Now use this point as a counterfactual- is it possible to have a tolerant society which is rife with religious extremism?  Basic logic says no. Now, to reiterate a point already made above- as history has shown the US can afford to lose its battle against intolerance but India cannot.

Part 3 Comparisons with the EU

Let us now look at contemporary European history. The only way the European leaders want people in Europe and from outside to look at present day European values and institutions are from a legal perspective primarily because it makes them look good. For example, the narrative surrounding the right to free speech in Europe is always presented in a manner which shows the European countries protecting this freedom simply because it is the right thing to do under their liberal democratic framework.

But my studies into European History has made me realise that it is important to look for the intentions behind the formation of these values or institutions, hence a historical perspective is also required. So, what were the “intentions” behind the Europeans standing so firmly behind the right to free speech and expression? The answer: to stop the deadliest religious conflict in the history of mankind- the Thirty Years War. Just to put this into perspective one-third of the entire German population was wiped out in this war. This is more per capita deaths than what Germany faced in both the First World War and the Second World War. But this background has been totally forgotten in India. Here whenever there is a discussion on Article 19 (freedom of speech) of Part 3 (Fundamental Rights) of the Indian Constitution in relation to 153 A and 295 A of the Indian Penal code – which basically deals with “hurting religious sentiments”, the proponents of both sides tend to isolate these two concepts and not realise that not only that they are joined in the hips but also evolved from one another. But this is a discussion for another time, what is important for this article and for understanding my next paragraphs is to realise that the intentions behind the formation of European values and institutions might be very different from what its present day interpretation might is.

A constantly evolving European institution is the European Union. This evolution has involved a constant tug of war between those who would like to see the institutions of the EU grow significantly in power till it becomes something like the Federal States of Europe modelled after the United States of America and those elements who want to stop this from happening by maintaining national sovereignty and giving up as little power as possible to the European Union. For the sake of this article I would only deal with the ideas of the former group.

The “United Europe” brigade has deceived their audience about their intentions regarding transforming Europe into something akin to the setup of the USA but instead their worst kept secret is that they want to make Europe into something like India. But, it will hurt the egos of those OECD countries to admit to the fact that they want to achieve something in the future which a third world country achieved 70 years back. EU becoming something like the US is an impossibility. People in different Europeans countries are linked to their regions by virtue of thousands of years of history not hundreds like in the US. Most people in Europe identify strongly with their own distinctive language and cultural practices which have gradually evolved over a long time, which is also unlike the US. These characteristics of Europe is common only with India for example- our history starts nearly 5000 years back, we have 22 languages recognized by the constitution and I have always said and still maintain that if you stand in any corner of India and move 100 kilometres in any direction you will witness significant cultural differences between people in your point of origin and those in your point of destination.  Give it a try.

It is because of these similarities with India that Europe wants to integrate several characteristics of our Indian way life that we often take for granted like for example- link languages. India does not have an official language but we use English and Hindi as link languages to make communication easier with each other. The Europeans would also like to acquire this characteristic in order to avoid miscommunication and make it easier for Europeans to understand each other better.

One of the greatest achievements of the European Union is supposed to be the free movement of labour within the EU, but this achievement looks threatened due to the current “migrant crisis”. Indians from various states belonging to different cultural-religious and linguistic groups can move freely from one place to another by virtue of Article 19 (1) d of the Part 3 of the Indian Constitution which has given us the freedom of movement since 1949.

During the recent European financial crisis it started to become amply clear that the Europeans would like an Indian style financial administrative structure where there will be only one Central Bank- the European Central Bank (ECB) and each individual national central banks in the different European states would adhere to the limits on borrowing that will be determined by the ECB. India also has a single central bank and Indian states are also under similar restrictions.

Also what became clear during this recent crisis is that the “United Europe” group wants to have a system by financial redistribution so that whenever poorer nations in Europe needed help a united response could be mounted. This thing happens automatically in India due to our constitutional provisions, which lets the central government decide how our finances will be divided based on the recommendations of an independent finance commission which is constituted every five years. Hence, when the central government invests money into poorer states, those funds are actually the surplus proceeds from richer states of India. This issue of helping the poorer members of the Indian family appears to be so obvious that the finance commission reports hardly ever gets any air time in the media discussions. But the issue of taking taxes from richer regions to redistribute it in the poorer regions have acquired such a vicious turn in Europe domestically and internationally that it has not only fuelled separatist tendencies in the rich Catalan region of Spain and Bavaria of Germany but also prevented countries like Finland and the UK from helping out Greece in the last European summit to bail out the Greek economy.

What we need to ask here is what is so attractive about the Indian system that would make such “advanced” countries like those of the Western Europe want to adopt them. What lies beneath such “intentions” of the Europeans? The answer is quite simple and could be summed up in one word-“tolerance”.

Europeans are basically stunned when they see so many different kinds to people living intertwined lives within a particular political boundary with most conflicts being settled peacefully without any mass slaughtering of each other. Yes, one might say that so many thousands of people have died in the decades old insurgencies in Jammu and Kashmir, in the North East or in the Naxalite struggle. But try to look at it from the European perspective. Around 20 years back in a conflict in Eastern Europe between people following different religions and having somewhat different cultural backgrounds resulted in the deaths of around 100000 people in a matter of months. But India has also witness these kinds of violence in its pre democratic modern history- during the partition.  This is why the Balkan War and the partition of India stands as an example and answer for the question- “What will happen to a society devoid of tolerance?”

Sometimes, taking in views from others are important. Indians being able to successfully lead their lives by tolerating and accepting the various differences amongst ourselves is not seen as a sign of weakness by the outside world, but as a sign of great strength which they would like to have. The current debate around the freedom of movement and financial inclusion reforms in Europe also shows the strength of character that the Indians have when it comes to dealing with differences amongst people.

India thus seems to be more tolerant than the European Union as well. But does that mean that it is now time to reduce our tolerance level? Wouldn’t that also mean reducing one of the few the inherent strengths that our nation possesses? If we reduce our tolerance of each other wouldn’t be it a threat to the basic structure of the society? When the death of one Indian soldier in the border is called a “threat to national security”, can you blame someone who calls the murder of a civilian because of his religion and eating practices, a threat to the moral fibre of India? If someone uses basic logic and reason the answers to the questions asked in this paragraph – should be No, Yes, Yes, No.

Part 4 Future of the intolerance debate

As the debate on “tolerance” in the US has shown the final destination of this debate is the “paradox of tolerance”- which is that – if one is intolerant of intolerant behaviour one would be also be practicing intolerance. Till a few days back I was afraid that the debate on tolerance in India will take a long time to reach this paradox but then the Vikram Sampath incident happened and the discussion on tolerance in India officially entered its “final destination”.

Vikram Sampath, an Indian author stepped down after some writers refused to participate in a literary festival that he was helping to organise because he opposed the returning to national awards by authors protesting intolerance in India.

To get an appropriate and brilliant interpretation of what this “paradox of tolerance” mean I would request you to watch Season 6 Episode 14 of South Park titled- “The Death Camp of Tolerance”.

As far as the academic discussion on this paradox is concerned – the importance of a societal mean has been recognised. The narrative is basically that, intolerant views in a society must be tolerated in order to make the society more tolerant but this intolerance must not be allowed to go beyond certain point where it threatens the tolerant society itself. This is very well borne out in the judgements of the US Supreme Court regarding the issues surrounding free speech. According to the US Supreme Court one is allowed to exercise his rights to free speech to any extent he or she wants but is limited only if it threatens the health, life and wellbeing of others. In other words one cannot falsely shout “fire” in a packed movie theatre, one cannot threaten violence or incite violence against others. Also, one does have the rights to produce and distribute pornographic material provided they take care that such materials adhere strictly to the age restriction rules.

Now since the discussion on tolerance has reached the last stage I await it arriving to a similar societal mean as has been 1achieved in the US.




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