By Gorki Bora
Edited by Madhavi Roy, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
When I watch news these days, I see a recent spate in the instances of vituperative comments and speeches. I hear new words like ‘Ramzadas’. I learn of the public celebration of Godse’s birth anniversary. You can sympathize with the man, but if only out of courtesy to the Mahatma, why not keep it confined to the private? I watch the sudden urgency for “reconversions” and the need to celebrate a “Good Governance” day on the 25th of December. I hear threats of impending terror attacks.
These are just a few examples that reflect the increasing culture of intolerance in our society. People are becoming more and more rigid in their beliefs and less open to alternative ideas. I can vouch for the fact that this trend bothers a lot of people around us but there are an equal number of people, give or take a few, even educated and informed people like us, who have been swept under this tide of intolerance. You can witness the restlessness within people, their yearning for quick results and their strong sense of ‘identity’. Such strong affinity based on ‘identity’ is surely something of a new phenomenon.
People have started viewing themselves increasingly on the basis of their position in the society- on the basis of religion, caste/sect or class. They sense a pervasive conflict between their interests and the interests of ‘others’. Our politicians, always hungry for votes, have quietly manipulated these differences to suit their interests. Are the people at the helm of societal affairs responsible for this trend of intolerance? Or are they just reaping the fruits of intolerance? These questions are similar to the one about which came first- the egg or the chicken. Nonetheless, this question does not diminish the significance of this feature of our time.
Our Constitution proudly proclaims us to be a ‘secular republic’. While scholars like TN Madan and Ashis Nandy blame Nehru for copying an alien Western model of secularism in India, there are points of departure in the secularism that our Constitution envisaged, as compared to that of its Western counterparts. The Constitution did not separate state and religion as two isolated spheres, rather made provisions for the state to interfere in matters of social justice, even if that meant meddling with religious traditions. This holds true for provisions against untouchability and the favourable provisions for minorities. However, theory and practice do not always coincide. This laudable thought behind the Constitution soon faded away. What survived was a skewed notion of secularism, contested and congratulated, which also aided the development of intolerance in our society.
Nandy and Madan were right to say that communalism emerged as a by-product of secularism in India. Secularism made the state powerful because it was supposed to be a neutral arbiter in a highly diverse nation. In the name of maintaining stability and aiding development, the state started doling out freebies. Concessions handed out to ‘minorities and the disadvantaged’, in the name of parity, fuelled the latent aspirations of those who could not enjoy these benefits. They started resenting these favours and asserting their own identities. It is human nature to cling to the closest identity-based grouping when pitted against another group. The same happened with anti-reservation and Hindu right groups in India. Appeasement of a certain community, especially to serve the ends of vote bank politics, enraged quite a few.
The Hindu right talked of shunning ‘pseudo-secularism’ and replace it with ‘positive secularism’, another term for what people call Hindu ‘majoritarianism’. While ‘pseudo-secularism’ had its drawbacks, ‘positive secularism’ does not appear to be a panacea either.
People need to change their mind-set. People need to be more welcoming of different ideas and traditions and for those special provisions which are a prerequisite for sustaining us as a nation. At the same time, those at the receiving end of the benefits must understand what is necessary and where to draw the line. Did the Mahatma not say, that there is enough to satisfy need but not greed? The politicians must realize that this nation cannot forgo religion in trying to create a secular polity and therefore they must act prudently while dealing with the desires of different communities. We have seen the fate of nations whose society was based on the culture of intolerance. They ended up in self-destruct mode. We need to learn from their mistakes and then move forth to ensure our survival.