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South-Asian societies and their emerging trends of intolerance

South-Asian societies and their emerging trends of intolerance

By Dr Ram Puniyani

Of late, it has been noted that intolerance levels in South Asian countries, particularly Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India have been on the rise. All three countries have seen brutal acts of violence occur on various grounds. Six years ago in Pakistan, Punjab’s Governor, Salman Taseer was murdered on charges of blasphemy. Two years ago in Bangladesh, a number of bloggers articulating their secular voices were also killed.

One may note a distinct pattern, present in all three countries, that is slowly developing.

The regression of societal fundamentals

Over the last three decades in general and the last three years in particular, with the rise of Hindutva in politics, the liberal space is shrinking very rapidly. The environment in the neighbouring countries has subtly been used to justify the violations of the democratic space in India.

Is it fair to attribute this climate of growing intolerance to India’s Hindu majority? That’s too simple a way to put it. The real reason for earlier, a better freedom has been the legacy of the freedom movement and its values being enshrined in our Constitution. The communal forces back then were not as powerful or assertive, so tolerance levels were comparatively higher.

In neighbouring Pakistan, the very foundations have been that of sectarian nationalism. On paper initially they accepted secular values but its practice was frugal. These values started being diminished soon after the death of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Bangladesh also had a different foundation as the nation was formed against the brutal repression by Pakistan army.

Opposing politics

The level of liberal democratic values in Pakistan, therefore, has always been on the low side; even more so after Zia Ul Haq came to power, who ruled in alliance with the Mullah set up. The blasphemy laws there have known to beleaguer citizens and the plight of Salman Taseer is no exception. In Bangladesh, the see-saw battle between progressive liberal values and fundamentalist intolerance is still very present; the murder of bloggers has been just one consequence of this.

In India, the phenomenon has been more complex. Even during earlier regimes, there are instances when artists have been targeted, books banned, art galleries rampaged, films attacked and cultural programs suspended. The incidences of intolerance have been gradually growing in intensity during the last few years. Earlier incidents included the assault on Taslima Nasreen, preventing the concert of Ghulam Ali, banning of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, the attack on Husain’s painting exhibition Gufa and the banning of films by Aamir Khan. All these events were witnessed, analysed and criticised as a violation of the liberal space provided by our democracy.

Incorporating intolerance

With the growth of identity politics and the promotion of mass hysteria around emotive issues, intolerance in India started to increase. It began the process of shrinking the democratic policy. However, since 2014, instances of intimidation and attacks on the minorities have increased noticeably. The part which is even more worrisome is that the attackers usually become legitimised when the ideology of the ruling party condones their actions. The so-called ‘fringe’ sections of society came forward fearlessly to occupy the centre stage. They dictate the status quo. This also led to many attacks on churches and the murders of rationalists like Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M M Kalburgi.

The Ram Temple was already a fertile ground for intolerance, and the conflict surrounding the symbolic maternal nature of the cow has only planted more seeds. Those who profess to ‘hate’ the ‘other’ wore the clothes of Gau Rakshaks. Their rampage took root when Mohammad Akhlaq became the first major victim, followed by Pehlu Khan and, immediately after that, two more were murdered in Assam. Each time a pretext is created out of cow-smuggling or cow-killing, and this acts as a veneer for the deeper hate constructed around the religious minorities.

Holes in the fabric of society

No doubt there were weak spots in Indian society from where intolerance, in the form of attacks on freedom of expression, would creep in. This was partly due to the opportunistic policies which, to a large extent, could not hold on to the principles of secularism and democracy. Further tensions were sparked with the demolition of Babri mosque and the violence that followed the words of a poet from Pakistan. Fahmida Riyaz wrote, “Tum bilkul hum jaise nikale”; “You turned to be just like us”. The poet lamented that while communalism was strong in Pakistan, India was also starting to show similar colours.

The protest over the mass lynching of Pehlu Khan in April this year has now made its way into the media. We know that Mashal Khan, a student in Pakistan, was killed brutally last month. The charge was that of blasphemy. In yet another case, one Farooq was killed by a four-member gang for posting atheistic views in Tamil Nadu. These are just a few of the incidents of intolerance sparked either by the issue of beef or blasphemy.

The crimes committed by vigilantes and ‘foot soldiers’ are being ignored on a regular basis. Victims are made to suffer further. If the culprit is at all charged, it is for some milder offence. In some cases, the culprits are not named at all and the crime is attributed to ‘mob’ violence. This seems to be a very convenient way to increase the communal divide which has thus far benefited some major parties and organisations throughout the country.


Ram Puniyani is a former professor of biomedical engineering and former senior medical officer affiliated with the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.

Featured image source: Flickr

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