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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 51, New Delhi, December 4, 2021

The Reach of Intolerant Minds | TJS George

Friday 3 December 2021, by T J S George



Where are we headed? Seventy-four years after independence, fifty-seven years after the death of Jawaharlal Nehru, three years after Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s death, where are we headed? Seven years after Narendra Modi changed the grammar of politics, where are we headed?

Answers to these questions should not be hurried. They must take into account some recent developments that point to new realities that have become part of our lives. The answers that come out of these realities may be difficult to stomach. But there is no way out. For example, in Gujarat’s Anand district, mobs collected to protest the opening of Blue Ivy, a hotel owned by two Muslims and a Hindu. Some fifty people purified the area with Gangajal and then declared that who ever lived in India must say "Jai Sri Ram." One demonstrator stood out with his shout that "Muslims should be beggars, not hotel owners."

Only a minority of hardliners could have paid heed to such a vicious call. The vast majority would have hung on to Soli Sorabjee’s call: "Tolerance is particularly needed in large and complex societies, comprising people with varied beliefs... Tolerance is the ultimate rationale of pluralism." Read this alongside the observation of the Madras High Court: "Freedom of expression protects not merely ideas that are accepted, but also those that offend, shock or disturb."

Soli Sorabjee and the Madras High Court, like all rational individuals and institutions, see the multiculturalism of India as the country’s asset. There are 121 languages in India and 270 mother tongues, according to official estimates. All the religions of the world also have adherents in the country. To liberated minds, these are happy statistics, underlining the cultural diversity of India.

The reality that must be faced is that intolerant minds co-exist with liberated ones in our vast and fertile country. Intolerance has grown at policy levels after partisanship was elevated to nationalism under the banner of the BJP and Narendra Modi. A new kind of nationalism took over and divisiveness followed suit.

Strange as it may seem, India today and India yesterday are two different countries. Yesterday democracy functioned under checks and balances. Today tricks and challenges have taken over. Attention was drawn to this shift by none other than the former Chief Justice of Delhi High Court, Ajit Prakash Shah. Citing Arthur Koestler’s immortal novel Darkness At Noon he described how "darkness fell at noon in India too." He said the death of Stan Swamy in custody at the age of 84 was "much more than the death of an activist accused of terrorism. It is the result of a systemic abuse of majoritarian authority and disregard for the rule of law." Sharp words, sharply put.

Recalling how the court repeatedly rejected Swamy’s bail applications despite his desperate medical condition (degenerative Parkinson’s made him incapable of even holding a spoon) Justice Shah moaned the "lack of sensitivity on the part of judges which is deeply saddening."

The lack of sensitivity was by no means confined to the judges. It swept across all segments of society. This was natural considering the fact that government policies now carried the claim of patriotism. That the government of the day followed an ideological standard decreed by the party it represented made a fundamental difference to attitudes. Patriotism itself attracted new definitions.

In their eagerness to achieve power and retain it, BJP’s current leaders resort to gimmicks that gentleman leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee would have shunned. It is this self-generated devaluation that make today’s BJP less attractive than yesterday’s The party has now become one man’s instrument to retain power.

The judiciary sometimes acts in ways that legal experts find questionable. The unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act ensures that large numbers of citizens spend their days in jail, awaiting trial. "The logic of this veers on the absurd," as Justice Shah put it. "Posterity will blame the judiciary for the incarnation and unfortunate death of Stan Swamy, and the continued imprisonment of so many others like him," Swamy of course they couldn’t get; he showed his spirit by saying: "A caged bird can still sing." Such men never die.

In the circumstances, it is no surprise that India has lost the international image of virtuousness that it enjoyed in the early years. When India initiated the concept of non-alignment, it opened a chapter of its own in world affairs. Even those who were adversely affected by the non-alignment of the most important "former colony" were forced to acknowledge the historical importance of the concept. In those early years India involved itself constructively in activities that benefited the world as a whole. Seventy-four years after independence, where are we headed?

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