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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 50 New Delhi December 3, 2016

Surgical Intolerance in a Democracy

Monday 5 December 2016


by Saumitra Mohan

A slew of incidents in recent times have again adumbrated an increasing intolerance in the country, the intolerance of opposition to established wisdom, intolerance of contrarian views or intolerance of standing against the societal consensus. The same has been noticed more starkly in the aftermath of the recent surgical strikes in Pakistan occupied Kashmir. As Indians, we all loved the way our valiant and fearless armed forces crossed over to teach our western neighbour a fitting lesson.

However, as is natural in a democracy, doubts and questions were raised by a section of Indians about the veracity of the claimed feat. Some sought evidence and some even junked the entire claim of any such surgical strike. Similar questions were also raised about the circum-stances and genuineness of the recent Bhopal encounters by many more people as the entire operations appeared to be allegedly stage-managed and made up to many.

Instead of celebrating the diversity of opinion and a healthy debate in keeping with our hoary tradition of arriving at the truth through discuss-ions and debates (Vaade Vaade Jayate Satyabodh), there have been strong protests and intemperate fulminations against such doubting Thomases and sceptics. All such people have been termed traitors and quislings by the jingoistic fringe. They refuse to accept any questioning or criticism of these acts, which they think should be deemed sacrosanct and beyond reproach. Such an attitude is not only dangerous, but is also against the very ethos which signifies our democracy.

Through such protests, bordering on intolerance of a differing opinion, we actually compromise the very system we have so assiduously built up over the years. Making everyone toe the majoritarian viewpoint smacks of McCarthyism of the Cold War vintage when anyone suspected of being a Communist was put through the mass pressure or persecution to force them to follow the popular political beliefs. Mind you, if the people questioning the surgical strikes or the Bhopal encounters are wrong, then all those people questioning the Emergency during the 1970s were also wrong.

The Emergency was an ugly political reality of the 1970s and it was again a section of people who were courageous enough to question its imposition. These people were also put through the same grind and harassment but finally, Indian democracy came out stronger as a result of the grit and pluck of a few who came forward to question the dominant view. It was the same intolerant outlook which was on display when some people questioned the JNU protests and the alleged anti-India slogan-shouting by a section of JNU students. Kanhaiya Kumar, the JNU Student Union President, was vilified and condemned for the indiscretion of holding certain views. The country also made headlines for booking Arundhati Roy, Kanhaiya Kumar, Aseem Trivedi, actress Ramya or Amnesty International on sedition charges, which were later dropped by the Indian courts.

In fact, India’s Apex Court has clearly declaimed that ‘criticism of government does not constitute sedition’. The Supreme Court in its recent judgement, in fact, cautioned the police against misuse of the sedition law (section 124A of the Indian Penal Code) and directed them to follow its earlier Kedar Nath judgement. It also directed all authorities across the country to follow the said judgement which limits the scope of filing sedition cases under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code.

As someone rightly said, ‘one must dig deeply into opposing points of view in order to know whether your own position remains defensible. Iron sharpens iron.’ So, right or wrong, we ought to allow the expression of opposing points of views, howsoever wrong the same may be. John Stuart Mill was right when he said: “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

After all, the ‘white’ would not appear white unless we contrast the same against ‘black’. If our arguments or views are stronger, then the same would remain so notwithstanding the opposition by a minority and would, in fact, appear clearer against their banality and falsehood. But if they were true, then we would lose the benefit of being corrected. So, let’s not be in a hurry to condemn or criticise because others may not do or think as fast as we do. There was a time when we also didn’t know what we know today.

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, “Intolerance is the first sign of an inadequate education. An ill-educated person behaves with arrogant impatience, where truly profound education breeds humility.” So, let’s agree to accept a differing standpoint; otherwise we would continue forcing a Socrates to take hemlock or forcing a Galileo to recant his discovery of the ‘earth moving around the sun’ following the condemnation by the then Church.

It is quite possible that one single person’s wisdom may hold against the dominant societal discourse as Mill pointed out above. Did not social reformers like Raja Rammohan Roy or Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar stand up against the obtaining socio-cultural wisdom of their time to oppose the ‘sati’ (live burning of a widow on the funeral pyre of her husband) or promoting ‘widow remarriage’ and many such progressive things in the teeth of opposition?

Coming back to the suggestions against the advisability of such discussions being completely out of the public domain, the same goes against the very spirit of freedom of expression as specified in our Constitution. As our Constitution or laws allow such discourse and debates and don’t fall within the realm of reasonable restrictions, people, as Indian citizens, are well within their right to ask questions. We invited public trial or questioning by trying to derive political brownie points out of these surgical strikes or encounters. As Pakistan would have never accepted them, keeping the strikes secret would have given us a better tactical advantage over her in future.

Many observers feel that by going public, we actually limited our future diplomatic options. It would have been more than advisable for the authorities to come forward to share all the relevant details about these matters when we agreed to go public, observers felt. Half, selective revelations go nowhere. The jingoistic chest-thumping which followed further vitiated the atmosphere by encouraging a pathological one-upmanship amongst our political parties. As there have been recorded and proven indiscretions or deviations by a section of our police and armed forces where they have been found to have indulged in abuse or misuse of power, the questioning is only justified.

Remember Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous statement, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then, they came for the Trade Unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then, they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.” So, right or wrong, we need to speak up and our right to ask questions ought not to be unlawfully restricted; otherwise we would soon lose our conscience and pride of belonging to a vibrant democracy.

Hence, in a democracy where the rule of law is held supreme, none is above the law and our armed/police forces are definitely not so and very much liable to questioning. So, let’s not be intolerant of a divergent opinion as it is this vibrant debate that distinguishes us from the rest. Otherwise, we shall soon be reducing ourselves to the levels of those whom we revile, grovelling in the dust at the loss of the uniqueness and distinctiveness characterising our plural salad-bowl culture we have always celebrated.

Dr Saumitra Mohan, IAS, is the District Magistrate and Collector, Burdwan (West Bengal), and a JNU alumnus. The views expressed in the article are personal and do not reflect those of the government.

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