Smita Prakash Column: The tolerance debate is ongoing

It isn’t as if Shah Rukh or Aamir made the Mumbai film industry suddenly wake up to the tolerance debate. It also isn’t true that the culture and literary congregation abruptly felt an exigency situation in the country with regard to secularism. It isn’t as if Parliament too, all of a sudden, initiated a debate on dharmnirpeksh versus panthnirpeksh.

People in Jaipur protest Aamir Khan’s remarks on growing intolerance in the country on Thursday. Pic/PTI
People in Jaipur protest Aamir Khan’s remarks on growing intolerance in the country on Thursday. Pic/PTI

The tolerance and secularism debates in India are as old as history itself. India gave itself a Constitution after endless hours of debate on secularism and tolerance. From kings who ruled the country, to the framers of our Constitution, to the leaders of today, everyone has debated and concluded that India doesn’t just believe and live the word tolerance in every sense of the word; it is the essence of the very nature of Indians. It is civilizational to be tolerant and that includes being tolerant towards debate on rising levels of intolerance in the country. Aberrations have occurred regularly in history, initiated or supported by political or religious groups.

Just because tolerance is inherent in Indians doesn’t mean intolerance is not. Like in any functioning democracy, in India too, religious and societal customs clash, often violently. It is the job of citizens to speak out against it, to bring it to the attention of authorities and vociferously campaign against it, if they notice a trend emerging. Societies and governments that clamp down on dissent suffer a backlash sooner or later. Else they have a quick descent into chaos.

A civil disobedience movement in Nepal has bubbled over and has reached a crisis of gigantic proportions. The fledgling government is unable to solve the Madheshi agitation, which has resulted in acute shortage of fuel, cooking gas and life saving drugs. China now has become an active player in the Nepal conundrum. More than 50 people have died in the agitation and blockade that is not ebbing. India has been caught in a pincer nip on the diplomatic front. On the one hand, the world looks upon India as an unwanted supporter to the Madeshi blockaders and, on the other, the Madheshis claim that their agitation is being tarnished by propaganda claiming it to be India sponsored. On Sunday, Nepal blocked Indian news channels.

In Pakistan, minorities are targeted on a systematic and regular basis. Entire communities are blocked out of the social and political mainstream and the press is not allowed to speak about it. An unofficial gagging of the media is taking place, with columnists who speak against the establishment being dropped. The Ahmediyyas, Baloch, Hindus, Christians, Shia minorities call themselves the walking dead. On Thursday, US-based Mohammad Taqi, who wrote about the Pakistani establishment’s apathy in battling terrorism, had his column shut down, the editor Rashid Rehman resigned. There are few voices left now of people who can speak up against the dangers facing the country.

In India, the media is robust and voluble. The voices of dissent cannot be stifled even if anybody tries to. For every one columnist or reporter who is axed for his or her writing, several others crop up, who get equal, if not more, readership. A burgeoning social media has made the debate a lot noisier and varied. Not all opinions are backed by research and wisdom. Some are fallacious and/or motivated and engineered. But it is for the consumer to use individual and collective judgment to figure that out. It is silly and even dangerous to rely on any one source of news to base your judgment on which way the country is headed. The tolerance debate has many nuances to it. As does the secularism debate.

The curious trend of Award-Wapasi has tapered off. The beef-ban issue has also lost its steam. But that doesn’t mean that people are done with the intolerance debate or that suddenly India has become tolerant forever. Definitions and boundaries will keep morphing.

As is happening in the rest of world, social media is replete with videos being put up by alert citizens in the western world where Islamophobia is on the rise. Entire communities are trying to find regional and location-based solutions of how to stem intolerance in their societies. Governments are double-burdened with the task of cracking down on terror groups and yet protecting sensitivities of communities which feel they are being targeted because of their attire, their race or their religion. The intolerance debate is a global one. It need not be one of shame. It must be conducted at community, regional, national and global levels. It ought to be inclusive and respectful of diversity.

Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on Twitter @smitaprakash

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