Lessons to be learned from intolerance debate

Dr Rahul Pandey and Dr Sandeep Pandey
Photo credit: CNS: citizen-news.org
A good outcome of so many writers, poets, artists, historians and scientists returning awards or writing letters in protest against growing intolerance in Indian society is that a debate has been set off in the public domain. However the arguments and counterarguments have often become bitter. In this debate most of the bitterness has been displayed by some of those who do not agree that intolerance is on a rise.

Normal citizens, who expressed concern in non-violent ways such as writing letter or returning award, have been hurled with abuse, charges of being anti-national, and sometimes threats of dire consequences. This has only reinforced the concern that intolerance seems to have come to the fore of our society. If indeed true, we hope that this is only a temporary trend. It remains to be seen whether the Sangh Parivar will learn a lesson from the Bihar elections where people have very categorically rejected their aggressive and divisive agenda.

This calls for a clear and strong stand on the part of the state to restore unstinted faith in secular, tolerant, diverse and democratic fabric of our country. As a part of such a stand at least the following three essential premises need to be openly affirmed and protected. These premises form a part of the political bedrock of any nation that wishes to spread democratic values and economic prosperity among all its citizens.

One, it is not only a fundamental right but a healthy practice that citizens express their concerns in non-violent ways. Returning awards, writing protest letters, holding public demonstrations are legitimate means to express concerns. If these voices grow beyond a threshold, the state needs to listen to them and initiate a due and efficient process of holding wider debates involving all sides, carrying out investigations, and taking corrective measures if necessary. This is how good democracies work and thrive. Instead of stonewalling or organising programmes to counter the dissent, the government must view them as positive developments and opportunities for improvement.

Two, inculcating empathy, understanding and respect for others’ beliefs and cultural practices is the only way to achieve harmony in our society. This holds for all sections of religions and belief groups. It is important to note that while one sect may blame another for pursuing an irrational or exploitative practice, the majority and more influential sect has a greater responsibility to reform its own irrationalities and display greater tolerance so that it can expect others to participate in inter-sect dialogue and collective reform. In Indian society the Hindus, especially the upper caste, who still continue to be the opinion making class, bear this responsibility. It is a sad development that instead of showing greater tolerance and empathy some people from influential sections of Hindus are making beef a serious issue and propagating anti-minority sentiments.

Three, building a culture of questioning, reasoning and scientific temper is a pre-condition to both democracy and innovation. It will also prove essential to resolve the apparent contradiction between economic prosperity and sustainable development, and to achieve both. It is also our only hope to solve other vexing problems such as poverty and widespread disparity. Our founding fathers had the vision to enshrine it in India’s Constitution. Therefore it is every government’s responsibility to endorse and incentivize rational thinking and questioning. While almost all religions in the world have been seeped with several regressive traditions, there were always seers who espoused universal human values of love, compassion and tolerance and there was probably some space for rational thinking too. Space for rational thinking, however little, was the starting point for advent of scientific revolution that has led to most of humankind’s empirical knowledge and technological and economic progress. Rational thinking, combined with values of compassion and tolerance, spurred the spread of democratic institutions that, to varying extents, constitute the crux of political and governance structures in the majority of nations today. It is not a coincidence that the nations that have the most widespread economic well-being among their citizens and have a high degree of support for environment and sustainable development are also the ones where scientific temper, tolerance and democratic values have entrenched deeply.

When rationalists are murdered in cold blood for questioning superstition and ordinary citizens are lynched on account of their religious-cultural life styles that do not harm anyone; the government does not take a strong stand against those acts of extreme intolerance; open abuses and threats are hurled at the citizens who protest in non-violent ways, and some of the threats come from members of the government and ruling party, it is time to feel alarmed.

Dr Rahul Pandey and Dr Sandeep Pandey
25 November 2015
(Dr Rahul Pandey is an academic and entrepreneur and Dr Sandeep Pandey is an activist. Both are senior columnists for CNS. Contact them here: 9663376767, ashaashram@yahoo.com)