The availability of intolerance

One of the strange things about democratic India is that democracy has become a label which tells us little about its contents. Our leaders talk of democracy in formal terms, as rule of law, elections, civic culture, but democracy is also a set of attitudes, of values. Among the most precious ideas of democracy is tolerance, plurality and diversity. The beauty of diversity is that you multiply the number of solutions so that more people have access to it. Diversity allows for differences to co-exist, interact, dialogue and even be synergetic. That was one of the great charms of our religious and medical systems.
However, of late, democracy has found diversity hard to handle. Ours is a democracy caught between ideology and political correctness. Our intellectuals are extension counters of the regime, so they always ritualise dissent as an amiable storm in a teacup. Once genuine dissent is discounted, what we have is a market system of intolerance. Each group, each faction, builds a totemic system around a set of ideas fetishising them. The current Indian imaginary is neither civilisational nor plural. It is, in fact, an availability of intolerances, each intolerance is the inability to allow the other to think or live differently. Each group or each party is known not by its political philosophy, but by its core identity of intolerances. Such intolerance can arise from sycophancy, political correctness and insecurity about the other, populism or mere majoritarian tyranny.
Consider the Congress. At one time it was a coalition of differences, a patchwork of diversities. As the Congress became a dynasty and an oligarchy of families, its sense of the mass and of dissent became superficial. It plays at populism, uses poverty as an electoral tactic. What the Congress will not allow is a critique of the family. Sonia Gandhi remains immaculate and Rahul Gandhi is a perpetual potential because an insider’s critique is not possible. All the committee reports conclude by contending that the family can do no wrong.
Think of Mamata Banerjee. She is a populist at heart and will not allow any challenge to her idea of democracy. Whether it is suppressing Marxist newspapers or dissenting citizens, there is no guilt about it. Ms Banerjee thinks she is anointed by the people and therefore sees no need to explain herself. A populist autocratism competes with dynastic intolerance to force out critical ideas.
The irony is that even our Parliament has become intolerant. Civil society has to force it into dialogue and every time civil society criticises it, Parliament retaliates like an angry cop. Our Parliament cannot face up to its people. People have become suspicious of its politicians and want accountability. They are hopeful of politics but find politicians and their institutional role disappointing. Parliament resents it and the way the Congress and the RJD behaved towards Anna Hazare is an index of Parliament’s intolerance of the popular process. Parliament seems to forget that the people are supreme.
One can add to it the intolerance of the Right. The Bharatiya Janata Party is a multi-pronged formation. If the BJP is the parliamentary wing, the Bajrang Dal and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh become unparliamentary wings intolerant of dissent. In fact, intolerance has become a growth industry. All a politician needs to start a career is identify a strain of intolerance, build a gang which beats up the deviant and create a drama of righteousness. It could be couples in parks, the idea of Valentine’s Day, or it could be a particular outsider. The Shiv Sena has perfected the intolerance industry by first threatening the South Indian and now harassing the Bihari. All it needs is a mix between a riot and a pogrom and in populist India a career is launched, a manch is established and one more set of citizens are threatened and harassed.
The irony is that even those who suffered tyranny tend to be intolerant. One would have expected the dalit imagination to be much more confident in its fight for freedom. Yet, oddly, it is obsessive, building monuments to itself, a la, Mayawati, or treating any critique of Ambedkar as iconoclastic. The pity is that the party which should be inventing freedom is content to be populist. Ambedkar will survive any host of NCERT books. But, more importantly, no disrespect was meant but an artificial resentment was created as a false issue. The Congress, ever guilty, about Dalit or Muslims, reacted in knee-jerk style and banned the book. There was not even a debate. All you have to do is vandalise an office and the Congress is ready to withdraw a book, film or news report. It represents populist hypocrisy at its worst.
Even the Left is not innocent. Is suppression of dissent genetic? When it had a chance to rework itself, all it provided was textbook catechism. Dissent, even at a moment of crisis, is unwelcome to the Left happy with its Stalinist homogeneity. A party which should have created a compost heap of debates seems to believe in standardisation. Its intellectuals do not even allow Marxism to emerge as a set of dialects, each valid for a locality.
In one of my nightmares, I began drawing an intolerance map of India. It becomes a map with innumerable dots, each indexical of a certain form of violence. Each party, whether the Congress, the BSP, or the CPI(M), becomes a variety of intolerance. It is not just intellectuals who are being threatened but a way of life which believed in adjustment, confusion, debate and difference. One wishes our democratic genius finds an answer to populist mediocrity. The sadness is fascism comes in many forms. An epidemic of intolerance is the last thing our democracy needs.

The writer is a
social science nomad

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