Forget Tolerance-Intolerance, Where Is The Space For Dissent In This Country?

Posted on December 24, 2015 in Society

By Ashutosh Tripathi

Nepalese youths holding placards take part in a movement demanding the government to act against the ongoing fuel and cooking gas shortages in Kathmandu, Nepal, November 10, 2015. The middle hills and the capital Kathmandu have suffered fuel and cooking gas shortages after protesters in the south switched to blocking supplies from India, Nepal's largest trading partner, almost two months ago. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar - RTS69NB
Image source: REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

The Oxford Dictionary defines intolerance as “unwillingness to accept views, beliefs or behavior that differ from one’s own.”

As we stand at a juncture where everything – from our history to the preamble of the constitution, the celebration of Gandhi to the rebirth of Nathuram Godse as the patriot, the food we eat to the culture we seek, the boundaries of the pillars of democracies to the powers of the representative houses amidst other issues are being debated, the necessity for the right to dissent becomes extremely significant.

When Rabindranath Tagore dreamt of a world where ‘the mind is without fear, a world where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit,’ he envisaged an India which six and a half decades post-independence continues to sound like a dream. And with every passing day when Rajnath Singh or Arun Jaitley reduces the protests to protestors and subsequently to mere labels, we take a stride farther from the Tagore dream.

It is interesting to note at this point that all the major political parties seem to have an open admiration for the founder figures of the nation – even if the admiration is more unanimously pronounced for Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and Sardar Patel, and is only evident once in a blue moon, perhaps on a foreign territory for the likes of Pandit Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. On the floor of the house on 27th November 2015, when Sitaram Yechuri, Arun Jaitley and Smriti Irani spoke on commitment to India’s constitution – they all seemed to gain their inspirations from Babasaheb Ambedkar and his work. While on the floor of the house a humbled government began to take cognizance of the voice of the opposition by restarting the process of dialogue, even if it were for a war of quotes, the dialogue on the more important front continued to be driven by orientations rather than reason.

The National Divide

India in its present state is largely divided into three sections – the first comprising of people who identify as the supporters of the Modi regime, the second comprising of those who are largely critical of their policies, actions and the third comprising of either neutral observers, or apolitical section of the masses.

The disconnect of the social media with the bulk of Indian rural households imply that a major chunk of the Indian population lies in the third category. Unlike the first two sections, which are often seen involved in Twitter hashtag wars over issues, failings, and achievements of the central government, the third section is largely involved only in the allocation of power via elections. The political alignment of the majority in this third section is thus determined in retrospection post an election field battle.

However, the opinion of the first two sections can be captured quickly through the humongous amount of content being shared across social media and in the hashtags that trend throughout the day. In the digital age, where opinions are formed, shared and spread faster than a bullet – the social media becomes an important tool, perhaps an unrecognized secondary pillar in the Indian democracy. It is this pillar, which in my opinion, deserves the large share of blame and must accept responsibility for the growing intolerance in India.

Politicians have always indulged in making controversial, often unpleasant remarks. The nature of these remarks vary depending upon the time, the party, the leader and the public composition in the concerned space. While a meaningful political discourse can be enforced upon the legislative assemblies and parliament houses, no such mechanisms exist in the internet community.

It is in this regard when the individuals begin to associate more strongly with the leaders concerned than the nation perhaps, the willful ignorance comes into practice. While the scarcity of options might compel us to allow politicians the luxury of the marred vision, it must be our duty to ensure that this disease does not begin to cloud our understanding as ordinary citizens. When we embrace denial as a solution to our real problems, nothing can stop us from moving towards tragedy. It is important to recognize that when Anupam Kher calls for a protest against the protesters, the very act of doing so validates their concern. In upholding the self-contradictory idea of a protest to display India’s tolerance, the role of social media masses has been phenomenal. While it is easy to understand the sycophant nature of Anupam Kher’s protests, decoding the servile nature of the Twitter brigade seems an arduous task. While their intentions and motives may be hard to follow, the boundaries and powers of this brigade are certainly evident to the naked eye.

Over the course of the past couple of years, while the tolerance of law enforcing agencies towards right-wing Hindu extremist organizations is on the rise, the Modi brigade on Twitter and Facebook have taken the onus upon themselves to ensure that the Prime Minister and his government are well respected by all patriots. And that those who do not subscribe to the Modi government’s ideology and are vocal are targeted, abused, labelled anti-national, Pakistani agent and in case they happen to be Muslims, maybe even terrorists.

Even several journalists have had to face the brunt of this brigade online and then the very real threats from a different category of hooligans operating on the ground. Rahul Kanwal and Rajat Sharma might be the rare outliers with no apparent threats. While the attempts to silence voices are omnipresent, these threats carry a much larger weight now as the government refusal to take strong stances on several enraging issues is a scary sign of willful ignorance if not passive consent. Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi’s murderers are yet to be brought to justice. Sedition laws are being roped in to curb the freedom of expressions. NGOs receiving foreign funds are now seen as roadblocks to the developed India dream and thus without a thorough debate, attempts are on to silence NGOs which do not see eye to eye with the present government.

The Oct 2 article in the New York Times carried the below story under the headline ‘India’s attack on Free Speech’.
“Last December, the acclaimed author Perumal Murugan informed the police that he’d received threats from Hindu groups angered by a novel he wrote in 2010. Extremists staged burnings of his book and demanded a public apology from him. The police suggested he go into exile. Realizing he was on his own, in January Mr. Murugan announced the withdrawal of his entire literary canon. On Facebook, he swore to give up writing, in essence apologizing for his life’s work out of fear for his family’s safety. To ignore the increase in such attempts to strangle dissent and public discourse would be one thing, and to call them non-existent would be a blatant lie, if not a seditious act towards the nation.”

Similarly, Ravish Kumar had to retire his blogging activities and reduce on-screen time to restore some sense of peace in his life. To top it all, attempts are now being made to reduce this whole debate to mere identities.

The Search For Identities

In a world where what newspapers you read, what media channels you follow decides what opinion you’ll make, the amount of cognizance that must be given to facts becomes paramount. It is ironical to note then that both parties to the debate lay equal claim to the media-bias.

What is perhaps more ironical, is that both the parties may be just about right. Media has played both the villain as well as the hero in this debate. It would be safe to say that it played the hero in drawing the attention of the nation towards the protests of intellectuals, scientists, and artists. But it also went looking for fodder to the hotheads of the ruling government who obliged to be drawn into controversies.

As various BJP leaders obliged to give infuriating comments on topics encompassing culture, beef, women, and history, the government allowed the hotheads to do so without an iota of deserved criticism. Instead, the opposing ideas across the spectrum of domains were conveniently labelled as anti-national and people subscribing to these views were recommended transfers to Pakistan and lately Syria.

Whereas the initial dissent and protests were more about the lack of justice to the murderers of the progressive thinkers Dabholkar, Kalburgi and Pansare – over time the debate accumulated several other issues ranging from attempts to alter history, to the attempted murder of scientific reasoning to the caste and communal struggle.

Image source: Twitter
Image source: Twitter

When Aamir Khan, A R Rahman, Narayan Murthy, Gulzar, Raghuram Rajan or Shah Rukh Khan spoke on the rising intolerance, the argument had very little to do with the identities assigned to them by the public and the media. “I feel first of all why should I represent anyone and if I have to, why should I only represent just Muslims and not everyone?”Aamir Khan was spot on in emphasizing that this is not a realization of a Muslim or a pseudo-intellectual or a ‘sickular’ fanatic.

By reducing the debate to the religious identities associated with the debate, the government and its supporters appear to take solace in the comparison of situation of Muslims in India to those in Pakistan or laughably enough, in Syria.

What started as an integral element of the election campaign, continues to ride nearly a year and a half post elections as all forms of opposition to the government continues to be labelled as anti-national and certain elements of the government and a large section of its Twitter/Facebook brigade of admirers seem eager to provide them a free visa for transfer across the border. As the offshoot ‘tolerance of India towards Muslims’ takes center-stage, the government/Modi brigade has successfully dislocated the spinal cord of the intolerance debate.

Nobody is denying that the incredible India is an incredibly tolerant nation. A country that encompasses enormous diversities in the forms of language, religion, caste in a largely peaceful manner indeed displays a certain amount of tolerance. The debate is not to determine whether India is tolerant or intolerant. By making it appear so, they seek to create a false sense of victory by citing the peaceful co-existence of Muslims and the lack of any apparent threat to most normal Muslims in India. But when Arun Jaitley invokes a comparison with the Emergency era, besides the ad nauseam nature of the argument ‘where were you when’, he also mistakenly admits the truth in the rising gravity of the issue at hand.

It is high time we start caring about the message more than the messenger. It is high time we start questioning opinions fed to us on facts rather than our political alignments. It is high time twitter hashtag wars are transformed into meaningful debates based on facts rather than who has got the numbers. It is high time we stop being blind fans and refuse to turn a blind eye to misdoings of our preferred governments. We must learn to embrace the essence of Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s quote “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Because if there’s no place for dissent in a democracy, where is the democracy?!