The question to ask ourselves in the aftermath of another 2nd October is not whether India is a tolerant country or not. The answer to that is clearly, and emphatically, no. It is rather – is this loss of tolerance in India something we can tolerate ourselves? The answer to that too, one would hope, would be clearly and emphatically, no.
It is hard to think of a period after the partition in 1947, when India may have been less tolerant of diversity and dissent. The emergency from 1975 to 1977 comes close, but that perhaps had the advantage of both being an abrupt event, as well as a publicly announced process.
The past few years, on the other hand, have been much slower, much more insidious – a slow decay of the body politic and of the idea of a free India. A gradual gangrene in comparison to 1975’s abrupt amputation (I am a physician and trust me, I will be forgiven for this medicalization of the body politic).
It has been over a year and a month since Article 370 was revoked and the state of Jammu & Kashmir underwent a fate analogous to that of Pluto in the solar system. Once again, Pluto had the advantage of being uninhabited (to the best of our knowledge) and of having no human casualties. Jamma and Kashmir are very much inhabited, very much in distress and very, very far from Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s idea of a free and tolerant India, today. If governance is better, it is yet to become apparent to us in mainland India.
It has also been half a year and then a month since the COVID-19 pandemic reached India, and has facilitated the further erosion of our civil liberties in the name of infection control. I am personally, all for responsible and respectful management of the risks to ourselves and others, including wearing masks and maintaining public hygiene. What I am not in favour of, however, is the massive and large scale curtailment of civil liberties and fundamental rights that have ensued.
Why was it okay to tell people not to leave their houses and separate them from families for months on end? Why was it okay to throw them out of home and hearth when they could no longer afford that during the accompanying slowdown? Why was it okay to use technological surveillance to keep a track of us, ostensibly, for our greater good? Why was it okay to peddle medicines and vaccines that are clearly ineffective and perhaps even harmful, after circumventing trials that should take decades? Why was it okay to under-test and under-report facts and figures and paint an overly rosy picture of our COVID control (like the celebrity couple that keeps insisting that everything is just peachy, all the way up to the divorce courts). Why was it okay to have amenities and aid that remained on paper and never really made their way into real life?
These are, but the tip of the iceberg of a tolerance that no longer seems real on tangible. There are further, the economic recessions, the floods and the brutal gangrapes that bookend the past decade of our political leadership. There are other elephants in the room such as the witch hunt around the death of a young actor during the pandemic and the brutal manhandling of leaders of the political opposition in recent days.
If these are instances of freedom of expression and tolerance of diversity, it is a hollow Gandhi Jayanti and International Day of Non-Violence that we have just observed. If, as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi urged us, we must be the change we wish to see in the world, may we start sooner than later. Maybe start before our idea of a tolerant India is all but gone.