NEW DELHI, India (The Statesman/ANN) - Indians appear to be increasingly intolerant of dissenting perspectives. These trends have the potential to balkanize our country by warping our nation-building processes. There have been umpteen instances in recent times when there were attempts at cultural policing
We Indians take pride in our democratic credentials, the history of our civilisation, and the culture of co-existence. And the reasons are justified. It was in India that progressive philosophies, theories of peaceful co-existence, and several religions had once originated. The three facets provide a cushion for civilisations in general. Of late, however, there have been certain distressing developments which go against the very grain of our vaunted culture of tolerance and respect for divergent discourses.
Indians appear to be increasingly intolerant of dissenting perspectives. These trends have the potential to balkanize our country by warping our nation-building processes. There have been umpteen instances in recent times when there were attempts at cultural policing by the self-appointed guardians of Indian culture. This is manifested in the booking of unmarried couples from Madh Island and Aksa beach in Mumbai, the ban imposed on 857 porn sites, the plan to impose prohibition, to ban books, films, art exhibitions or Valentine’s Day celebrations. In a word, Indians are increasingly betraying a regressive mindset.
John Stuart Mill had rightly observed: “My freedom to move my hand stops where your nose starts.” We may not like a particular idea or act but there are legitimate ways to express our reservations or revulsion rather than behave in a manner which shames our existence as a civilised society. And, all this is often done in the name of stopping people from hurting the sensibilities of other individuals or communities. After all, how can one justify prohibiting an artistic expression if the same does not violate a particular law or rule. The subjective interpretation of the law has often been the major reason behind cultural policing.
We will go nowhere if there is a surge in Hindu fundamentalism in response to Islamist extremism. After all, two wrongs never make a right. Mahatma Gandhi was right when he said, “Eye for an eye and the entire world will be blind.”
The recent quashing of Section 66A of the IT Act, which allowed arrests for objectionable online content or striking down by the Supreme Court of the ban on porn sites is a step in the right direction as both moves run counter to the fundamental rights of expression or privacy. There have been other instances of vigilantism when the "group admin" of ‘What’s App’ was arrested for undesirable content or the knifing of the "group admin" by a member. The members always have an option to leave the group in case of revulsion. They can form a separate group rather than indulge in disproportionate reaction. The recent killing of bloggers in Bangladesh is yet another instance of increasing intolerance in society.
We call ourselves the proud torch-bearers of an enlightened civilisation, but obscurantist perceptions continue to shape our outlook. As a result, this has a negative influence on behaviour. Kissing and smooching in public are frowned upon, but civil society conveniently winks at domestic violence, including wife-beating on the specious plea that it is a private affair. We still have intolerant societal reactions to such expressions as kissing as exemplified by ‘Operation Majnu’.
We are so intolerant and disrespectful of a divergent opinion that we immediately brand someone to be a quisling. This was all too apparent recently when the likes of Salman Khan made statements expressing sympathy with Yakub Memon. No one doubts his culpability, but as an individual he definitely had his circle of friends who are entitled to an opinion. Why should a statement of sympathy for a friend perturb a section of our society? Markedly, this country still has sympathisers of Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. A vibrant debate is integral to a vibrant democracy. It is through a clash of ideas and opinions that truth ultimately emerges.
As Voltaire once remarked: “I do not agree with what you say, but I would defend till my death your right to say it.”
As citizens of a democratic country, we have every right to express our views howsoever wrong they may be as long as the person concerned does not do something to violate the law. Some Indians were justified in expressing their disagreement with Salman’s tweet, but they definitely had no business to agitate against the same by indulging in arson and vandalism. Society does not agree with the views of many great thinkers; but the fact remains that we still admire them. As a mature democracy, we need to be more restrained in our reactions; otherwise we would be no better than those banana republics, notorious for the kangaroo courts and instant justice like our khap panchayats.
After the Iraqi journalist, Muntadhar al-Zaidi, threw shoes at the former US President George Bush in December 2014, several such incidents were reported in India. A certain Jarnail Singh, representing the media, once hurled a shoe at a former Union minister. The faces of politicians and activists have on occasion been blackened. Violence against RTI activists or mediapersons reflects an essentially distorted mindset. The perpetrator is often an innocuous person; but the very fact that such incidents happen points to the putrid pleasure that some people can yet derive. Such acts would never occur were it not for the silent societal approval. The extremism of a minority is often due to the passivity of the majority.
The other factor is society’s permissive system of values. If corruption, crimes against women or violence against public property keep recurring, it only means that societal conscience is not stirred. Our value system somehow approves of speed-money, short-cuts, dowry, violence against women, nepotism, violation of traffic rules, littering, vandalism of public property and so on. No wonder such aberrations persist. We continue to be mute witnesses as long as it does not affect us, but we tend to protest the moment they start hurting us. So a political party today decries and criticises the opposition for immobilising the legislature, but would not mind doing the same if the roles are reversed.
Isn’t it high time that we start addressing such existential contradictions of our individual and corporate value systems? Most of these problems would be addressed if rules and laws are duly enforced; the half-hearted enforcement of our laws is the prime reason behind these societal aberrations. One just hopes that these trends of being mired in history - to use the expression of Francis Fukuyama - would fade as we mature as a society. The government will have to be as vigilant as the citizens to secure their individual and community rights. Otherwise, we will soon regret the destruction of the civilisational leviathan called India.
- India, Culture, Policing, Politics