Walking along the hills near Shimla, schoolgirls in pigtails greet me with a shy ‘good morning’. In the market, the response to my rushed demand for provisions is replied by a smiling ‘namaste’. It takes a second for me to realise that I’m inhaling not just the crisp mountain air, but a quality now rare on the plains: Civility.
Perhaps I have been watching far too many intolerant nightly debates on our lack of tolerance, which tend to wear me down with their decibel level and leave me no wiser. In the words of a friend, I am suffering from intolerance fatigue.
The script is predictable. The latest instance — and there are new ones by the day — is dissected. Should Shah Rukh Khan be dispatched to Pakistan for speaking his mind? Did the crowd in Mumbai behave disgracefully by booing Anupam Kher at a debate, ironically, to discuss intolerance?
The quick answers: No and yes. But over the course of an hour, liberals will unfurl their indignation: Why is Prime Minister Narendra Modi silent? How many more awards must be returned to hammer home the point about how our pluralistic identity is under threat? Who will save the idea of India?
The Right will then pick up its equally predictable response. Why single out every idiotic statement made by some loony? The statement has been retracted. What about the intolerance of Left libs?
The Oxford English Dictionary every year compiles a list of new words that enter public discourse. Perhaps the dictionary’s editors might want to consider our very own: whataboutery.
Whataboutery is the weapon opponents unleash when questioning motives. We’ve seen it when intellectuals question intolerance. Oh, says the other side, what about 1984? What about the Emergency? Where was the protest then?
Outrage does not operate on a principle of equal opportunity. What might outrage me might leave you cold. But if we’re talking about double standards then, yes, we rose in one angry voice in December 2012 to protest a gang-rape and murder, but were silent when a four-year-old child was brutally raped in October this year. Was she not deserving of our indignation?
Take another example: Thirty years after the riots left 3,000 innocent Sikhs dead in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, we are no closer to nailing the culprits. The Congress cannot escape blame, but what steps has this government taken to grant justice to the victims?
The right to be outraged is a matter of individual conscience. Nor can one be in a state of perpetual outrage. But the fact that I did not speak up earlier does not deprive me of my right from speaking up now.
The TV debates also tell you how far both the BJP and the Congress are from reality. The BJP should have reached out to assuage the anguish of a growing list of people who are returning awards to protest an increasingly toxic environment of fear and insecurity. Instead, there was a great deal of scoffing: Who cares for these obscure writers? It’s a manufactured protest at the behest of the Congress, which is pathologically opposed to the BJP.
It was a petty, small-minded response unbecoming of true leaders. By the time the Union home minister tried to open a dialogue by asking award-returnees for suggestions, it was too late.
The Congress is also late in jumping on to the protest bandwagon. Because its own record — banning, suppression of human rights, riots — is so tarnished that it can hardly claim a higher moral ground. Its march to Rashtrapati Bhavan smacks of political opportunism.
It falls upon the party in power to restore some normalcy. Playing the victim, blaming the media and seeing plots against it won’t cut it.
The journey to tolerance begins with an ability to listen to another point of view. And sometimes it takes a trip to the hills, away from raucous, argumentative Delhi, to realise that what is at stake is something very fundamental to society: Civility. If only we’d stop shouting and start listening.