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Tackling Intolerance

Going by the trend of increasing social violence, India's diverse, regional, ethnic, cultural and religious groups are unable to hold contentious dialogues with one another in a democratic manner, writes Vipul Mudgal.

india Updated: Oct 28, 2007 16:07 IST
Vipul Mudgal

Are we getting more small-minded by the day? Is our intolerance for what we abhor becoming unbearable for Indian democracy? Going by the trend of increasing social violence, India's diverse, regional, ethnic, cultural and religious groups are unable to hold contentious dialogues with one another in a democratic manner and the state invariably looks the other way. Intolerance is often hard to pin down, tally or regulate for the state, but it hits us in the face whenever mobs take charge of the streets.

Tolerance, to Harvard philosopher TM Scalon, is something that requires us to accept people and permit their practices even when we strongly disapprove of them.

A growing area of darkness

When Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen was mobbed in Hyderabad, her assailants threatened to behead her for hurting their feelings. Unable to restore order at the book release function she was speaking at, the state booked the victim for causing hurt.

In another case, VHP activists assaulted Chandramohan, an art student at Baroda's MS University and tore down his paintings for 'insulting' Hindu gods. Once again, the police arrested the victim for hurting the mob's feelings. India's most celebrated painter, MF Husain continues to live in exile, because of fears of reprisal from Hindu militants.

In Punjab and Haryana, many people died when agitated Sikhs clashed with Dera Sacha Sauda followers because the sect's controversial leader had 'copied' some dresses and customs associated with a Sikh Guru. In Karnal a village panchayat decreed that a couple's 10-day old infant be 'snatched' and their marriage 'annulled' because they had violated an unwritten caste code. The story and the box below list some of the year's prominent cases of intolerance that led to violence and considerable loss of public property Invariably, the state action has been either too late or too inadequate.

Tolerance and democratic state

Some of the most inspiring debates on tolerance and democracy took place in the early nineteenth century when the third and fourth US Presidents, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, thrashed out issues of the citizens' freedom of conscience versus freedom of choice.


Madison later wrote the historical First Amendment that protects the citizens right to expression and right to faith from government interference. In India, the rise of social violence clearly comes as a symptom of something deeper despite pluralism. India's brand of secularism neither has a full separation of church and state, nor complete freedom of faith. The state has to duel against religious freedom that would allow practice of human sacrifice, a prostitution in the name of the 'devadasi' ritual.

For the minorities too, the meaning of freedom is often in full adherence to 'shariat' laws, considered too illiberal and regressive for a modern democracy.

Discussing India's growing discontentment, Amartya Sen argues that we must re-examine our idea of secularism. A secularist himself, Sen talks about the need to implement wider legal and social reforms based on the principles of fairness and justice. Perhaps, the first on the list of India's overdue reforms should be an effective legal system, which can ensure the freedom of speech, modern education system capable of taking on prejudices, and an efficient police force, which can restrain people from turning violent at the slightest of provocation.