Religious intolerance, it would seem, is as universal as its opposite postulate, the brotherhood of man. In the 1870s, when US President Ulysses S Grant spoke of all humanity speaking one language, he perhaps did not imagine that over the decades, there would be a growing trend towards a reversion to obscurantism and religious intolerance, both as old as religion itself.
In Grant’s own country, the most cosmopolitan, multi-cultural society in the world, intolerance flourishes as evidenced by the attack on an Indian by a policeman and subsequently the discovery of threatening graffiti on a Hindu temple. So it is not just Islamic fundamentalism, reprehensible as it is, which is a global phenomenon. Intolerance — religious, racial or of the nationalist variety — too is getting enmeshed with ideological architectures, at the cost of all canons of civilisation.
This is a matter that is so deeply encoded in the DNA of nations that the question as to how to end this disease begs a counter-question: Who should do it? We have the United Nations, whose success in this field has been at best patchy. Western powers have often bypassed the UN to intervene in places where they felt human rights were violated owing to preponderant power in the hands of a particular religious group or sect, but could do little to create a better social order.
Events in Iraq have proved this very convincingly. Britain is undoubtedly a liberal country. Still its history in the 1960s and what it is now — at least at the level of society — exhibit counter-liberal postures. India has to its credit a very liberal constitution, which the Indian government would do well to adhere to. Since 1947 the Constitution has enjoined upon each political party to keep religion and politics apart and the State and the institutions it has spawned should enforce this rigorously. Intolerance breeds greater intolerance, leading to terrorism, which is a product of a siege mentality. Hence the State has another role here: It should reveal to everyone that it exists as the benefactor of all.
It is not religion that is always at the root of this. Ever since the rise of the nation states the clergy has ingratiated itself with the aristocracy and the monarchy, whether absolute or constitutional. The result has been an aggressive variety of nationalism, which has given us two world wars. Time was when war used to be looked upon as means of conflict resolution. No more. This is no doubt a positive development. Hence the fight against intolerance must start at the level of the State itself.