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The republic of intolerance

Statutory warning: Reading this, in whole or in part, may cause some people in some places to take offence to some lines and may lead to hurt sentiments. Smruti Koppikar writes.

mumbai Updated: Feb 03, 2013 01:45 IST
Smruti Koppikar

Statutory warning: Reading this, in whole or in part, may cause some people in some places to take offence to some lines and may lead to hurt sentiments.

Such warnings, disclaimers or caveats might precede the prose, poetry, films, academic postulations and opinion articles that enter the public domain from now on.

It would be perfectly logical, given the sudden - and seemingly inexplicable - rise in our propensity to take offence and/or nurse hurt sentiments.

Filmmakers, artists, writers, thinkers would thus save themselves from having to ceaselessly justify and defend their work against motley groups and in courts across the land.

Of course, if such pre-emptive disclaimers robbed us, as a people, of truth, edginess, Rashomon-ish versions of reality, ferocious debate, disagreement, even hate pieces, we would be that much poorer as a people.

But that would be all right, because we would have no one with hurt sentiments.

Besides, we would have law and order prevailing at all times, without our elected governments straining a sinew to do so. India would be a satisfied, smugly happy nation of victorious motley mobs.

If such an India also had a silently simmering majority unwilling to voice their hurt sentiments over compromised rights and freedoms, well, too bad. At least we would be a tolerant nation. Perhaps we already are such a tolerant nation.

Tolerant of mobs given to haranguing those who express ideas that they interpret as hurtful.

Tolerant of the unfree-speech fundamentalists in our midst.

Continue down this path and offence, outrage and hurt sentiments could be history. Rights, liberty and free speech would be history too. And, we would be a peaceful 'democracy'.

Then, author Salman Rushdie would not have to battle Mamata Banerjee and the mobs she sought to protect. Sociologist Ashis Nandy, and other intellectuals, need not approach the courts to fend off arrest for provocative lines taken out of context.

Kamal Haasan, and filmmakers who dare to depict slices of reality within a fictional world, could safely retain their wealth - and homes.

And, we would be spared elected chief ministers such as Tamil Nadu's J Jayalalithaa, constitutionally obliged to protect rights and preserve law and order, rationalising dereliction of duty with such words as: "…If organised groups threaten violence, then the State has to cave in because it cannot match their strength".

If some among us call such a State a 'nanny state', oops, we would have given offence. So let's not even whisper anything about nannies and the State even if the State cannot rein in someone like MH Jawahirullah, Tamil Nadu Muslim Makkal Katchi president and MLA, and a key protestor, who says: "The beginning of the film is itself the beginning of trouble - it is based on true incidents".

Tolerance, like other democratic ideals, is yoked to governance, to establishing and upholding the rule of law. It is elementary.

The more the State supports and nurtures values of accommodation, acceptance, debate and peaceful protest, the stronger such values become in a democracy.

Such a State would not "have to cave in" to organised groups or mobs that threaten violence. Such a State would not take the side of the aggressor and make the victim feel like the culprit. Such a State would ensure that there was space both for the ideas expressed - or books written, films made, cartoons drawn - and the lawful protests that might follow.

The rising intolerance, RS Sodhi, former Delhi high court judge attributes, to "fringe groups mis-interpreting the reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech".

It may be difficult, even contentious, to date when the intolerance of the few became more significant than the tolerance of the many.

It was certainly before l'affaire Rushdie at the Jaipur Literature festival last year. Surely before Taslima Nasreen was hounded out of West Bengal?

How far back into contemporary history do we go?

The intolerance of the few fanatics threatened by the SC's verdict in the Shahbano case, or the intolerance of the few who decided they would no longer tolerate not having a Ram mandir at that very spot, or the intolerance of the few privileged to the recommendations of the Mandal Commission? Or even before that?

Steadily, each act of intolerance and outrage that the State gave in to made us less capable of dealing with the next. We are now told that we are at the intersection of free speech and expression, and law and order. Is this a choice?

A democracy must have both.

A democracy that gives in to mobs, repeatedly, is unlikely to have either free speech or law and order. Hail, this Republic of Intolerance.

(With inputs from KV Lakshmana and Zia Haq)
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