The Intolerance Debate: Reacting With Hate?

Santosh Desai

MD & CEO, Futurebrands, Author

Insinuations, allegations and denunciations are flying thick and fast. Raghuram Rajan should be sacked. President Pranab Mukherjee is a throwback from the Congress era. Zubin Mehta is a Parsi elitist who has no clue about India. Gulzar is a Muslim or at the very least someone who adopts a Muslim sounding name. Winners of Sahitya Akademi awards are state-bred leeches who nobody knows or cares about. And the less said about Presstitutes, the better.

If one were for a moment look beyond the sweeping personal attacks like the ones cited above, being made on those expressing concern about the current climate in the country and ask what exactly is the problem that is making so many protestors react like this? The most commonly heard idea in this entire issue is that of intolerance and the threat to the freedom of expression. The supporters of the government allege that this is not true and that a conspiracy is afoot. They might well have a point- there is little evidence to show that voices of dissent are being stifled in a systematic way any more than they were in the past or by governments headed by other parties- what is happening to Kovan in Tamil Nadu being a case in point.

Even when it comes to the controversy around the ban of beef, it isn’t as if the government’s position is dramatically at odds with that of all other political parties. Digvijay Singh has gone on record to assert that his party is in favour of a complete ban, and restrictions on cow slaughter have been around for decades before this dispensation came to power.

In a thought-provoking piece in Newslaundry, Anand Ranganathan asks why did media, when covering the brutal murders of Kalburgi, Pansare and Dabholkar, automatically jump to the conclusion that some Hindutvavadi was involved. He pointed out that in each case, these men had angered several different groups, and any rational discourse on the killings should surely have considered other possibilities, without ruling out the hand of Hindutva elements? Similarly, in other instances is the dominant narrative about a climate of hate being constructed without due examination?

These are reasonable questions and must be engaged with. Perhaps one way to comprehend what is happening today is to understand that while the protests are in part about what has been happening the country, there are much more about the fear of what might happen in the future if things continue the way they are. The critique of the present exists, but is subsumed in a much larger anxiety about the intention of the ruling dispensation, that gets revealed in what it does, what it chooses to say and what it maintains silence about.

In that sense the biggest contributor to the current anxiety is not the government’s actions as much as its reactions. There is a studied ambivalence in the reaction of the government and its allied organisations to any contentious issue, that makes it easy for a coherent narrative about a climate of divisiveness and intolerance to get built. The reactions to Dadri lynching underlined this ambivalence, with its combination of weak condemnation and inventive excuses- it didn’t happen, it happens all the time, the violence was provoked, why do attacks on protectors of cows not get the same coverage and so on.

Take the case of writers and others returning their awards. Surely, it is their right to return something that has been conferred on them. One could argue that as a gesture, it is a somewhat empty one, given that the award in the first place is a recognition which cannot be ‘returned’ in any meaningful sense. But it is this very emptiness of gesture that seems to infuriate the supporters of the government, for it comes without any specific demands- it is a pure act of protest without asking for anything concrete in return. Instead of either selectively acknowledging, ignoring or debating the premise of the protests, the dominant strategy seems to be to call the protestors names or to accuse them of selective outrage, which in effect tries to shift the debate away from the present to the past, and from the issue to the credentials of the protestor. Reactions like these merely confirm fears about intolerance rather than address them, particularly when the name-calling becomes intemperate as has usually been the case.

And it is not just the vocal support base that gives rise to suspicions about the intent of this regime. When PM Modi himself talks about a plot by the Grand Alliance to give away part of the OBC quota to a ‘certain community’, or Amit Shah talks about crackers going off in Pakistan if the BJP were to lose in Bihar or indeed when the RSS officially discusses the need for a policy intervention to check the population growth rates of Christians and Muslims in the country, it is not easy to admonish the critics of this government from being too enthusiastic about connecting the dots about the existence of a deliberate effort to drive a wedge between communities.

The onus is on the ruling side to fix the current perception and by continuing to denounce anyone who voices fears, it is only making things worse. If it tried to reassure those expressing concern instead of counter-attacking them, suspicions about the government’s intentions would naturally abate. Or it could ignore the critics; after all every government has critics and rarely do regimes take criticism as personally as this one does. As things stand, the government’s problem is that it is angry about being criticized, but appears unwilling to remove the reason for the criticism. It sees the critic as the problem rather than the criticism, and seems keener to silence the critic rather than address the criticism. It hates with an equal passion those it accuses of hating it and a government has no business dealing in hate. That is the difference between a government and its critics, or at least should be.

(This piece has appeared previously in the Times of India)
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