State or Society?: Who's to blame for rising intolerance?

Last Updated: Mon, Feb 04, 2013 12:19 hrs

Recently Minister of State for Human Resource Development Shashi Tharoor commented that India was becoming a culture of “competitive intolerance”. He was speaking on the Salman Rushdie and Ashish Nandy controversies.

He could never have been more off the mark. This is yet another example of the downright hypocrisy of Indian politicians and how they always divert attention from the real issue.

The first question to be asked is specific controversies aside; is intolerance really increasing or decreasing in society or is it only appearing to do so thanks to extended media coverage? And if so, is this intolerance really getting boosted due to inaction by the State?

The truth is that man has always been intolerant of his fellow man from time immemorial and clashes between different groups, castes and religions have always been going on and may continue to do so for quite some time.

The only thing that has differed throughout history is the State and the laws. Most of the countries of the world are no longer dictatorships and monarchies that can harbour whatever prejudices they feel like.

In America, there are still such groups that harbour prejudices against African Americans. This came to the fore when all manner of disgusting and racist Tweets got ReTweeted in huge numbers when Barack Obama was re-elected.

You really can’t change the intolerance of individual citizens. Slavery was abolished in 1863 and racial segregation was totally done away with by the 1970s. That along with a strict crackdown on racial discrimination brought about a sea change in the US.

It is the State through its attitude and the laws that it introduces which can bring about a real change.

That way if one looks at the Indian scene, then one sees that it is the Central government which has become increasingly intolerant from 2009 onwards. After that all other parties and State government have merely followed.

When the Congress was re-elected to power in 2009, it became so arrogant that it became totally intolerant of any kind of criticism.

Congress spokespersons are totally intolerant of any opinion which diverts even marginally from their own. This is evident from the way they rubbish everything all the time.

In the online world, the biggest example of this intolerance is the imposition of Section 66A of the IT Act which can lock up people for merely being “annoying”. A good number of people have been harassed under this act and stringent criticism seemed to be their biggest crime.

In West Bengal, TMC leader Mamata Banerjee once said in an interview that her governance was so effective that she should get 11/10 for performance. She lives in a make-believe world of her own and cracks down on any dissent.
Her police force has sent a professor packing for forwarding a spoof and dubbed certain rapes as a conspiracy to malign her!

The Shiv Sena in Palghar succeeded in getting two girls arrested for the harmless of Facebook status messages. This kind of intolerance of the common man’s opinion cuts across party lines.

A big example is the decision to ban certain offending cartoons from NCERT textbooks some time back. The cartoons had been around for decades. The society is the same. The cartoonists are the same. It is the politicians which became more intolerant and banned them.

The case of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa is even more bizarre. When the censor board had cleared Kamal Haasan’s movie Vishwaroopam, the State had no business to ban it; this more so when it was smoothly released in other states.

She then made a statement that Haasan should sit with the offended groups and sort out the issue? Excuse me? When the censor board has cleared it why should Haasan start talks with private parties?

If Jayalalithaa perceived threats, then she should have quit her post since she has accepted that she is unable to ensure the smooth release of a film which has been cleared by the censor board.

Using Jaya’s logic, tomorrow when there are protests against a film or book, then the State is irrelevant. It is the author or director’s duty to talk to the private groups and seek a solution!

A very unhealthy precedent had been set at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2012. Writer Salman Rushdie was denied entry as the police failed in its duty to ensure peace in the face of protests and the State watched mutely for political compulsions of its own.

This farce was recently repeated at the Kolkata Literary Festival.

If I harbour stupid and harmful prejudices against my neighbour, then no law can change that.

If I start to put those prejudices into action, then the State is bound to stop me.

But if the State is too busy being intolerant on its own, then there’s absolutely no chance in reining in intolerance of the society.

Similarly every group in India has a right to be offended and a right to protest.

But if the State starts taking all the fringe groups in the country seriously and giving in to all their silly demands, then were are in for some serious trouble indeed.

If only head in the cloud politicians like Tharoor could understand this!

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The author is a Bangalore-based journalist and blogger.

He blogs at

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