Tolerance, the great Indian fudge

Peaceful co-existence of communities is guaranteed by the Constitution.

 |  4-minute read |   11-10-2015
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Had sort of begun to accept that irrespective of the social climate, whether we pass through peaceful times or rough, the virtue of tolerance will continue to be central to India's social narrative much the way "Unity in Diversity" is to the Republic Day parade. But events in the last one year have been forcing us to review many of the motherhoods we have grown up with.

Provocative times are an essential phase in every democracy. No matter how perfect the system, since people change, so must the system and periods of uncertainty and questioning, though tough to live in, provide a great opportunity to rid ourselves of rust and waste.

The problem with the concept of tolerance is that it hides a serious and inherent inequality which creates as many problems in the long run as it sorts out in the short.

When practised by the rich and powerful, it is a spiritual milestone that separates the special from the ordinary, a kind of stairway to heaven for the chosen few. But when practised by the hapless and helpless, it is simply fear. The village landlord can be tolerant of the landless but the landless cannot return the favour; it is in their destiny to only fear the landlord. At a different level, America can be tolerant of North Korea, but for all its bravado, North Korea can only fear America.

So is it with you and me.

We have the prerogative to be tolerant and earn spiritual brownie points only when dealing with our juniors but no such luck when dealing with our seniors. Whereas our seniors can be tolerant of us. In other words, tolerance is simply the benevolence accorded by the rich and the powerful to the rest.

And there hangs a serious fault line.

Mahatma Gandhi's doctrine of tolerance, an appeal to the masses to respect differences and stay united against the colonisers made sense in British India when in the absence of a constitution there was no option but to appeal to finer sensibilities. With more balanced demographics and the knowledge that the British would happily exploit any differences, Gandhi was smart enough to use his moral standing to good effect. Did it work? Probably not. Despite him, the country broke and a million lost their lives.

The situation changed once we adopted our own Constitution in 1950 which promised equality and a set of freedoms to all. Tolerance, at best a gratuitous, non-specific, half-spiritual appeal to the good sense of the majority became redundant except in a rhetorical sense. Peaceful and happy co-existence was no longer captive to the spirit of tolerance among the 85 per cent majority. It was guaranteed by the Constitution.

But old habits die hard.

The shift from whispering for tolerance to demanding equality never really happened. It was always a Faustian bargain anyway and sooner or later we would pay for it. Instead of establishing equality guaranteed by the Constitution as the central thought of a pluralistic society in which every citizen had the same rights and responsibilities, we continued to promise a stairway to heaven to 85 per cent of the population for doing nothing more than what is demanded of them by the Constitution.

And this did not happen by default but by design. Government after government refused to take the bull by the horn and demand that all citizens had equal rights. And those rights obviously included what we would wear and what we could eat, issues on which the country would go to the brink in the second decade of the 21st century.

In fact, it seems that successive governments were shy of even discussing the Constitution. Till well into the 1980s, the Constitution was not even taught in schools and for most of us, the first encounter with it would be when preparing for competitive examinations.

As a result, generations have grown up attributing the success of the Indian "unity in diversity" model not to the fact that the framers of our Constitution gave us no choice, thank god, but to a misplaced and a highly exaggerated sense of having been generous and tolerant of differences. Believing, in all probability, that the spirit of tolerance was a tap that was theirs to switch off.

And now that they have discovered a different stairway to heaven, they are free to choose the narrow lanes of bigotry and hatred instead of the broad avenues of equality and tolerance.


Preet KS Bedi Preet KS Bedi

Chief Executive Officer of Percept Pictures Company.

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