I wasn’t born when India banned Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. When M. F. Husain took on self-exile in 2006, I was too little to understand why. In fact, I didn’t realise that sometimes its better to let your thoughts go unexpressed until undergraduate college, where professors made it clear that there was no room for dissent within the classroom. The fact is that India has been familiar with intolerance for a long time. If this is so, what prompted Pratap Bhanu Mehta to specifically refer to our times as “the age of cretinism”?
To understand this, we must first understand tolerance, which is broadly understood as allowing beliefs or behaviours that are different from one’s own. Jamal Khwaja beautifully contextualised tolerance to society when he wrote that tolerance “embraces differences in the total spectrum of human life, language, dress, customs, food habits, morality, religion, art, politics and social institutions.” This understandably entails different levels of tolerance at different dimensions. Different human rights are embraced to different degrees. Freedom of expression has always been controversial. What makes it even more so today is the extreme polarisation of society which can be attributed to the triad powers of nationalism, religion and politics, each of which has a very distinct list of do’s and don’ts. Brought together, this becomes a deadly combination: it stifles dissent and perpetuates injustices that may be perfectly legitimate in its eyes. A chilling example is the murder of Gauri Lankesh, whose murderers were connected to an outfit involved in the murder of MM Kalburgi. Both opposed the majoritarian pulse of the nation. And so, moral and political cretinism seeps into our mindset.
While Rushdie’s work, M. F. Husain’s art and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s epic dramas may not be measurable on the same artistic plane of expression, they have all courted controversy on account of religious intolerance. Simultaneously, religious violence has been tolerated by the state; who would have thought that cow vigilantism would turn out to be an actual phenomenon? According to a 2018 report by United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, about a third of Indian states engaged in discriminatory practices against non-Hindus and dalit-bahujans.
And so, we are redirected to the triad of nationalism, religion and politics. Understanding this triad in context of the information era sheds light on why intolerance against views is increasing, yet injustices are tolerated.
The vastness of today’s communication channels brings increased conversation to us, and we have opted to leverage conversation to express disagreement and be outraged. Fair enough, but our outrage is selective. While we cannot tolerate the idea of something happening, we can tolerate that there’s nothing we can do about it.
We communicate more and more, yet we don’t know why we should be concerned about the issues besetting the nation. Journalist after journalist writes about the pitiable state of farmers. Manual scavenging took the lives of 50 people this year alone. The only time we pay attention to dalit-bahujan issues is when one of them commits suicide. But we are outraged because Priyanka Chopra, who seems to be a celebrity authority on human rights, said something condescending to a Pakistani woman at a beauty pageant. When Raya Sarkar publicly named academics who engaged in sexually predatory behaviour, social media condemned her. Not too late after, the #MeToo movement took over the same social media, did the same thing that Sarkar did, and was hailed for it. The choice to tolerate has a lot to do with class. A vast number of injustices in India are committed against the lower class, and the lower class voice does not hit close to home for the privileged who are on such media.
The murders of dissenters, and India’s precarious position with religion, is symbolic of the intolerance of unpalatable views and the tolerance of injustice. Our media is defined by selective outrage and trolling. Indian society is glazed over by majoritarianism, while the lower classes remain as they were- screaming silently. G. Sampath says there can be two outcomes of tolerance: the expansion of human autonomy or the suppression of it. The caveat is that selective tolerance does no good to either.
Image: Shaun Yeo