(This letter was sent to Victor Mallet first. He thanked me for a thoughtful response while adding that I had underplayed the role of the Government and the BJP to the stock of intolerance. He encouraged me to send it to FT Letters. I reduced the length by half and sent it to them).
Dear Mr. Mallet,
The broad conclusions and the message of your column (‘Old-fashioned tolerance could help heal divided India’, FT Nov. 30, 2015) are not contestable. The world can always do with more tolerance and better understanding. That is as true of nations and religions as it is true of communities and individuals. The title of the article, however, is misleading. It suggests that old-fashioned tolerance could help heal a divided India. This division in India cannot be healed because it is an orchestrated division for political purposes. It is politics by propaganda.
At one level, it is brilliant tactic. It is working so far. For all practical purposes, the BJP and the Government are behaving like deer caught in the headlights. They are on the defensive. At another level, it is politics at its crassest. While, in the short-term, it might appear to be yielding dividends to the Opposition, in the long-run, it might turn voters away. Indian voters have voted discerningly in the past, choosing one set of parties for State assemblies and others for the Parliament. The other risk is that this tactic hurts the nation itself by creating a self-fulfilling cycle of intolerance-induced communal conflagration. That will set the economy and the society back almost irreversibly when it has hardly begun to recover from ten lost years of venal and incompetent governance from 2004.
In a sense, Indian politicians and the so-called ‘Left liberals’ are adopting a strategy that is not too dissimilar to that of the ISIL. The ISIL wants to turn the rest of the world, particularly the West, against Muslims so that it could have a huge catchment of disaffected Muslim youth for its army. Alienating communities, nations and religions serves their agenda very well.
That is what India’s political Opposition and those who are personally viscerally opposed to the continuation of PM Modi in office, are doing. By accusing the majority community and the government of intolerance in a deliberately exaggerated and unjustified manner, they aim to incite at least some sections of either or both into words and deeds of intolerance and then declare victory. In all this, they are also displaying their anti-democratic leanings, refusing to acknowledge that the BJP and Modi won an absolute majority – the first time any Party has done so since 1984.
The murder of some political activists that you mention in your article took place in states ruled by the Congress and at least one of them happened before the BJP-led government came to office. The responsibility of nabbing the culprits and finding out the root cause of the murders rests with those governments. This simple fact has been lost in the din or been deliberately drowned by the orchestrated campaign. The murder of a Muslim in Dadri in the State of Uttar Pradesh is yet to be fully investigated. Some reports have alluded to other personal motives at work.
Somewhat more extraordinarily, Ms. Barkha Dutt, a leading television commentator, made a confession in a town-hall discussion in May 2015 that the media did not do a proper job of its investigations of attacks on the churches before the elections to the Delhi Assembly and that it jumped to conclusions. Here is the link and watch the ‘confession’ at 23:50. Almost all of the attacks on Churches had motives other than intolerance or communal motives. That the retraction or confession was made rather quietly and in a wholly disproportionately insignificant manner relative to the original reports is clear proof, if it were needed, that the plaintiff and not the defendant was guilty.
The ban on cow slaughter is provided for in the Constitution, and was repeatedly called for by the person that all Indian and western leaders swear by – Mahatma Gandhi. It was enacted by many Congress governments in the past. Even recently, the Congress Party had offered to co-operate in bringing forward national legislation on banning cow slaughter. Yet, the charge of intolerance has dogged legislative moves made by some BJP ruled States on this matter.
What India has been witnessing in the last eighteen months is the intolerance of India’s self-styled liberals and intellectuals towards a legitimate democratic verdict. Their intolerance is aimed at preventing the present government from governing so that their former benefactors could be voted back to office and that they could go back to enjoying their sinecures and other rents.
Involvement of players and agencies from outside India with agendas of their own cannot be entirely ruled out. Ruthless suppression by violence, economic exploitation and religious conversions are different manifestations of intolerance. Western nations have deployed them in the past and continue to do so in varying degrees in many parts of the world, including in India.
Many Hindus, including yours truly, would turn firmly against the present Indian government if it were genuinely intolerant towards other religions and other communities. That is not the case. Even if they had such designs, the two election defeats would have made them pause. There is the check and balance of democracy acting on them. But, what about accountability for tolerance on the other side?
The Chief Secretary of the Kerala Government said recently that it was biblically imperative to bring people unto Jesus. No ‘secular’ commentator has condemned his remarks. Even now or especially now, a Hindu cannot get away with making equivalent statements. He would be metaphorically lynched. Second, Vikram Sampath was forced to resign from the stewardship of the Bangalore Literary Festival because of his views on the return of State-conferred awards, on his stance on the Tipu Sultan controversy and for having signed a petition, with other eminent historians, archaeologists and artists on the need for recognizing multiple viewpoints and narratives in Indian historiography.
That is why the suggestion that the threat to the soul or the so-called idea of India comes from this government is either the product of biased minds or is amnesia of staggering proportions. One only needs to re-read the piece written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta little over two years ago to remember that India and Indians had much to be embarrassed about. A scholarly and seemingly upright Prime Minister presided over arguably the most venal and corrupt government for ten years from 2004. He was both helpless and complicit by his silence and inaction. That was a threat to the idea of India.
In India, over the years, the space for action by the Union government on policies has shrunk. Most pending issues are within the domain of Indian states exclusively or concurrently between the Union and State governments. The Union government has exclusive responsibility for Defence, External Sector, Banking and Financial Markets. Its tasks, therefore, are to empower the State governments to govern better and to bolster the capability of the government bureaucracy. Defence and External relations management have improved markedly under this government and it has ceded financial resources to states more than any other Union government has done in the past. It has made some beginnings towards improving state capability with its emphasis on merit and competence in bureaucratic appointments. See the story here. It needs to be held to account for failure in these areas and complimented for successes too.
That the world needs more tolerance is a truism. But, in particular, those who accuse others of intolerance seem to need introspection, reflection and a fair bit of tolerance themselves. Their minds need healing.