The Misguided Debate on Intolerance in India

Concerns about intolerance in India have reached a feverish pitch in recent months. Incidents such as the ink attack against Indian activist Sudheendra Kulkarni, banning of beef in certain states, murder of a professor and writer who criticized Hindu beliefs, and the lynching of a Muslim man accused of storing beef in his refrigerator have led to a maelstrom of debate in the media. While the religious right and supporters of the Modi government have mounted a defense focused on characterizing the aforementioned crimes as isolated instances and pointing out the tolerance, inclusion, and secularism of India, opponents have seized on the opportunity to highlight problems that have been part of India’s social and cultural fabric for ages. Prominent writers and actors such as Salman Rushdie and Aamir Khan have spoken out against the issue, further fanning the flames of the debate and invoking the involvement of the international community. Global risk management agency Moody’s Analytics recent warned the Modi government to keep BJP party members under control “or risk losing domestic and global credibility.”

The Modi government is undeniably guilty in certain respects. Senior BJP leaders like Amit Shah and party members like Manohar Lal Khattar have made several incendiary statements to cater to the party’s Hindu voter base. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), from which Modi began has own political career, has begun to more vociferously advance a Hindu agenda, emboldened by the BJP’s newfound national clout. Modi, meanwhile, has neglected to chastise the culprits within his party and nip such bigotry in the bud. The fact that he remains silent is all the more damning considering his questionable response to the 2002 Gujarat riots. As such, the hard right has been emboldened to test the limits of his patience. They will continue to push until they are forced back into compliance by the more moderate members of the political establishment, or an incensed voter base finally changes the power dynamic in Delhi. Until then, minorities and marginalized groups who opposed Modi in the general election for this very reason feel that their worst fears are coming true.

However, these concerns must be contextualized with the realization that religious fanaticism, political orthodoxy, misogyny, and other injustices that are pervasive in the news today are not new to India. Nor are they specific to any single religion. One doesn’t need to dive too far into history to find several examples to incriminate almost every single religious or social group in the country on offences that are more heinous than ones we hear in the news today. If we are going to single out the Hindu right for its extremism, we should not forget the excesses of extremist factions in other religious groups as well.

Criticism of India should also be tempered with the realization that India is by far not the only country to deal with intolerance and Indian politicians are not unique in such politicking. Every developing country has had to deal with the same issues. Even Donald Trump in the United States, who currently has the largest percentage of the national conservative vote, has adopted a similar strategy to woo Christian conservative voters. He has made derogatory statements towards women, Mexican immigrants, and Muslims. His fear-mongering has sparked a visible backlash against minorities by emboldening those who already harbored such xenophobic tendencies. As such, even the supposedly enlightened electorate of the world’s pre-eminent superpower is not immune from the follies of human nature. Playing upon the public’s deep-seated insecurities is a strategy that politicians have used from the earliest days of democratic government. Furthermore, given the populist fervor evidenced by the conservative right in both India and the United States (the world’s two largest democracies) we have been presented with an opportunity whereby lessons learned in one country may be of use in correcting the excesses in the other.

Regardless, it is clear that many such sectarian issues have finally reached Malcolm Gladwell’s much-acclaimed “tipping point” at which action is inevitable. The younger generation is especially frustrated with the lack of change to-date and is willing to question orthodoxy that our parents and grandparents accepted resignedly (“This is how things have always been in India”). The younger generation is not willing to accept that India should always remain incorrigible, and is attempting to take matters into its own hands, at times to the chagrin of the “old guard” that rules Indian politics. The intelligentsia / social elite has also become more active, as evidenced by the slew of writers, actors, and artists who have opted to return their national awards as a form of protest. This tipping point has been enabled by the growth of social media in India. Every individual has the power to highlight injustices that would have otherwise been overlooked or ignored just a few years ago. This is why the entire nation can be seized by the news of a lynching in a small village of Uttar Pradesh. As it did in the Arab Spring, social media has the power to catalyze change at a rate much faster than ever before.

However, the role of the traditional media and social media in such cases in not entirely benign. Though the media may be aiming to facilitate a much-needed debate on the topic, it may also have the unwanted side-effect of obfuscating the true issues and undermining the search for solutions. For example, over the past several months the media and public have focused on exchanging angry barbs over the question “Is India more intolerant today than it was before Modi was elected?” However, this is a question that cannot be answered definitively and in the end is irrelevant to the search for solutions.

First of all, how are we to measure and quantify “intolerance”? Should it be measured by the incidence rate of sectarian conflict? Or should it gauge public sentiment in regards to safety and social mobility? And how could we ever measure the risk that people begin to view their neighbors with a more wary eye because they are different in religion or culture? Furthermore, the measurement of “intolerance” is plagued by the availability bias. The improved availability of information facilitated by a more astute and aware media institution means that events that would have gone unnoticed and unreported even a few years ago can no longer escape the ever-longer arm of the media. And the media, in its never-ending quest for ratings (it is a business after all) can choose to highlight certain issues in dramatic fashion, grabbing disproportionately the public’s mindshare.

Secondly, the debate on “whether tolerance has increased” is irrelevant to the search for solutions and is actually obfuscating the key issues. We have already seen how the misguided “blame-game” masquerading as a “debate” has seized much mindshare and potentially distracted politicians from the duty of governing, media from the task of reporting, and the populace from the burden of thinking. Rather than focusing on real, long-term solutions that can only be derived from economic growth and the proper application of the democratic process, the issue has become one of mudslinging and political posturing. We are glued to the talking heads on TV who take hours out of their day to yell at each other. As usual, the leading political parties have marched out their overeager spokespeople to attack the opposition while the Congress and BJP “bhakts” on social media have undoubtedly wasted countless hours with memes and clever Facebook posts. BJP spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao has described this debate as a national conspiracy inculcated by the Congress party. Such posturing surely cannot be good for the search for solutions.

The solutions for intolerance will not arise from endless debates with Arnab Goswami and Rahul Kanwal. Shouting on TV and posting on Facebook may serve as short-term medication insomuch as we can shine light on the problems that others are ignoring. However, as with most social ills, the needed long-term vaccination will only result from a renewed focus on the fundamental tenets of development. Increasing education, employment opportunities, social mobility, and social safety nets are some of the only true ways of quelling discontent in a democracy and free market economy. Unlike Middle Eastern countries, India doesn’t have the luxury of oil wealth to shower gifts and cash on its populace. It will take grit and determination to focus on long-term growth projects despite near-term hiccups. Only then will we be able to satisfy the disparate needs of India’s many communities. After all, a rising tide should lift all boats. In the interim, our media should be focusing on policy, not politics. Instead of facilitating a nationally televised blame game, we should be talking about key forms pertaining to the tax code, land acquisition laws, labor laws, education, governance, and other game changing policies that will serve as the true foundation of change.

Unfortunately, until we are able to move towards such solutions, intolerance may be self-perpetuating in the near-team. It is human nature that at times of flux and conflict, we cling more tightly to our own ideals and identities, which in turn makes us less tolerant of differences in culture, religion, and class. We become more closed to outsiders and more likely to associate only with our kinsmen. For example, when speaking of Kashmir, we more vehemently become Indian or Pakistani. During election season, we become more polemically conservative or liberal, BJP-supporters or Congress-supporters. When listening to the gross excesses of the political and social Page-3 elite, we become more fiercely middle class. As such, during this era of perceived intolerance and sectarian conflict, our instinctual defense of our own ideals may be sowing the seeds for more intolerance and conflict to come. This means that the focus on real progress and real solutions needs to take on even more urgency. The longer we dither, the worse the problem may get.

A country as heterogeneous as India cannot escape the conflicts and clashes that are the unavoidable result of the close juxtaposition of many religions, cultures, social strata, and political ideologies. That India is not mired in perpetual civil war today and succeeds as a democracy (albeit imperfectly) is a testament to the foresight of its founding fathers and the strength of compromise. Historian and writer Ramachandra Guha, in his book “India After Gandhi”, argues that India’s Constitution is the most complex of any modern nation-state. The tenuous, unstable equilibrium that allows India to function today despite its chaos will be shaken again and again, and it is inevitable that at times conflict will brew as ideologies are tested against each other. As India grows and evolves, social, religious, political, and economic groups will continue to come into conflict. The various socioeconomic classes will adjust in size as the nation figures out how to balance growth and equity. This is a challenge that no nation has yet figured out how to solve. China, which enjoyed more than a decade of double digit GDP growth, is dealing with this issue now and is a real-time test case which India should watch carefully. Similarly, as India’s population grows and ages, the social, cultural, and religious mix will change in a way that will continue to shift the balance of power. New groups will come to power as the old guard is swept away. This is a challenge that the political right in the United States will have to contend with in just a few short years. As such, India’s “growing pains” are not unique, nor is India alone in its attempts to figure out the path forward. Rather, we should make sure to learn from each conflict in an effort to prevent or mitigate the next. When such moments do arise, it is imperative that we fall back on the tenets of democracy, and not the boisterous histrionics that have become commonplace in today’s India.

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