Saturday, June 18, 2011

The populist road to perdition

The passing away of MF Husain has brought forth a national angst about the not-so-secret fact that we have become an increasingly intolerant people. It has also provided a terrible mirror for us to face ourselves as we are, rather than as we think we are. Indians pride themselves on their tolerance, but the truth is  somewhat more complicated. The harassment of Husain, the vandalising of cinema halls, the activities of the Shiv Sena in Mumbai and the Ram Sene in Karnataka, the viciousness of the pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat, the almost routine killing of couples who marry out of their castes, is very much part of contemporary India.

Quite recently a study by Science magazine sought to quantify the level of intolerance prevailing in the country, and the outcome shows that we are not too distant on that score from the country we love to revile—Pakistan. The study ranked 33 countries for their level of ‘tightness’—where tight societies have strong norms and low tolerance of what is perceived as deviant behaviour, while loose ones have weak social norms and  high tolerance.

 Not surprisingly, the tightness scores were the highest for Pakistan (12.3), but India was not far behind with 11 points, with Malaysia in between at 12.8. Another surprise is that authoritarian China does rather well with a tightness score of 7.9, better than South Korea (10) and Japan (8.6). Tolerance and intolerance are affected by ideologies, but also have deeper roots in history, religions, social systems and even social anthropology.
In some ways perceptions of India’s tolerance are based on the peace that came with the British conquest. With a colonial master strictly ensuring that violence remained its monopoly, society functioned in a stable political arrangement where communities persisted with their respective social customs without much interference by the British, especially after the 1857 rebellion.
In fact, in contrast to its self-image, Hindu society was deeply intolerant. It insisted on people maintaining a rigid social code and any violation of it could invite immediate retribution, even death. As long as those codes were observed, there was tolerance. Within the bounds of the varna system, however, there was a great deal of tolerance for diversity and so you have Vaishnavites, Shaivites, Arya Samajis, Aghoris, and even atheists in the fold of Hinduism. And you had a variety of practices—animal sacrifice, strict vegetarianism, even gods and goddesses depicted in copulation—without anyone being killed for it.
Though we know historically of the conflict between the Hindus and the Jains and Buddhists, the Saivites and Vaishnavites, and Hindus and Muslims, the linchpin of the India that was founded in 1947 was tolerance. For this, one man alone was responsible—Mahatma Gandhi—and his beliefs did not come from the well-springs of his faith, but his real life experiences, especially his  sojourns in UK and South Africa. He strove mightily to break down the barriers of caste and community, and indeed religions. Even his contemporaries like Tagore, Patel, and Jinnah were way behind him on this issue. The result was the Republic of 1950 based on the compact that India would be sovereign and democratic, of course, but above all secular and tolerant. We were lucky once again with the first prime minister of the country, Jawaharlal Nehru who was, if one may put it this way, an atheist.

Modernising India has thereafter seen  many social and religious upheavals, particularly those relating to the assertion of ethnic and caste identities, often targeting what was seen as the establishment dominated by the upper castes. The result has been that the establishment has kicked back, using the fear of change to suppress what it sees as a life threatening event. It is the second kind of intolerance that has caught the attention of the people and drove Husain out of the country. An interesting feature of this intolerance is that it is not as much of a spontaneous affair as is often made out. A lot of this has been associated with organisations that cluster around the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh, which is, not surprisingly, an outfit dominated by the upper castes.
But it would be wrong to blame the Sangh Parivar alone for the wave of intolerance we witness in our country. And neither, we must acknowledge, is all intolerance bad. Intolerance of caste and gender oppression has motivated people to organise, protest and fight the established order. Currently we are going through a stage where people who reluctantly acquiesced with every-day corruption are declaring that they are unable to tolerate the situation anymore.
 The more disturbing aspect of the current mood in the country is the association of intolerance with the advance of democracy. Groups and communities who were out of the political system and low on the social scale are now asserting themselves. There is a democratisation of intolerance with these various groups expressing their views about what they feel offended by—a local hero or deity allegedly insulted, a violation of their social mores, and so on. They are also assertive with regards to what they consider their social views, and theseoften clash with those of others who are equally forceful.

In our democratic and socio-cultural mélange some of this is understandable, though not always condonable. But it is here that the threat of majoritarianism is manifest, hence the danger of the Parivar type activity. Normally, in a democratic society there is supposed to be sufficient space for everyone’s self expression. But in the current climate, this is precisely what is being sought to be challenged.
Democracy should have been the means through which this incredibly diverse country would mediate the claims and counter-claims of different communities. It hasn’t quite worked that way, yet.
What we have seen, instead, is democracy itself being hijacked by a group which is able to cobble together an electoral majority and uses its position in government to push its narrow agenda to the detriment of other groups. The khaps of Haryana are a case in point where their electoral clout has led to mainstream politicians of all parties refusing to condemn their method of exercising social control through murder.
Countering intolerance is not easy. It took Europe centuries of warfare between Protestants and Catholics to arrive at a concept of religious tolerance. The saying attributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, would itself be two centuries before the France of today. Even so, it needs to be pointed out that the European attitudes towards racial tolerance remain a work in progress. 
Yet, as the example of Gandhi and Nehru has shown, it is possible for a charismatic and skilful leader to make huge transformations. The big weakness today is that we have leaders who shuffle half a step behind public opinion. They look right and then left, and first determine what the mob wants, and then give political voice to their demands.
You can call such craven behaviour “populist”, but some would suggest that it is suicidal and self-destructive.
Mail Today June 15, 2011

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