Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Tolerance from the bottom up

Many commentators have seen the controversy over Ashis Nandy and the Dalits, Salman Rushdie and Kolkata and Vishwaroopam's ban in Tamil Nadu, as attempts to muzzle India's culture of free speech and expression. Others see it as a clash between the freedom of speech and the sense of grievance and, often, outrage, it seems to unleash in certain instances.

But it is also possible to see the issues as a natural process of democratisation, with alternative "truths" vying for the upper hand in an environment of high economic growth, growing literacy and a burgeoning mass media.


Anyway, it would be surprising indeed, if in a country of the size and diversity of India, where more and more people live cheek-by-jowl in urban conglomerations, there was no social and cultural tension.
India has been a nation of communities. This is what persuaded Maulana Husain Ahmed Madani, the great Deobandi leader, to oppose partition and support a united India in 1947. But that nation where communities lived relatively autonomously is rapidly breaking down and being amalgamated into the new India, largely in the urban sprawl that characterises our cities.
There is some alarm that, in this India, there is a kind of middle-class, largely Hindu, "fundamentalism."
In the first phase of our modern history, in the era of Nehru and Indira Gandhi, democracy and liberalism were a paternalistic gift. But this was, to be frank, a foreign implant that is now showing signs of rejection.
But this does not mean that the future is illiberal and authoritarian, only that it needs to be constructed on a truly democratic basis, rather than a paternalistic grant. This is visible in the politics of the nation where hitherto marginalised communities are determining their own political future, as well as beginning to comprehend it through the process of education. 

Kashmir's Grand Mufti Mohammed Bashir-ud-din is a self-appointed controversialist, but his statements are jumped on by the media
Kashmir's Grand Mufti Mohammed Bashir-ud-din is a self-appointed controversialist, but his statements are jumped on by the media

The rising tide of economic growth has brought with it a sense of achievement and self-confidence and the social and cultural assertion is a corollary of these processes.
There is no doubt that there is a great deal of distortion in the process of self expression. Marginalised communities are quick to take offence at slights, which are sometimes merely perceived.
Communities like the Muslims, who are already influenced by the global trend towards fundamentalism, are quick to anger at what they consider as false depictions of their faith and community.
There are also professional purveyors of grievance, such as can be found in the majority community who argue that the system panders to the minorities and that their faith and expression is getting short shrift.


Another distortion has been caused by the media. The evolution of the media discourse in the country's burgeoning TV news franchise has been disturbing. To start with, as elsewhere, news was flavoured with expert commentary and discussion. But today, the format has been modified so that by design, the discussions become confrontations.
Then there is the issue of news selection. Take the case of the so-called Grand Mufti of Kashmir whose fatwa forced the girl band Pragaash to dissolve itself. He is a non-entity with a self-conferred title who has been on the lookout to generate controversy. But whatever outrages he commits are lapped up by the media, which neglects the basics of journalism - weighing the relative importance of an event or a source - before reporting on it.
The media metric for reportage is not whether something is consequential, but that it generates tension and controversy.
The greatest distortion is brought on by the role of the government. They are quick to act against writers, artists and ordinary persons who allegedly offend through their words and depiction, and ignore the actions of the allegedly aggrieved who threaten, and often undertake, violence.
But politicians who lead the system have never been known for their courage. Their style is to keep half a step behind public opinion, look right and left to see which way the public mood could move and then move in the same direction.
In fact it is the government's infirmities that are preventing the normal process of evolution where everyone could have the right to free expression, within clearly laid out boundaries, which obviously, exclude threats and acts of violence.

Members of the all-girl rock band Pragaash, against whom a fatwa was issued
Members of the all-girl rock band Pragaash, against whom a fatwa was issued


One problem is that many of the groups who are quick to take offence are genuinely illiberal. They have their pet projects in which they would like to reshape the world according in their own image. Prominent among these are Islamic and Hindu zealots. Muslims may see themselves as a besieged minority, but the Islamist sees himself as a holy warrior whose goal is to see the global triumph of Islam.
The Hindu zealot, on the other hand, has a regret that goes as far back as the advent of Islam in this country. He would like to undo that history of several centuries, and build India along an alternate future. Since that's not possible you are talking of science fiction.
Various countries have different experiences in dealing with the issue of freedom of speech and expression. It took democracies like the UK and US hundreds of years before they arrived at their present position, where they privilege freedom of speech and expression in the manner they do.
Given our very different circumstances and trajectory, it is unlikely that we can reach that end in a linear fashion. Yet it is the very diversity and circumstances of this country that will act as a catalyst and help us to arrive at our own balance.
Having got a good start, thanks to the independence generation and the likes of Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and Ambedkar, India now has to democratise liberalism. But this time, the impulse must come from below, since the trickle-down process doesn't work.
Indians will have to learn, and the process is not likely to be easy, that if you want space for yourself and your opinions, you also have to ensure that others have the room for theirs.
Mail Today February 6, 2013

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