The cult of intolerance

Tolerance of the intolerant or intolerance of the tolerant: Which is the battle being fought in India today? Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje apologised to the artist after an art installation called the Bovine Divine was taken down in rage. The Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur displayed the installation — a plastic cow suspended from a balloon — in an open area. The artist, Siddharth Karwal, was trying to draw attention to the plight of cows eating plastic waste. However pro-cow activists — a new power group in India — misunderstood, took offence, called the police who took the installation down. Is that tolerance of intolerance or the intolerant ruling the roost?

We have reached a peculiar stage in India today — nurtured by years of political patronage, the “sentiments” of random groups of people now determine our cultural, political and social discourse. Whatever you say or paint or sing or show, there will be several groups of people ready to take offence. The cow on a balloon was offensive because it was a cow and cows are holier than holy at the moment. That is the first reaction in the high-frenzy atmosphere of today. In the larger sense, it does not matter whether the artist was talking about today’s cow politics or something else. The fact that an elevated sense of outrage can so easily attack freedom of expression means that we are unable to combat the forces that want to take us to a closed society.

Even worse is the fact that the plastic cow was later brought back out of storage and worshipped. The irony, the thought, the idea of the artist in naming his installation “The Bovine Divine” was completely turned on its head in the end. And while in Rajasthan, renowned if sometimes controversial international sculptor Anish Kapoor also found himself on the receiving end of intolerance — two days after he was appointed to a cultural panel set up by the Rajasthan government, he was removed. Kapoor has made some scathing, uncomplimentary comments about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

It was been two months since a number of people, known and not so well known, from various walks of life, including retired soldiers, protested against a climate that does not allow free speech or a dispensation that goes back on electoral promises. Some have returned awards that they received for their writing, scientific work, artistic efforts, academic achievements, even bravery. Others have not returned their awards but have put forward their discomfort or distress at the perceived atmosphere of “rising intolerance”. What they mean is that they are disturbed by the stated intolerance to their particular views or the views of others. Part of this perception has been bolstered by the killing of writers and rationalists, where Hindutva rightwing groups have been the accused. Thus, for these people, it does not matter which political party runs various state governments. What matters is who has done the killings or who has done the threatening.

And the rest of their perception has, in fact, been vindicated by the howling response of anger from the Central government and its supporters. India is tolerant, declared a well-known film actor as he led a protest march against the protestors. It is fair to say, however, that Anupam Kher completely missed the point, whether deliberately or mistakenly. If scholar-writer M.M. Kalburgi is threatened and then murdered because he was against idol worship, then does another writer with similar views have the right to be frightened? For this people like Kher, a fine actor who has some remarkable work to his credit, have no proper answer. They seem to be hemmed in by their political beliefs. If a writer who supports Kalburgi is threatened with death on social media by a Bajrang Dal activist, what is that a sign of? And the removal of Anish Kapoor from a culture panel because he dislikes the politics of the Prime Minister, is that a sign of tolerance or intolerance?

The other argument against people who fear “rising intolerance” is that they are all stooges of the Congress Party and/or they are against the BJP. The sweeping nature of this allegation makes it untenable. Some may be less inclined towards Hindutva, some may have connections with this or that political party and others may not. It is also foolish to publicly state that being a Congress lackey and being a member of the Left coalition is the same thing. However, all things being equal, you still have the right to have an opinion and make a political choice. That includes agreeing or disagreeing with the party in power. This is something that followers and supporters of political parties have found hard to fathom in spite of democracy being our chosen form of governance in 1947, cemented in 1950.

If all this was just Twitter talk or TV news hysteria, it could safely be ignored or dismissed. But it is not. Union finance minister Arun Jaitley appears to spend more time fulminating over accusations of intolerance and the extreme victimhood of the Prime Minister than he does over the rising prices of pulses — which is a reality that no one can deny, not even Kher or whoever does the shopping in his household. At the crux of the matter though is a disingenuous misunderstanding of the word “tolerance” and a neat logical skip to pointing out how India is not intolerant. Because once you bring patriotism and nationalism into the argument, you can now send everyone who disagrees with you to Pakistan or, barring that, book them for sedition, as is the current fashion. It fools no one that such words and actions are nothing but extreme acts of intolerance. Perhaps Abraham Lincoln should have added to his definition of democracy what happens when people try to fool themselves.

It is intriguing though to gauge the reactions of those who refuse to accept that India can possibly be seen as intolerant. After film star Shah Rukh Khan said that he felt there was intolerance in the air, Kher was careful to warn people not to send Khan to Pakistan. They have a strong film connection. Now that actor Aamir Khan has added his own views to this, weighing in on the side of those who fear intolerance, Kher has sent him a few gentle tweets asking him what needs to be done. This is because, ultimately in India, we are more tolerant of whatever comes out of Bollywood than we are of the views of some of our best writers, intellectuals and scientists. And thereby hangs another miserable tale.

The writer is a senior journalist who writes on media affairs, politics and social trends

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( Source : deccan chronicle )
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