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Vivek Gumaste

Vivek Gumaste is a US based academic and political commentator

True tolerance requires impartiality and a level platform

This writer's first public brush with ideological intolerance came in the early 1990s and at one of the most unlikely of places: an elite intellectual society perched on New York's affluent Park Avenue. It was the screening cum discussion of Anand Patwardhan's documentary, Ram ke Nam — a slanted soliloquy on the Ramjanambhoomi movement. During the post-screening analysis, mine was the lone voice of dissent, albeit a civil one, in a room full of Indians.

No sooner had the programme ended, I was set upon by a screaming, gesticulating band of young Indians who hurled abuses like "communal" and other choice epithets at me. They were smartly attired and articulated English perfectly. But their intent was ugly: physical intimidation; an uncouth, vulgar attempt to silence a differing view point; a brazen attack on free speech.

This incident is a disturbing reminder that bigotry among Indians is not a de novo phenomenon. It has existed at for the last 50 years or so. For the greater part of the post-Independence era, it was fashionable to lampoon the Hindu nationalist view point; a process affected by a dual strategy of malicious demonisation that drew outlandish parallels to Nazism and by outright ostracisation from the mainstream media.

However, this intolerance remained imperceptibly below the radar, meriting little condemnation as it was deemed an "acceptable" form of intolerance if there was any. Driving this campaign of subtle suppression were two factors. One, the perpetrators were the powerful, influential, urban elite, and two, the victims were the supposedly vernacular types. Decent folk hesitated to express their opinions for fear of being stigmatised as "communal".

Our concept of intolerance is neither absolute in its definition nor altruistic in its mission. Rather, it is a subjective opinion dictated by the sway of the perpetrator and the vulnerability of the victim. It is this arbitrary definition that militates against conferring any gravity to the recent rallying cry against intolerance.

P. Chidambaram's op-ed, Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty (Indian Express, 15 March) is an example of this distortion. It is all the more concerning when an ex-Home Minister deliberately misrepresents facts to advance his prejudices.

Chidambaram remarks: "The rising tide of illiberalism and intolerance is frightening ... ban the book (Wendy Doniger), ban the documentary (India's Daughter) ... lynch the rape accused (in Nagaland), kill the rationalist (Govind Pansare). Return to your forefather's religion (ghar wapsi), vandalise the church... The common thread that runs through most of these eruptions is a reactionary ideology, Hindutva."

However his surmise is faulty — based on half-truths and unsubstantiated assumptions.

India has a long record of book banning that stretches into the tenure of British India. A review of 30 books banned (goodreads website) reveals that only two or three resulted from Hindutva activism. Additionally, the rustication of Wendy Doniger's book was the outcome of a legitimate legal plea, not violent intimidation. The Red Sari by Xavier Moro, a biopic of Sonia Gandhi was actively prevented from being published or circulated by the previous UPA government. The barring of India's Daughter was a collective decision endorsed by MPs, especially women cutting across party lines. Ghar wapsi is a legitimate act of conversion. When conversions by Christians and Muslims are acceptable why is ghar wapsi being singled out for criticism?

Similarly, the other incidents listed crumble under scrutiny. The details of the Nagaland lynching are murky; the church attacks appear to be commonplace vandalism and the murderers of Govind Pansare are unknown. In short, the entire spiel is a malicious diatribe, sans facts, sans reason.

While no acts of intolerance can be justified, we seem to focus on incidents of minimal significance, while ignoring genuine, large scale systemic ones like the Emergency, the anti-Sikh riots and the ethnic cleansing of Hindus from Kashmir, none of which can be attributed to Hindutva.

Our idea of intolerance and its capricious use needs to be replaced by one that conforms to inalienable robust standards and which is more egalitarian in its application. A level platform accessible to one and all to express their opinions with an impartial moderator — read, the media — is vital to ensure true tolerance.

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