Evidence of Tolerance: Clashes Are Rare

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

PONDICHERRY, INDIA

My last column — on India’s tradition of tolerance, which I discussed in the context of European difficulties with Islamic immigration — received an unusual amount of feedback. Several readers agreed with the points I was making. But many also objected to, or at least questioned, my characterization of India as a tolerant society.

The objections generally drew attention to two facts of Indian life. A few responses pointed to the institution of caste and the historical discrimination against lower castes, particularly dalits, or untouchables. Many readers also pointed to a history of communal riots in the country, arguing that persistent tensions between religious groups, especially Hindus and Muslims, belied the notion of a tolerant India.

Siddhartha Banerjee, from Oxford, Pennsylvania, had a characteristic response. “I take your larger point about India’s tolerance,” he wrote, “but surely after the ghastly events of 1984, 2002, and not least Thackeray, we don’t deserve that adjective anymore?”

He was referring, respectively, to anti-Sikh riots that shook India’s capital after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984; the gruesome Hindu-Muslim riots that took place in Gujarat in 2002, during which more than 1,000 people were killed; and to recent protests, instigated by the Bal Thackeray-led Shiv Sena party, against a Bollywood star who supported the inclusion of Pakistanis on Indian cricket teams.

Mr. Banerjee could have added at least two further examples — the carnage of partition, in 1947, during which up to a million were killed; and the Hindu-Muslim violence that shook India in the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the destruction of a Muslim mosque by a Hindu mob in the northern city of Ayodhya. More than 2,000 people were killed in riots and bomb blasts surrounding that episode.

I did, in fact, mention the persistence of intolerance within India, drawing particular attention to caste discrimination and arguing that Indian tolerance was perhaps most evident in the country’s treatment of foreign cultures and immigrants. My larger point was to suggest an India eloquently described by Jawaharlal Nehru as “an ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously.” This intermingling of cultures, I felt, was very different from the cultural homogeneity of many European countries.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the episodes mentioned by Mr. Banerjee (and other readers) raise questions about Indian tolerance — questions that are serious enough that I want to spend more time on them this week.

I maintain my faith in India as a highly tolerant — if imperfectly so — country. I believe that the nation’s sporadic episodes of communal violence represent aberrations rather than the norm, inevitable clashes that are remarkable for the extent to which they are, indeed, sporadic.

When I consider the nation’s major outbreaks of communal violence since independence, I am struck by the fact that nearly each one was instigated by an act of political demagoguery. Politicians seeking votes have regularly fanned hatred and chauvinism. And as the Indian scholar Asghar Ali Engineer has pointed out, religious concerns are frequently a front for material interests. Riots between Hindus and Muslims are often thinly veiled property disputes or clashes over commercial interests.

Yet for all the effort by political and business leaders to spread hatred, violent clashes remain rare, unusual in a country where Hindus and Muslims (and followers of other religions) live side by side, in crowded cities and villages, doing business and practicing their faiths in full view of one another.

India has a problem with communal violence. But it is not, and I believe never will be, a Beirut, a Yugoslavia or even a Northern Ireland. In a country as diverse and poor as India, the persistence of general communal harmony amid occasional outbreaks of disharmony suggests an essentially accommodating nation, one that is capable of living with and absorbing difference.

Several readers drew attention to a strain of Hindu fundamentalism that has recently manifested in Indian politics. But for me, the salient point about Hindu fundamentalism is less its existence than its sorry condition.

The Bharatiya Janata Party rose to power on an aggressive Hindu nationalist platform during the 1990s, when the disarray in the until-then dominant Congress party created a political vacuum. Over the last decade, though, the B.J.P. has lost two national elections and is today in a state of ideological confusion. Its loss in parliamentary elections last year was at least partly attributable to campaigning on its behalf by Narendra Modi, the controversial chief minister of Gujarat, generally identified with a hard-line Hindu platform.

By contrast, the leader of the victorious Congress party is an immigrant, Sonia Gandhi, who still speaks Hindi with an Italian accent and whose imprint on Indian politics and society embodies the “palimpsest” of which Nehru wrote.

The persistence of caste discrimination is harder to explain away. Gandhi called untouchability a “blot on Hinduism,” and, while the condition of lower castes has greatly improved in recent years, caste remains a depressing exception to India’s culture of tolerance.

Still, most societies have their blind spots, and arguing that caste-based intolerance negates manifold evidence of tolerance is like arguing that America is fundamentally intolerant because of the persistence of racism, or that Buddhism is an intolerant religion because of wars and atrocities committed in primarily Buddhist nations like Sri Lanka or Cambodia.

In every country, there is the broad sweep of history, the trends and characteristics that are marked across time, and there are moments, particular events or characteristics, that often contradict a nation’s general disposition.

At any given moment, in any given state or region, Indians are capable of fratricidal hatred. This is, after all, a country of near-impossible heterogeneity, with 22 official languages, scores of caste groups and representation by virtually every major religion in the world. The fact that it is a nation at all — that all these groups live and work alongside each other, that they intermarry, that their children go to school together — is testament to the essential tolerance of the Indian people.

  1. Neha Sampath says:

    I think your views are accurate, and represent a broader view of India across the span of centuries rather than decades. However, I think you are underestimating the insidious reach of the ideology of Hindu nationalism in modern Indian society. I have heard many a Hindu intellectual, who while distancing themselves from the instigation of communal violence by these groups, openly sympathise with the viewpoint that Muslims in general are responsible for many of Indian society’s ills. Kashmir, in particular, remains a thorn in the sides of both Hindus and Muslims in India, with each side believing itself to be wronged. Also the fact that the perperators of the Gujrat riots were never brought to justice does not encourage the idea of india where “pluralism is our backbone.”

  2. Larry says:

    I’m curious: Have you tried telling Christ-followers in India (many of whom are intensely persecuted for their faith) that they live in an “essentially tolerant” nation? What did they say?

  3. BeyondRhetoric says:

    Christ-followers and Mohammed-followers have, historically and to this day, met with far greater tolerance in India than they accorded to others in the countries and regions where their faiths dominated. Witness the total eclipse of every other kind in the lands of those Christ- or Mohammed-followers over history. Witness the brouhaha over the low and single-digit presence of Muslims in Europe. And contrast that to the existence in large, significant numbers of those C- and M-followers in India. So that puts Larry’s rhetorical question to rest.

    Akash, I think you owe the issue you raised more attention. Haven’t Indians and Indian culture treated foreign religions and people better than they treat their own? That comment you made about a local woman not being affronted by the dress or demeanor of Westerners could be contrasted by how Indians take liberties with, even abuse, other Indians in ways that they won’t with non-Indians. That is something–i.e., granting those outside one’s own liberties that aren’t given one
    s own–that I haven’t quite seen in any other culture or country.

  4. Modi_Supporter says:

    Barack Obama once said to the Republicans that he would extend a hand to them if they would unclench their fists. Since India’s independence, the more hardline Muslims in India have been answering all extended hands with fists despite all the benefits that they enjoy under the Indian democracy. For example, Muslims have their own marriage laws, separate from the civil marriage laws that everybody else has to follow. Muslims also enjoy Hajj subsidies and India, a Hindu-majority country, is the _only_ country in the world that pays for Hajj pilgrimage for its citizens. Not even Saudi Arabia or Pakistan are that generous.

    The reason Narendra Modi is so popular in Gujarat is not because of his anti-Muslim stance but because of his stance against religious preferences. As far as Modi supporters are concerned, Muslims should adhere to the same civil marriage laws as Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, etc. and the Hajj subsidies should be eliminated. All preferential treatment towards the Muslims and Christians should be eliminated. In other words, Modi wants India to be more like the United States with equal rights for all and no special treatment for certain religions.

    To say that India is intolerant because of Modi is akin to saying that the United States is intolerant because of Governor George Wallace.

  5. s says:

    I think your characterization of India as a tolerant country is a little cliche and needs to be more critically examined.

    India’s multiculturalism, its “unity within diversity” label was used and deployed by a mostly male, upper-caste nationalist government in the mid 20th century to naturalize a range of serious disparities in the country and to claim to be able to represent a coherent whole.

    Calling it tolerant or multicultural, and essentializing the image of the poor working farmer and romanticizing it, has long been a nationalist euphemism of sorts for enormous inequality between regions and peoples.

    I agree with you that tolerance exists sometimes in striking ways. This is true of Auroville and of the Jewish community in Kochi. But I suspect that each of those instances need to be studied at a local level before being anecdotally strung together to claim a unified tradition of ‘tolerance’. In India, tolerance comes and goes, now you see it, now you dont.

    Nowhere is the lack of tolerance in India more evident, than in the continued misogyny, sexism and inequality faced by Indian women.

    Since the early 20th century, the nationalist ideology began to identify itself as “middle class”; that is to say, closer to ‘the masses’ than the British and closer to ‘self governance’ than the ‘masses’. Part of their ideology was a patronizing attitude towards ‘helping poor people along’ to development.

    Another key part of nationalist ideology since this time was the characterizaton of Indian women as the “bearers of national culture”, virginal, pure and chaste, with an innate drive towards motherhood and towards rearing nationalistic sons.

    This ideology has serious consequences in courts, where marital rape is not recognized as an issue. It has serious consequences for those of us young educated girls who live in cities alone, and have to restrict our movements for fear of police harrassment, and who get called ‘whores’ by our neighbours. It has consequences for women who try to get abortions (sneaking out of home when their abusive husbands are at work) and being told by government officials to “bring their husband”. Its not uncommon for officials to chide the woman in an incredibly disrespectful and disempowering manner, “Why are you doing this ma? Do you want to spoil your marriage?”

    It is no coincedence that many government programs aimed at empowering women are implemented by mid level bureaucrats who believe that a too-empowered woman “will make a bad wife.”

    (Some especially insightful researchers have recently studied marriage as a source of violence. This is not to say women dont love the abusive and sexist husbands they have to settle for. Some of them do. But a lot of them have resentment lurking…others may hate him outright.)

    I would caution us against employing the language and metaphors used by Indian nationalist discourse…like nationalist discourse everywhere, it conceals and subsumes some key contradictions that are mainatined by daily practice across the country. ‘Unity within diversity’ gives us warm fuzzy feelings, allowing us to ignore the trafficking, the transgender and female rape, the police violence, the unequal and forced marriages that take place everyday.

    Given our laws and sexist judiciary, I think the only way forward is for all of us to support each other and build self esteem and knowledge…until we can begin to say “f*** you” to the city and go about our lives.

    These issues have daily significance for those of us girls who grew up here. I went to the US for college, on a scholarship, and returned 2 years ago. I work with sexual minorities and girls in Chennai, around issues of gender and sexuality. I would be happy to provide references for the arguments I have made.

  6. JustTheFacts says:

    A Pandora’s box, it seems. I’m writing in response to the persuasive, compelling and coherent comments by S (Mar 2).

    I’m curious what S suggests as alternatives, practical solutions to the myriad issues she presents. Let me rephrase my question in a different way. Given the context India finds itself around (geographical, historic, political, cultural…):

    a) how can one go about enabling women to be more independent and the equal power and presence that you’d find in a healthy society? Since that is an ideal not quite reached by any society today, where would S rank India (compared to the leaders, compared to its neighbors…) and what needs to be done next?
    b) how can what needs to be done next be done so it isn’t seen as patronizing? After all even well-meaning gestures and actions backed by the best of intentions can be perceived as patronizing by those still simmering with resentments and anger.
    c) violence isn’t the monopoly of any gender and it’d be a very biased person to blame any one gender for societal problems. We hear of violence done women by men. Attempts to address that problem (by those well-intentioned) only seem to produce more dogma, ideology, and bias. A better approach, one befitting the situation, is to address violence in the community be it women (victims)-men (perpetrators), women-women, men-men, and men-women. Surely S can’t be denying the innumerable acts of violence perpetrated on women by women in India? what’s being done about that?
    d) Virtually all women of Indian origin I’ve met claim to be the maintainers, conveyors, holders, representatives of “Indian culture.” They also claim to be the ones most involved in passing that on to the next generation (male or female). You can hear that, and see it practiced too, in India and elsewhere. So, if that culture has all of those “intolerant” practices S refers to in her comments, why is it that she is not referring to the role of women in perpetuating what is pernicious? Women surely can’t have it both ways: claim the culture is hostile to them, and yet represent themselves as the embodiment of that culture responsible for transmitting it to the next generation.

    I look forward to hearing S’s response.

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