The very word tolerance speaks of an environment where myriad and contrasting ideas, viewpoints, social ethos, ideological narratives, cultural dynamics and religious distinctions exist. From the fundamental grouping of family to community to society to nation, the entire edifice of human interaction stands not merely on the similarities between individuals but on the distinct differences that set one apart from the other. The viable balance of appreciation of similarities in juxtaposition with acknowledgment of contrasting qualities is the ideal option of existence, but its attainment is, incidentally, in most cases, an elusive dream, or in some cases, a constant struggle. Coexistence of diversities acts as a strengthening factor for the dynamics of relationships, whereas the perpetual struggle to keep its mechanism in motion weakens the stability of an entire society.
The recent outrage in India over ‘growing intolerance’ is an indication of various sensibilities coexisting, yet in collision with one another. India being the world’s biggest democracy is rightfully proud of its secular constitution, its pluralism, and its multiple cultural, ideological and religious dynamics operating as an unwieldy but a workable whole. A country that is deeply religious is held together by the separation of the state from religious institutions. That India’s pluralism is real, and it is vibrant and it works is manifested in the sound of temple bells, azaan from mosques, choir music from churches, and shabadkirtan from gurdawaras in a single neighbourhood. This may not be the case all over India, but the very fact that it exists, wherever it does, speaks of a pluralistic India, splendid in its glory, flawed, struggling, in conflict, but standing tall, proud, and persistent. That to me is India’s biggest strength, and that to me is what must be looked at with an open mind that goes beyond the sporadic or concerted efforts to mainstream that one dividing factor: intolerance.
I have seen Pakistan living through methodical intolerance in the context of the personal, social, legal, governmental, ideological and religious. The very code of religion that is to teach you humanity, compassion, acceptance, forgiveness, and enlightenment is distorted to impart a system of indoctrination that focuses on looking at differences as anomalies. While the strength of your faith should inculcate a deep appreciation of the intangible that connects the individual to the Creator, it results in creating schisms of doubt and paranoia, distancing from other faiths, and anger towards the opposing narrative. Intolerance of any code of moral, social and religious code other than yours is the cancer that metastasises and gnaws on a nation’s foundational structure. Pakistan has suffered, and is still suffering from a systematic indoctrination based on intolerance on numerous levels, and the price has been too steep, too personal, too overwhelming. Too many lives have been destroyed, asroots of society steeped in intolerance and bigotry entangle individuals in bloodstained divisions and sects.
India exists amidst varied strands of indoctrination: of caste, ethnicity, region, political affiliation, sectarian loyalties and religious sensibilities. Despite its avowed adherence to secularism, there is no denying the power of all these factors in the formation of a community, a power structure. The Indian caste system, over centuries, has shifted, altered, been strengthened, enfeebled, questioned, and fought, but it still exists in the ongoing struggle that is the lives of many Dalits even today. Class divides exist and so do communal differences. A staggering number of the population still lives trying to earn enough to eat three times a day in a country that boasts of some of the richest men in the world.
But… India is moving forward. India may have many flaws but India is also involved in the process of stock-taking, assuming responsibility, making amends, changing course, eradication of issues, and planning ahead. India may not be ‘Incredible’ or ‘Shining’ but it is delightfully India: huge, expansive, enlightened yet traditional, secular yet personally religious, cynical yet compassionate, noisy yet revelling in its silence, chaotic yet focused, divided on unmarked personal lines yet united as a nation. So when some of the leaders of the ruling BJP divide people into Ramzaaade and ‘har***mzaade’, proclaim Hindustan is only for Hindus, call dissent anti-national and demonise its Muslim celebrities as ‘traitors’ who should move to Pakistan or Syria, or label tragedies like the Dadri lynching as ‘throwing stones at dogs’, it is a wake-up call not just to the governing powers but the aamaadmi (no pun intended).
India is much, much more than these hate-mongers, these division-makers, these vote-seeking movers and shakers. India is you. Humanly flawed, yet wonderfully alive to all that is good and noble and farsighted. I cringe at the very unfair generalisation of my beloved homeland, Pakistan, and I protest out loud at the very negative, very uni-dimensional labelling of the very dynamic, very real and very human 190-million plus Pakistanis. No nation is the acts of a few. No nation is even the governmental structure that rules it. No nation is the sum total of its flaws. No nation can be labelled in singularity. And no nation is ‘terrorist’ or ‘intolerant’. The sensibilities of individuals are, at times, displayed in actions of a group, which in turn are open to question, and must be receptive to introspection, modification of behaviour and alteration of course. And that is the strength of a nation that is in competition with itself, is answerable to its own soul, and marches forward: flawed yet dynamic.
Be it mine or yours.
(A version of this op-ed appeared online in daily O on November 29, 2015)