Unless mindsets change, religious intolerance cannot be wished away
Several years ago I was part of a panel discussion in Austin, USA, on what seems the world’s most foolish, destructive political dispute. I mean, of course, the Babri Masjid tangle that has dominated our politics for two decades, making bloodshed and hatred everyday realities for many in India.
Three of us were on the panel. A friend from Orissa represented the Hindu viewpoint, a bright Pakistani student the Muslim. I was secularism’s spokesman for the day. You know whom the audience showed the least interest in. Me. Secularism, at least as I put it across, raised no questions — forget passions — in our audience.
But I was struck that day by something the Pakistani student said. Islam, he averred, “is extremely tolerant.” Muslims are willing to live with people of every faith, respecting them fully. Of course, there’s just one small problem: Islam cannot abide idol worship. And so, he said, “we simply cannot have a Hindu temple, with all its idols, near a mosque.” (That’s close to verbatim, I promise).
That apart, he repeated, Islam is very tolerant. The Muslims in our audience nodded and clapped enthusiastically. Clearly, they agreed with this ringing endorsement of Islamic tolerance. It was that excellent definition my Pakistani friend had in mind. The ‘I-will-tolerate-everything-about-you,-except-the-things-I-cannot-stand-about-you’ brand of tolerance. A popular definition.
Popular, but by no means the only one. For tolerance is something people like to wrap themselves and their religions in, like flags that way. My own faith? Tolerant. Every other, by implication or explicit mention? Not!
Some Hindus, for example, will pronounce: “Above all, Hindus are a very tolerant lot.” Sure, and they have another definition in mind: “I’m tolerant except if I let myself be convinced my religion is in danger.” Thus, I’ve lost track of how often I’ve heard people saying, for example during the slaughter in Bombay in 1992-93, or in Gujarat in 2002: ‘Hindus are very tolerant but now it’s enough. Now we must teach Muslims a lesson.’
And Christianity, that makes a virtue of qualities like respect and brotherhood? When the film Jesus Christ Superstar appeared in 1973, they all came to the fore. Some Indian Christians themselves demanded that this thoughtful examination of Christ be banned in India (a situation that still holds, I believe). Because, you know, this film depicts ‘carnal love’ between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene – so they told us. Can’t tolerate that kind of love, can’t abide the slightly different perspective on Christianity the film tried to explore.
Here was a third kind of tolerance: ‘I’m tolerant as long as you agree with me and my point of view.’
You say the Superstar episode happened in the dark ages of the mid-Seventies and certainly could not happen again? Think again. Circa 2012, Catholic groups in Mumbai objected to scenes in the Hindi film Kamaal Dhamaal Malamaal, and wanted them deleted. They wanted the head of the Censor Board (the Board that banned Superstar) sacked. At a procession these groups held in Bandra, two young men who protested, their demands were threatened with a ‘pasting’ (yes), their poster (‘Simple: Don’t Watch It’) torn. Tolerance, you said?
There are plenty more examples. And yet, my point goes beyond musing dolefully about (in)tolerance. My feeling is that as soon as we allow public life to be coloured by religion, we get the posturing and hypocrisy I’ve touched on above. Because once you allow the colouring, you’re wide open to everybody whose existence revolves around feeling offended on behalf of their particular faith. And in that righteous pursuit, there’s no line they won’t cross. Yet, the real problem is not their offence — after all, there’s no arguing with people who want to feel victimised — but the way we’ve allowed religion to encroach where it should not.
That particular genie never returns to its bottle. Yet, that doesn’t mean we can’t try.
For example: The next time a census-taker fills out forms about your family and asks for everybody’s religion, politely say, ‘None’.
The next time a would-be people’s representative says: ‘Our faith is in danger!’, politely say, ‘No! The only thing that’s in danger is the chance that I will vote for you.’
The next time someone asks you to join a public procession for Easter/Muharram/Durga Puja/take your pick, politely say, ‘No thanks, I’m observing it quietly at home.’
Maybe you can add: ‘And so should you.’
I’ll admit: even writing all this I get the feeling I’m swimming against a rising tide. It’s a far easier thing to inject religion into public life than to resist such injection, and certainly the hope of excising it is less than minimal. Yet, when I consider the consequences of having allowed it to happen in the first place — everything from wild illogic to ghastly violence — I know what’s brought us here is the reluctance to resist.
There’s no choice but to resist. Even now.