Why it is not about mere “intolerance”
Some of the most important issues in Indian political discourse are confused by wrong language: we either misuse certain terms or just frame the issues in inappropriate words. Secularism and communalism are instances of the former. The contemporary debate over “intolerance” is an example of the latter.
Acts over the past few years — from the killings of Narendra Dabolkar in 2013, to M M Kalburgi in Dharwad and Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri earlier this year — go beyond being acts of intolerance. Intolerance, both violent and non-violent, have been with us for a long time. As this blog has argued, competitive intolerance has been an instrument of asserting political power at least since the time of the Rajiv Gandhi government’s caving in on the issue of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and perhaps even before that. Every religious and sectarian community is guilty — from Catholic archbishops to Hindu acharyas, from Mullahs of various stripes to Sikh and Jain leaders. Competitive intolerance is of course, also asserted on caste lines in various parts of the country, as the Perumal Murugan case shows.
Intolerance is a big social problem in India’s evolution into a modern, cosmopolitan civilisation where there are not only people of various castes, creeds and ethnicities, but where they move and settle around on a historically unprecedented scale. Competitive intolerance must be tackled, and the best way to do that — as I have argued — is to uphold free speech and expression, which includes the right to offend, and come down heavily on those who resort to violence. Our politics is not there yet, but the path to reach such a state is available for the leaders who wish to use it.
What we are facing today is not competitive intolerance, but something much broader: coercive majoritarianism. Simply put, our society is witnessing an attempt to enforce the mores of the majority onto everyone else. Obviously, the mores are not clearly defined because of the huge variance in practice across the country. The majority itself is not clearly defined because it is contextual. There is a Hindu majority in India, a Marathi majority in Maharashtra, a Muslim majority in Srinagar or a caste-majority in a municipal ward. Majoritarianism is the imposition of the norms of these contextual majorities on everyone there. It is coercive because the government machinery in the context — from police to magistrates to legislators to ministers — side with the majority, at the cost of individual liberty. This is because the government officials are cut of the same cloth as the society they operate in, and have internalised legitimacy of tradition over that of the Constitution.
Coercive majoritarianism plays out on a national scale in the form of pushing popular Hindu agenda, like the cow slaughter and beef bans. This one issue unites more Hindus than any other in broad traditions of the religion. So it has a national impact — unlike say, caste lynchings and Khap panchayats, which are also instances of coercive majoritarianism but are limited to certain places. Another reason why coercive Hindu majoritarianism receives attention is, obviously, because the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are perceived as either representing or being sympathetic to it. The fact that prime minister chose not to comment on it, and at least initially allowed his cabinet colleagues and MPs to defend the violent mobs, further reinforced the perception that the government tolerates, if not condones, coercive Hindu majoritarianism. As the successful managers of Mr Modi’s campaign should know, once a public narrative and psychology is created, it gains a momentum of its own. Ergo, we find ourselves in the midst of coercive majoritarianism and the backlash against it.
Yet, it would be dangerously wrong to believe that Hindu majoritarianism is the only game in the country. Like competitive intolerance, majorities everywhere are trying to assert themselves by pushing their agenda onto everyone in their space. We see this in many states: Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, Maharashtra, undivided Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. It is also happening in villages, towns and urban neighbourhoods, although we do not see it because the national media do not cover it. Everywhere there are trends of a social consciousness that seeks to respond to diversity and pluralism by imposing a majoritarian order. Democracy is offered as justification for this. But India is a republic in addition to being a democracy. This means that there are certain basic values — like individual liberty and fundamental rights — that cannot be pushed over because the majority of the population so desire.
Coercive majoritarianism is a dangerous trend because, like intolerance, it is competitive. It comes at the cost of individual liberty. Conversely, only the relentless defence of individual liberty and constitutional values can counter coercive majoritarianism of the current time. Unfortunately, few political parties and leaders can relied upon to fight majoritarianism, for the simple reason that siding with it is a easier route to power. Perhaps that explains why parliament is discussing “intolerance” rather than the real problem—coercive majoritarianism.