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South Asian Societies: Intolerance Galore

Peoples Voice on May 22, 2017 - 5:06 pm in Society

Ram Puniyani

The protest over the mass lynching of Pehlu Khan (April 18, 2017) has been there in sections of media. It has few other parallels as well. Mashal Khan, a student of in Pakistan, was killed brutally on 13th April 2017. The charge was that of blasphemy.
In yet another case one Farooq was killed by a four-member gang for posting atheistic views in Tamil Nadu (March 2017) These are few from the list of incidents f intolerance either on the issue of beef or blasphemy.

As such it is true that intolerance levels in South Asian countries, particularly Pakistan, Bangla Desh and India are abysmally high. All the three countries have seen the acts of violence on different grounds. In Pakistan, one recalls the murder of Punjab’s Governor, Salman Taseer on the charges of blasphemy (2011). One also recalls that in Bangla Desh number of bloggers articulating their secular voices were done to death (2015). As such the pattern in these three countries has been very overlapping. In Pakistan, the level of liberal democratic values has been on the lower side, more so after coming to power of Zia Ul Haq, who ruled in alliance with Mullah set up. Among others, the blasphemy laws have tormented to citizens there and the plight of Salman Taseer is no exception. In Bangla Desh also one has seen the see saw battle between progressive liberal values and fundamentalist’s intolerance, one result of which has been the murder of bloggers.

In India, the phenomenon has been more complex. Even during the earlier regime, there are instances when the artists have been targeted, books banned, art galleries rampaged, films attacked and cultural programs suspended. The incidences of intolerance have been gradually growing in intensity during last few years. One recalls that earlier the incidents like attacking Taslima Nasreen, preventing the concert of Ghulam Ali, banning of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, attack on Husain’s painting exhibition Gufa, banning of films of Aamir Khan were witnessed and seen and criticised as the violation of the liberal space provided by our democracy.

From last three decades in general and last three years in particular with the rise of Hindutva politics the liberal space is shrinking very rapidly. Comparisons with neighbouring countries have been made as a subtle justification for such violations of democratic space in India. One has to see that the levels of freedom have been high here in India as compared to its neighbours. Has it been due to Hindu majority and the Hindu tolerance? That’s too simplistic way to put it. The real reason for earlier better freedoms has been the legacy of the freedom movement and its values being enshrined in our Constitution. The communal forces were not so powerful and assertive with the result that tolerance levels were comparatively higher. In the neighbouring Pakistan, the very foundations had been that of sectarian nationalism. On paper initially they accepted secular values but its practice was frugal. These values started being diminished soon with the death of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Bangla Desh had a different logic as it was formed against the brutal repression by Pakistan army. Bangla Desh did come upon secular principles as the core principles, but the Muslim communal elements were quite strong. That’s what kept the liberal space under constant attack in that country.

In India with the growth of identity politics, the promotion of mass hysteria around emotive issues intolerance started going up. It started the process of shrinking of a democratic polity. This got its culmination in the coming to power of Narendra Modi in 2014. Since then not only intimidation and attacks on minorities got jacked up, the attackers got a sort of legitimacy in the bigger condoning of their actions by the state and the ideology of the ruling party. The so-called fringe elements came forward fearlessly to occupy the centre stage. Now they have no fear from the law and order machinery of the state. This is what led to many attacks on Churches, murders of rationalists like Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M M Kalburgi. The overall atmosphere became more conducive to the actions of sectarian ideology.

Ram Temple issue had already prepared a fertile ground for intolerance. Added to this; up came the issue of Cow as a mother. The ‘hate other’ ideology wore the clothes of Gau Rakshaks. Their rampage began all around with Mohammad Akhlaq being the major victim, followed by Pehlu Khan and immediately after that murder of two more in Assam. Every time the pretext is created of cow smuggling, cow killing and this acts as a veneer for the deeper hate constructed around the religious minorities.

Comparing India with Pakistan or Bangla Desh is unwarranted as India had a higher degree of democratic ethos and foundations. No doubt there were weak spots in India from where intolerance in the form of attacks on freedom of expression would creep in. This was mainly due to the opportunistic policies of the parties which could not hold on to the principles inherent in secularism and democracy. With the demolition of Babri mosque and the violence that followed one of the poets from Pakistan, Fahmida Riyaz, who was very appreciative of Indian democracy wrote, Tum bilkul Hum Jasie Nikale (You turned to be just like us) (https://urduwallahs.wordpress.com/2015/03/27/tum-bilkul-hum-jaise-nikle/). Lamenting that while communalism was strong in Pakistan, now India is also showing the colours, similar to those of Pakistan.

The standard pattern now is that the vigilantes and other foot soldiers intimidate or commit the crime, the state looks the other way and then some minister will point out the faults with the victims, cases will be filed against the victims. If at all culprit is booked, it is for some milder offence, better still the culprits are not named, it is attributed to the mob violence. This seems to be very convenient way for spreading the communal divide which has benefitted to ruling party.

Those comparing the present violence to what’s happening in neighbouring countries seem to believe that two wrongs can make a right, while seeking justification of this violence..


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