By Fr Cedric Prakash SJ*
Never before in the history of post-independent India has “intolerance” become such a subject of heated debate, much divisiveness and which seems to bleed the heart of ‘the idea of India’.
Intolerance, one might argue has always existed! We see small and big acts taking place all over society and even in the security of one’s own family. As Indians, we do pride ourselves of being a ‘tolerant people’ and we certainly get very upset when growing acts of intolerance hog the limelight. In a defense reaction, we put on a mask saying “we are not like that”. This was so evident, when a few days ago, a motley group met the President and the Prime Minister ‘to protest’ against those who were saying that India is becoming an intolerant nation! The irony is that this very group was abusive of some of the media present at their protest and they also made very intolerant remarks against those taking a stand against intolerance!
In recent months, there have been a spate of intolerant acts all over the country: from the killing of rationalists like Pansare and Kalburgi to the burning of dalit children; from ‘banning’ programmes by Pakistanis in India to the killing of someone who apparently eaten beef. In the wake of these acts, some of the most eminent people of the country including several intellectuals like writers, scientists, historians and even celebrity film stars, have strongly voiced their protests; some of them have had the courage to return their duly merited awards from the Government. The point they have been making is that the Government of the day does not show any political will to address these acts of hate, divisiveness and violence but on the contrary, it even seems to patronise, shield and provide legitimacy to the perpetrators of these heinous acts.
This intolerance was symbolised in the fact that several functions were held on November 15 in different parts of the country to honour Nathuram Godse, the man who killed Mahatma Gandhi; for his dastardly deed, Godse was hanged on November 15, 1949 and the fact that right-wing factions have the audacity to treat him like a hero speaks volumes for itself.
It is therefore appropriate that the United Nations every year invites all member states to observe November 16 as ‘the International Day for Tolerance’. The meaning of “tolerance” provided by UNESCO “is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human… Tolerance is not concession, condescension or indulgence. Tolerance is above all an active attitude prompted by the recognition of the Universal Human Rights and fundamental freedoms of others… Tolerance is the responsibility that upholds human rights, pluralism and the rule of the law… it does not mean toleration of social injustices or the abandonment or weakening of one’s convictions”.
A meaningful definition indeed!
The terrible attacks in Paris on November 13 certainly need to be condemned by one and all! At the same time, one should never forget the many millions who are killed and brutalised throughout the world all the time but do not get the media attention and the world leaders speaking up for them. In April, more than 148 people (of these 142 were students) were killed by an extremist group in Kenya; those executed were mainly Christians. There is a muted response to the killings of innocent people, be it in Syria and Lebanon, Egypt and Afghanistan, Palestine and in several parts of Africa. The refugee crisis is certainly an outcome of great intolerance.
Exactly twenty-six years ago, on November 16 1989, six Jesuit Priests together with their housekeeper and her fifteen year daughter, were brutally murdered in El Salvador by the military junta of that country. The powerful, vested interests were not able to tolerate the way the Jesuits took a stand on behalf of the poor and against the growing injustices and fascist acts of those in power. We remember these martyrs today.
We have much to internalise and to mainstream where tolerance is concerned. Let’s hope and pray that on a day like this, each one of us has the courage and the humility to act: to be more tolerant and to make our world a more humane, just and peaceful place for all!
*Director of PRASHANT, the Ahmedabad-based Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace