An argument that India has become intolerant in recent times has gained traction in both Indian and international media. A number of Indian intellectuals and artists have returned national honors and awards conferred on them to protest growing intolerance, celebrities have expressed wishes to leave India, and Indian parliament has devoted time to debate this issue. Can India really become intolerant?
For most of history, India has only tolerated. It celebrated its diversity and allowed people to co-exist by viewing them as humans rather than individuals with diverse religious affiliations. To a large extent, this tolerance is attributable to the core teachings of Hinduism, that God resides in the heart of everyone (ekatma sarva bhutantaratma) and, whichever form or name of God one worships, the destination for all is the same (ekam sat viprah bahudha vadanti). With these convictions intact, India has welcomed with open arms individuals with eclectic modes of worship belonging to diverse religions and cultures from around the world. This has contributed greatly to Indians being regarded as peace loving people who blend in a variety of cultural contexts.
India’s tolerance rendered it vulnerable on many fronts. Post-independence, a section of India’s politicians and civil servants exploited it to multiply their own fortunes. All these resulted in vast swathes of illiteracy, under-developed infrastructure, poor health care facilities, and unending corruption in India. After Modi’s arrival on the national scene on promises of fast-tracked economic growth and zero tolerance for corruption, many became hopeful of India’s resurgence as a global economic powerhouse. This has potentially unsettled interest groups who profited from opaque governance systems that nonchalantly allowed pursuit of personal interests at the cost of nation building. There is a great likelihood that these interest groups are behind the smoke screen of a “rising intolerance” discourse where even accidental incidents are lent communal hues.
Whether it is Sachin Tendulkar or Sharukh Khan, India has always loved people for what they are without looking at them through the lens of religion. Otherwise, India would have never had a Muslim president, a Sikh Prime Minister or a Christian as the president of its largest political party. A country with a long history of religious tolerance and freedom of expression is being projected otherwise. India can never become intolerant till such time the Hindu belief that everybody is a spark of divine (mamaivānśho jīva-loke jīva-bhūtaḥ sanātanaḥ, the Bhagawad Gita, chapter 15) is strongly rooted in the Indian consciousness.
For the Hindu religion that inculcated tolerance by its teachings of universal love by emphasizing the principle of vasudaiva kutumbakam, there are no sympathizers of its cause. Any remote suggestion to show respect to Hindu beliefs risks getting projected as intolerance by people proclaiming to be secularists. Ironically, the self-proclaimed secularists have little tolerance for Hindu sentiments while provoking uproar about rising intolerance. India will tolerate them too with unflinching forbearance.
However, India has become intolerant of corruption, poverty, poor sanitation, under-developed infrastructure, and bad governance. It is impatient and wants to see results quickly. It is ready to experiment with dramatic political changes, hoping that the country will free from the shackles of poverty and underdevelopment. In this backdrop, the focus needs to shift to this underdevelopment intolerance raging across the country and to critically evaluate Modi’s work towards delivering on his promises of fast-tracked inclusive development than regressing into imaginary fears of a religiously intolerant India.