That is the question in the air at the inaugural session of the Kolkata Literature Fest 2016.
The speakers include Ashok Vajpeyi, the noted poet and cultural commentator, and political scientist Tridip Suhrud with his vast store of knowledge on Gandhian ideologies. Famed Bengali writer Sanjib Chattapadhyay weighs in with his expertise as well. Kavita Panjabi, Professor of Jadavpur University, joins the panel as moderator.
Professor Panjabi points out that the panel for the session on intolerance had only 3 Brahmin males on it- an irony that had failed to strike me. She questions the word “tolerance” and asks if there was a hint of condescension on it. We are attacking people for being different: for the food they eat, for the people they love, for being rational. Crimes committed by upper caste Hindu males is termed “intolerant”, while acts of any other group is termed “criminal”. Is intolerance simply a camouflage word for crime? Is it just the culture of diversity and debate that’s at stake, or is it something more?
The discussion opens with Ashok Vajpeyi’s comments. Mr Vajpeyi says that minorities, not only in terms of religion, but even opinions are under attack. The term “anti-national” is thrown around as if the nation and the government are one. The character assassination of those who have returned awards is also a kind of intolerance, he stressed. “We are not attacking the government, we are addressing the nation and its people,” he says. “Forces of intolerance are in places of respect, and people are being quiet about it. That is the problem.” It is a sentiment that I agree with.
Tridip Suhrud mentions the amnesia about the structural inequities in India. The structures of power and violence that are inherent in India are not being debated upon. Another kind of silence is developing, one not of resignation and ignorance but of willful neglect. Going beyond the jargon of tolerance and intolerance, he points out the real issues that need attention, such as poverty and inequality, and how they are being affected by the prevailing climate.
“In some ways we have always been intolerant- the caste system is proof of that,” says Mr Vajpeyi. It is a direct blow to those looking for India’s “tradition of tolerance”- that deceptive term I keep seeing everywhere. Tolerance is as much a modern phenomenon in India as anywhere, really. It’s just that we need it more than others, being a heterogenous society.
“It is the voices of the marginalised that are now being heard,” says Mr Vajpeyi. “This sharing of power is what unnerves the ones who have been powerful traditionally, for generations. The violence of unacceptance is invading even those places where knowledge must be free,” he says, referring to the death of Rohith Vermula. And he introduces a completely opposite point of view: “We don’t have proprietal rights over truth,” he says. “We want truth to be equally plural. Those who oppose us have a truth- but then, so do we.”
Mr Chattopadhyay brings the discussion to the audience, addressing us directly from the dais. Tolerance and universal acceptance are the only ways to create a plural India, he emphasizes. He refers to Swami Vivekananda’s leadership of people from all across the world, and his declaration that “They do not follow me, but India, and India’s concepts of tolerance.” In Sanskrit, the word “exclusion” does not exist, he says.
But Sanskrit is only one of the languages of plural India, I think. It is the language of the Hindus. Swami Vivekananda was an icon born out of Hindu philosophies. Neither of these is synonymous with our modern nation. And the glories of our modern nation do not lie in a glorious past of hypothesis, but in the concrete facts of the present, in which jingoism finds no place.
Mr Vajpeyi reads a poem to close the panel discussion, speaking movingly for the voices of the nation to be heard. Mr Suhrud added, “I have been taught never to speak after a poet has spoken!”
Rupsha Bhadra, a blogger, asks if intolerance in India is a remnant of the British “Divide and Rule” politics. “The notion of Hinduism which is being propagated now is a colonial construct. It is being promoted as a part of Indian tradition, but it is an outcome of British India and its politics,” says Mr Vajpeyi.
The multi-hued tapestry of India’s culture is under attack. As Mr Vajpeyi said, ultimately, it is the people of India who have to decide what kind of India we want to have: an India that “tolerates” the Big Other even if we disagree, or an India that lashes out at any opinion, any lifestyle, any way of life. I truly believe that tolerant India is present around us today and it always has been: it just needs to be a little braver. As Simon and Garfunkel said, it is people talking without speaking and people hearing without listening that can destroy the soul of a nation, more than the shouting intolerant factions.
This has been Rushati Mukherjee for Kolkata Bloggers.
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