Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen tore into the vitals of the intolerance debate saying India has been much too tolerant and that small but organized groups are trying to impose their rules on the larger fabric of society in the garb of hurt sentiments.

Without referring to Dadri by name, he slammed his point home that what Indians eat or not has nothing to do with the Constitution.

On the night of 28 September 2015, a 52-year old man Akhlaq Saifi was hammered to death because a mob nearby suspected that he had eaten beef and also stored it in his refrigerator at home. The hashtag #DadriLynching caught fire and intolerance has not left the headlines many months later, claiming many fringe victims in its path, including actors and wayfarers who attempted to weigh in.

Amartya Sen. AFPAmartya Sen. AFP

Amartya Sen. AFP

“India is being turned intolerant. We have been much too tolerant with the intolerance. This has to end. So what should we do as citizens of India to support freedom and liberty? We should not tolerate the intolerance that undermines our democracy,” Sen said, delivering the annual Rajendra Mathur Memorial lecture organised by the Editors Guild of India here on “The Right to Dissent” on Tuesday.

In a special column for The Indian Express, Sen elaborates on the same themes, weaving in facts from today’s India and quotes from the RigVeda. “Murders have occurred on grounds of hurt sentiments from other people’s private eating. Children have been denied the nourishment of eggs in school meals in parts of India for the priority of vegetarian sentiments of powerful groups,” Sen writes in the Express, listing out five ways that Indian citizens can continue to support freedom and liberty without blaming the Constitution for what it does not say.

He said that while the constitution did not have anything against anyone eating beef, or storing it in the refrigerator, some “small but organised groups” were trying to impose their “norms of behaviour that the group wants to propagate” on others in the garb of hurt sentiments.

“The realm of delicate sentiments seeks to extend amazingly far. They are eating at their home and your sentiments are being hurt at your home,” Sen said sarcastically.

Sen called to examine the colonial era laws which, according to him, served the colonial purpose of reinforce divisions, but perhaps had no place in democracy. In this context, he mentioned section 295A, or deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs, of the Indian Penal Code.

“One aspect of this law is that the British rulers did not want any kind of tension coming from any group that felt insulted. The second and negative aspect is that it emphasised the colonial divisions within India in a dramatic way,” he said.

While he observed that India has a long and deeply etched tradition of tolerance, there has always been a streak of intolerance, and the government’s complicity in that.

“This did not start with the present government,” he said, mentioning the how M.F. Husain did not get any government support when he was hounded out of India and how India became the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses”.

Sen said that people should be more vocal, and that the courts need to be more proactive, about protecting the fundamental rights of the citizens, including the right to speech and right to personal liberty that encompasses the choice of what to eat.

Over the past few months, from Bollywood stars like Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan to intellectuals, almost everyone has weighed in. Firstpost brings you a sample of soundbites:

Days after his visit to India as chief guest for the 2015 R-Day celebrations, US President Barack Obama delivered to India an embarrassing smack-down, saying Mahatma Gandhi would have been shocked at the acts of intolerance in the country famed for its diversity.

“Michelle and I returned from India – an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity – but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs – acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.”

Aamir Khan, in a conversation with Anant Goenka of The Indian Express. created a storm when he said:

“(Wife) Kiran and I have lived all our lives in India. For the first time, she said, should we move out of India? That’s a disastrous and big statement for Kiran to make to me. She fears for her child. She fears about what the atmosphere around us will be. She feels scared to open the newspapers everyday. That does indicate that there is a sense of growing disquiet.”

“As an individual, as a citizen, certainly I have also been alarmed, I can’t deny it, by a number of incidents,” he said, “For us, as Indians, to feel a sense of security, two-three things are important. The sense of justice gives a lot of security to the common man. The second thing, that is important, are the people who are the elected representatives, at the state level or the level of the Centre… when people take law in their own hands, we look upon these representatives to take a strong stance, make strong statements and speed up the legal process to prosecute such cases. It doesn’t matter who the ruling party is.”

Actor Shah Rukh Khan. ReutersActor Shah Rukh Khan. Reuters

Actor Shah Rukh Khan. Reuters

Shah Rukh Khan joined the chorus against ‘growing intolerance’, and said that “religious intolerance and not being secular…is the worst kind of crime that you can do as a patriot”.

“It is stupid… It is stupid to be intolerant and this is our biggest issue, not just an issue… Religious intolerance and not being secular in this country is the worst kind of crime that you can do as a patriot.”

This is what Bibek Debroy, Niti Aayog’s member and a prominent economist, in an interview with The Times of India said:

“If you tell me intolerance is increasing, it is purely anecdotal and is purely a subjective perception, there is no point in arguing with you because you will say it is increasing and I will say there is no evidence of it increasing. The only way I can measure something is that if I have got some quantitative indicator. If I look at any quantitative indicator, communal violence incidents, internet freedom, these are objective indicators, and I don’t think it is increasing. In the intellectual circuit there has always been that intolerance. Let’s not pretend otherwise.”

RBI governor Raghuram Rajan appealed for tolerance of diverse opinions and challenges to established orthodoxies, warning that India’s long-term economic prospects depend on a climate of intellectual freedom. In his speech at IIT Delhi in October 2015, he said:

The first essential is to foster competition in the market place for ideas. This means encouraging challenge to all authority and tradition, even while acknowledging that the only way of dismissing any view is through empirical tests. What this rules out is anyone imposing a particular view or ideology because of their power. Instead, all ideas should be scrutinized critically, no matter whether they originate domestically or abroad, whether they have matured over thousands of years or a few minutes, whether they come from an untutored student or a world-famous professor.

RBI governor Raghuram Rajan.RBI governor Raghuram Rajan.

RBI governor Raghuram Rajan.

Karan Johar, at the Jaipur Lit Fest

“The talk about freedom of expression is the biggest joke I believe in the world. Democracy is the second biggest joke I think. I really wonder how are we really democratic? How is there freedom of expression? As a filmmaker, I feel bound at every level be it what I put out on celluloid or what I say in print. I feel like there is always some kind of a legal notice awaiting me everywhere I go.”

Noted lyricist and filmmaker Gulzar came out in support of writers and poet returning their Sahitya Akademi awards in protest of the growing religious intolerance in the country, saying this is the only way a writer can register protest.
“The murder that has hurt us all is somewhere the fault of the system or government… Returning the award was an act of protest. Writers don’t have any other way to register their protest. We have never witnessed this kind of religious intolerance. At least, we were fearless in expressing ourselves.”

Irrfan Khan, the latest star to join the ongoing intolerance debate, said shutting up one’s mouth is not a healthy sign for a growing society.

“I find it very strange when few people say that actors should act and they should not express their opinions on issues. Everybody has the right to speak their mind and concerns. If you are told to shut up then this is not a sign of a growing and healthy society.”

Sonam Kapoor, on the Aamir Khan backlash.

Actor Sonam Kapoor. PTIActor Sonam Kapoor. PTI

Actor Sonam Kapoor. PTI

“Just imagine the way we are reacting to someone like Shah Rukh Khan or Aamir Khan (their comments). They will be afraid to say or talk about things because of negative reactions. We should be supportive of people who have opinions — good, bad or ugly. Everybody should have a right to speak.”

While filmmakers, intellectuals and noted personalities were criticising the trend, international media also pitched in and did not keep mum about the issue.

In its November 2015 edition, The Economist said ‘Intolerable’ and said this:

“The uproar over the alleged spread of “intolerance” is remarkable. Many blame the 18-month-old government led by Narendra Modi of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Its most fervent members believe that India should be a Hindu state. But its priority was supposed to be rapid economic growth, not sectarian bickering. So it is puzzling that in a few short weeks it has alienated not just India’s non-Hindu minorities and its liberal intelligentsia, but broad swathes of domestic and foreign opinion.”

The New York Times in an editorial called ‘A Rebuke to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’ said:

Poisoning politics with religious hatred is bound to squander the country’s economic potential at a time when India should be playing a bigger and more constructive role in South Asia and the world. India’s history is filled with examples of religious and caste-based violence that set the country back. Those conflicts subsided during India’s rapid economic growth, but many Indians now fear a resurgence.


Original article: 

‘We have been much too tolerant with intolerance, this has to end’: Amartya Sen