Evidence of Tolerance: Clashes Are Rare
My last column — on India’s tradition of tolerance, which I discussed in the context of European difficulties with Islamic immigration — received an unusual amount of feedback. Several readers agreed with the points I was making. But many also objected to, or at least questioned, my characterization of India as a tolerant society.
The objections generally drew attention to two facts of Indian life. A few responses pointed to the institution of caste and the historical discrimination against lower castes, particularly dalits, or untouchables. Many readers also pointed to a history of communal riots in the country, arguing that persistent tensions between religious groups, especially Hindus and Muslims, belied the notion of a tolerant India.
Siddhartha Banerjee, from Oxford, Pennsylvania, had a characteristic response. “I take your larger point about India’s tolerance,” he wrote, “but surely after the ghastly events of 1984, 2002, and not least Thackeray, we don’t deserve that adjective anymore?”
He was referring, respectively, to anti-Sikh riots that shook India’s capital after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984; the gruesome Hindu-Muslim riots that took place in Gujarat in 2002, during which more than 1,000 people were killed; and to recent protests, instigated by the Bal Thackeray-led Shiv Sena party, against a Bollywood star who supported the inclusion of Pakistanis on Indian cricket teams.
Mr. Banerjee could have added at least two further examples — the carnage of partition, in 1947, during which up to a million were killed; and the Hindu-Muslim violence that shook India in the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the destruction of a Muslim mosque by a Hindu mob in the northern city of Ayodhya. More than 2,000 people were killed in riots and bomb blasts surrounding that episode.
I did, in fact, mention the persistence of intolerance within India, drawing particular attention to caste discrimination and arguing that Indian tolerance was perhaps most evident in the country’s treatment of foreign cultures and immigrants. My larger point was to suggest an India eloquently described by Jawaharlal Nehru as “an ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously.” This intermingling of cultures, I felt, was very different from the cultural homogeneity of many European countries.
Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the episodes mentioned by Mr. Banerjee (and other readers) raise questions about Indian tolerance — questions that are serious enough that I want to spend more time on them this week.
I maintain my faith in India as a highly tolerant — if imperfectly so — country. I believe that the nation’s sporadic episodes of communal violence represent aberrations rather than the norm, inevitable clashes that are remarkable for the extent to which they are, indeed, sporadic.
When I consider the nation’s major outbreaks of communal violence since independence, I am struck by the fact that nearly each one was instigated by an act of political demagoguery. Politicians seeking votes have regularly fanned hatred and chauvinism. And as the Indian scholar Asghar Ali Engineer has pointed out, religious concerns are frequently a front for material interests. Riots between Hindus and Muslims are often thinly veiled property disputes or clashes over commercial interests.
Yet for all the effort by political and business leaders to spread hatred, violent clashes remain rare, unusual in a country where Hindus and Muslims (and followers of other religions) live side by side, in crowded cities and villages, doing business and practicing their faiths in full view of one another.
India has a problem with communal violence. But it is not, and I believe never will be, a Beirut, a Yugoslavia or even a Northern Ireland. In a country as diverse and poor as India, the persistence of general communal harmony amid occasional outbreaks of disharmony suggests an essentially accommodating nation, one that is capable of living with and absorbing difference.
Several readers drew attention to a strain of Hindu fundamentalism that has recently manifested in Indian politics. But for me, the salient point about Hindu fundamentalism is less its existence than its sorry condition.
The Bharatiya Janata Party rose to power on an aggressive Hindu nationalist platform during the 1990s, when the disarray in the until-then dominant Congress party created a political vacuum. Over the last decade, though, the B.J.P. has lost two national elections and is today in a state of ideological confusion. Its loss in parliamentary elections last year was at least partly attributable to campaigning on its behalf by Narendra Modi, the controversial chief minister of Gujarat, generally identified with a hard-line Hindu platform.
By contrast, the leader of the victorious Congress party is an immigrant, Sonia Gandhi, who still speaks Hindi with an Italian accent and whose imprint on Indian politics and society embodies the “palimpsest” of which Nehru wrote.
The persistence of caste discrimination is harder to explain away. Gandhi called untouchability a “blot on Hinduism,” and, while the condition of lower castes has greatly improved in recent years, caste remains a depressing exception to India’s culture of tolerance.
Still, most societies have their blind spots, and arguing that caste-based intolerance negates manifold evidence of tolerance is like arguing that America is fundamentally intolerant because of the persistence of racism, or that Buddhism is an intolerant religion because of wars and atrocities committed in primarily Buddhist nations like Sri Lanka or Cambodia.
In every country, there is the broad sweep of history, the trends and characteristics that are marked across time, and there are moments, particular events or characteristics, that often contradict a nation’s general disposition.
At any given moment, in any given state or region, Indians are capable of fratricidal hatred. This is, after all, a country of near-impossible heterogeneity, with 22 official languages, scores of caste groups and representation by virtually every major religion in the world. The fact that it is a nation at all — that all these groups live and work alongside each other, that they intermarry, that their children go to school together — is testament to the essential tolerance of the Indian people.