Faith and tolerance

Tomorrow is Christmas Day, the highpoint of a season of goodwill and a time to remember the benign aspects of religious belief. Unfortunately, that is not possible in India because of the growing prevalence of religion-inspired violence perpetrated mostly by fanatics from the majority community. A recent such incident that challenges the very foundations of law and order has led to this lament.

On December 3, 2018, a brave police officer, Inspector Subodh Kumar Singh, was killed by a cow-protection (gau rakshak) mob in Bulandshahr in UP. A group of retired civil servants, committed to upholding and promoting constitutional values, recently issued a letter on this shocking episode. (Declaration of interest: I am a member of this group and a signatory to the letter.) Let me quote a few short passages from the letter to explain the concern:

“... in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, fundamental principles of governance, of constitutional ethics and of humane social conduct stand perverted. The Chief Minister of the state acts as a high priest of the agenda of bigotry and majoritarian supremacy — an agenda which now seems to take precedence over everything else.”

Illustration by Ajay Mohanty
“This was a deliberate attempt to display majoritarian muscle and send a message to the Muslim communities living in the region that they have to live in fear, accept their subordinate status and conform to the cultural diktats of the majority community.”

The letter salutes the bravery of Inspector Subodh Kumar Singh and goes on to ask for the resignation of the UP chief minister, reminds the heads of the civil service and police in UP of their constitutional duty to uphold the rule of law, requests the Allahabad High Court to take suo motu cognizance of this incident, and proposes to work towards a citizen-led national campaign against the politics of hate and violence.

The Bulandshahr episode is not an isolated instance. Over the past five years 80-100 killings have been perpetrated by gau-rakshaks, often associated with fraternal organisations of the ruling party. In Jharkhand recently there was a judgment that sentenced some of these criminals to life imprisonment. The alleged leader of this gau-rakshak group dropped out of school in Class 7, started as a truck-helper, got involved in dacoity and illegal coal transport, was jailed several times, and moved over to communal violence. Such lumpen elements are used by majoritarian organisations to further their ends violently. Apart from gau-rakshak episodes, there are many other instances of fundamentalist violence.

We are a constitutional democracy committed to protecting religious freedom and minority rights. Nothing can be more against the letter and spirit of the Constitution than this violence perpetrated by religious zealots. These instances are all criminal acts and it is the job of the politicians and officials who have taken an oath to uphold the Constitution to crack down on these with vigour. They are not doing so except occasionally and it is our job as citizens to speak up and demand action.

But we need to go beyond this and instigate a people’s movement against hate and violence. We are a country where faith and religion are a very important, perhaps the most important, dimension of a person’s self-identity. This may change over time. But it is the current reality and our challenge is to promote the idea of constitutional ethics and tolerance in a manner that does not require anyone to abandon his or her faith. 

How do we do this?

First is to get people to recognise that as citizens we are all equal with equal rights to be what we are. Statements that have come frequently from politicians of a certain kind that “if you don’t like our majoritarianism go to Pakistan” should be seen as completely unconstitutional and unacceptable.

Second, one can go a small step further and say that everybody is entitled to his or her views. 

The practical implication of this is the freedom of expression for minority views in a democracy, which should be upheld not just by officials but by the public.

Third is a further stage at which one may say “If I were you this is what I would say and do”. This is a beginning for a dialogue of good faith, a dialogue that you enter into not just to hector and harangue but to listen. This is what leads democracies to accommodate minority views in their practical dispositions.

Fourth, and the most difficult one, is where individuals take policy positions on contentious matters independently of their assumed and known identity: What would I do about the Ram Mandir if I did not know whether I am born a Hindu or a Muslim? This is what Rawls called the veil of ignorance, the principle that asks us to take policy position assuming that we will not know who we will be in the ultimate disposition of destiny. 

Not many of us make it to this stage. But we are more interconnected, more diverse in our day-to-day life and all citizens can be persuaded to cross at least the first few stages of tolerance that require us to accept the principles of democracy and respect others.

A commitment to listen to other voices is that much more valuable when it comes from the those whose function is to preach and teach. That is why we must promote interfaith declarations calling for a spirit of tolerance and understanding of all faiths by all faiths for all faiths. Such a message would have greater force when it comes from those who are committed to upholding one particular faith than when it comes from a secular liberal, or those that the saboteurs of our Constitution label “the Lutyens crowd”.

So on Christmas Eve what better than a citation from the Bible: “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught” (Romans 16:17). The doctrine we have been taught by the founders of our republic is constitutionalism and that is what we must uphold.

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