The Intolerant Indian: A Review

By Anjum Altaf

The title of Gautam Adhikari’s new book, The Intolerant Indian, is intended to be provocative and it might indeed provoke those who go just by titles. Anyone reading the book though is more likely to be puzzled.

The subject is important no doubt – the extent of conflict fueled by the inability to agree is increasing – and so the intent to provoke a debate is laudable. But the manner in which the debate is framed is likely to generate more heat than light thereby threatening to inflame the very intolerance it aims to subdue.

The book starts off on the wrong foot right from the Preface by choosing an ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ frame in which to locate the moral argument:

I just wanted to talk about those of our compatriots who did not seem to appreciate the idea of pluralist tolerance, which formed the structural framework of Indian democracy… this extended essay is about those Indians – alas, far too many – who see pluralism as phony and tolerant secularism as hypocritical or irrelevant to an existence revolving around narrow religious, regional or ethnic identities.

For ‘Us’ substitute the enlightened, the reasonable, the few, the ones above the pettiness of narrow identity; for ‘Them’ substitute the unenlightened, the unreasonable, the many, those still clinging to anachronistic primordial loyalties. This framing can hardly be expected to facilitate agreement amongst equals – all it offers is an opportunity for the ignorant to see the light of reason and repent.

The book can indeed be read as a lament, a Shahr Ashob in the Indian Urdu tradition of which ‘a mukhammas on the shameless behavior of the lower classes’ by Asif ud-Daulah could be taken as a relevant comparator. Indeed, the book abounds with examples of such ignorant behavior with much handwringing on its implications for the great legacy bestowed by the founding fathers at the birth of the Republic. These examples, interspersed in a distressed chronology of India’s descent from that immaculate conception, provide the scaffolding for the book. The handwringing sets the scene for the prescriptive part of the narrative comprised of fervent pleas to rediscover the liberal space.

In between the description and the prescription one picks up, now and then, how the author intends to get from here to there. I found this passage particularly intriguing:

We need to do a great deal urgently to recover that liberal character of democracy envisaged in the Indian Constitution… The founding fathers… had it easy when they pronounced liberal principles and beliefs in the early days of India’s democracy.  They were more or less steeped in European liberal thought and were conversant with the tolerant tradition in Indian culture… Democracy, however, shows a peculiar side in developing societies that are not sufficiently literate or fully conscious of civic virtues… Both the politics and the educational system of a developing democracy have to expound liberalism with the intensity of religious indoctrination.

Is there an authoritarian streak lurking between the lines? The religious indoctrination of one side is to be matched by the liberal indoctrination of the other much like the socialist indoctrination that was common in other types of developing states. Does this mean that an open and free society can be forged out of a regimen of indoctrination? Or that indoctrination is an acceptable means to an end as long as it is indoctrination of the right kind according to ‘Us’? If so, what do we do with democracy in the interim?

Such difficulties arise in my view because in going from description to prescription the book slights the diagnosis – there is really no sustained analysis of why the extent of conflict in society might have increased. There is little attempt to explore other plausible reasons besides the cussedness of the ignorant masses percolating upwards through the democratic process or the shortsightedness of greedy and unscrupulous politicians ungrateful of the legacy they have inherited.

A few such plausible reasons worthy of being investigated come readily to mind. One could, for example, consider the correlation of conflicts with the presence or absence of economic growth, with the tightening of competition and the job market, with policies pertaining to affirmative action, with the process of urbanization, with trends in globalization, or with the nature of electoral politics itself.

One could also map the conflicts over space to see if there might be clues in the geographical correlates. If the conflicts are not distributed spatially at random it might be possible to argue that there is more at issue than just a case of Indians not appreciating the idea of pluralist tolerance. There might be new and real conflicts of interest emerging that are unlikely to be resolved by moral suasion to be nice and reasonable. Live and let live might require a more radical redistribution of power than before; the conflicts could well be the byproducts of stresses generated as an unequal society strains to become more equal and runs into resistance.

In taking a moral stance, the book also misses out on exploring what could be truly interesting questions. For example, is there a logical imperative to accepting the starting point as unequivocally correct? Is it possible that the founding fathers, steeped in European liberal thought, opted for a Rolls Royce of a Constitution and planted it on potholed road? In other words, was the framework chosen for India rooted in the institutions that secured its tolerant and live-and-let-live culture, one with which the founding fathers were also conversant? The remark of a participant in the framing of the Constitution comes to mind: “We wanted music of Veena and Sitar, but here we have the music of an English band.”

To appreciate this point, consider a mundane analogy. There is a provision in the International Labor Organization’s charter that industrial workers must be provided with on-site toilet facilities in factories. I have seen workers blamed for being ‘uncivilized’ when modern toilets were rendered unusable by their practices. I recall wondering why the type of toilet was not matched to the practice of the workers. I doubt it was considered more appropriate to indoctrinate the workers in the ways of modern toilets. In all probability, no one really thought it important to ground aspirations in a reality for which the modernizing decision-makers had little sympathy or respect. After all, did everyone not deserve the best?

The book has suffered from the absence of another unasked question: What makes 1947 the appropriate starting point for this account of intolerance? True, it marks the Independence of India and the book is about the intolerant Indian, but the processes that gave rise to intolerance could well have emerged at some other time. I would consider 1857 as the year that saw Indian unity at its peak against the British. It was the first census in 1872 that introduced the salience of religion making the number of adherents an important metric for the allocation of resources. This was followed by the graduated introduction of representative government modulated by religion, a vexed challenge that Indians never managed to resolve. The rise of intolerance was meteoric culminating with the vivisection that consumed a million lives. This genie could not be put back in the bottle in 1947 and India has been living with the consequences ever since.

The book talks at the people but never really includes them in the dialogue and never really addresses their concerns. It never really asks how they managed to live together for centuries while continuing to adhere to narrow religious, regional or ethnic identities and why they might find it more difficult to do so now. As I read, I kept trying to imagine how the author would convey the argument of the book were he to find himself in a village in, say, Kerala. How would the notions of liberalism and secularism be cast in a vocabulary that the audience could participate in?  How could we make this a two-sided conversation?

It is not at all difficult to sympathize with the anguish of Gautam Adhikari. It is therefore all the more ironic that his book has turned out to be an intolerant one.



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