The rising menace of intolerance

(Shakira Nandini, Oporto)

“Our tradition teaches tolerance; our philosophy preaches tolerance; our Constitution practices tolerance; let us not dilute it.” These stirring sentiments were expressed by Justice Chinnappa Reddy in a Supreme Court judgment pronounced in August 1986 which invalidated expulsion from school of students belonging to Jehova’s Witness faith. Regrettably, over the years, tolerance has been replaced by the rising menace of intolerance which strikes at various fields of human endeavor and creativity: writings, music, drama, paintings and movies.

Intolerance stems from an invincible assumption of the infallibility of one’s beliefs and a dogmatic conviction about their rightness. An intolerant society cannot tolerate expression of ideas and views which challenge its current doctrines and conventional wisdom. Consequently, unconventional and heterodox thoughts and views have to be suppressed. That is the prime motivation for censorship.

Extent of dissent

One criterion to determine whether a country is truly democratic is the extent of dissent permitted. A liberal democracy is one in which all groups in the country accept the fact that in a free country, people can have different opinions and beliefs and shall have equal rights in voicing them without fear of legal penalties or social sanctions. Right to dissent and tolerance of dissent are sine qua non of a liberal democratic society.

Today we have reached a stage where expression of a different point of view is viewed with resentment and hostility and there are vociferous demands for bans. The banning itch has become infectious. Sikhs are offended by certain words in the title of a movie; Christians want the movie, The Da Vinci Code, banned because they find some portions hurtful. The ban was struck down by the Andhra Pradesh High Court. No one dare write an authentic and critical biography of a revered religious or political leader. The American author James Laine who wrote a biography of Shivaji in which there were unpalatable remarks about Shivaji was sought to be prosecuted which was quashed by the Supreme Court. Worse, the prestigious Bhandarkar Institute at Pune where Laine had done some research was vandalized. That was mobocracy in action. The exhibition of M.F. Husain’s paintings was stopped by intimidation followed by vandalism of the premises. The exhibition The Naked and the Nude at the Art Gallery in Delhi is threatened with dire consequences because it is considered obscene by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad women’s wing. The musical performance by a teenage girl rock band in Kashmir was coerced into silence because the music was termed un-Islamic by a popular religious leader. There are media reports that Mani Ratnam’s latest movie Kadal has come under fire on account of Christian ire that it has ‘hurt’ the feelings of the community. One wonders whether we are hell bent on emulating the Taliban.

Fortunately, our Supreme Court has been a valiant defender of freedom of expression. The well known actor Khushboo faced several criminal prosecutions on account of her remarks on premarital sex and its prevalence in metropolitan cities which were considered to be against the dignity of Tamil women and ruined the culture and morality of the people of Tamil Nadu. The Supreme Court quashed the criminal proceedings on the ground that “under our constitutional scheme different views are allowed to be expressed by the proponents and opponents. … Morality and criminality are far from being coextensive. An expression of opinion in favor of non-dogmatic and non-conventional morality has to be tolerated and the same cannot be a ground to penalize the author.”

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