The Dark Shadows of Tolerance

The concept operates as a gatekeeper, drawing a line between those we like and those we do not. It does not offer any vision of transformation and, in the face of systemic or structural inequalities, becomes a substitute for justice.

SO WHO SHOULD WE TOLERATE NOW? File photo from 2010 of the late VHP president Ashok Singhal, who died last week, with Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI

So Who Should We Tolerate Next Now that We are Done With this Group?
File photo from 2010 of the late VHP president Ashok Singhal, who died last week, with Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI

The use of the term ‘tolerance’ is being bandied around in the public space in ways that invariably assume it has a progressive meaning. In response to protests by writers and others against acts of violence and intimidation and the government’s failure unequivocally to condemn them, ruling party ministers and spokespersons have insisted that they are “tolerant” and that India is a country where “tolerance” is a way of life.

In reality, tolerance means different things to different people and the use of this word as a shield underlines the problematic nature of the concept.

In the context of the colonial encounter, tolerance was the glue that enabled civilizing missions and colonial adventures in the name of taming the ‘barbarous other’ who was viewed as intolerant and uncivil. Tolerance served as the device to deny full legal equality to the native while also managing their claims for greater recognition and empowerment and thus served in part to legitimise colonial rule.

In encounters with indigenous peoples in white settler colonies, tolerance has taken the form of apologies and entertaining claims for reparations by indigenous aborigines such as in Australia without addressing the underlying racist premise of the liberal state. And as recent encounters in Europe have evidenced, the flow of refugees is testing the limits of tolerance, where `racially integrated’ countries are determined to keep their countries both white and Christian, while also stemming the flow through strengthened border security, fences and if necessary, drone attacks in an effort to eliminate the threat that difference poses.

Tolerance and its limits

In the period immediately after independence, tolerance in India initially functioned to protect the rights of religious minorities in the aftermath of the bloody partition and to consolidate the identity of the modern Indian nation-state. Tolerance was and continues to be invariably linked to religious tolerance. And in the contemporary context of the emergence of the RSS Hindutva project, tolerance has come to be equated with appeasement, and assimilation has replaced it as the dominant demand. Difference is perceived as threatening, demonstrating a lack of patriotism, and a threat to the unity of the nation.

The remarks of Bollywood stars or writers and film makers returning their national awards are not read as part of the right to dissent and protest, but as a lack of national pride and in some instances have even been described as treason. The response to these protests must be zero tolerance! And the punishment for those who refuse to march in goose step with the unity and uniformity of the nation is invariably the same – go to Pakistan. This is the message of tolerance when placed inside the mouths of those who would weed out every element of plurality, diversity and disagreement from the national polity. While religious minorities, especially Muslims, are the central target of this brand of zero tolerance, other ‘others’ are addressed with equal disdain and disapproval for contaminating the cultural space – whether these be migrants, homosexuals, sex workers or ‘skimpily clad’ women.

This is not to say that tolerance is a bad thing. In fact, it has a vital place in a liberal democracy for it is the primary defence to compulsory assimilation. But to have any progressive meaning, tolerance needs to be delinked from its majoritarian religious proclivities. One option is to adopt a pluralising strategy that highlights the historical roots of tolerance in the multiplicity of India’s religious traditions, that demonstrate there is no one Hindu faith, Christian faith or Muslim faith. Such an approach has two limitations. First, it runs the risks of nostalgic idealism and cultural essentialism – of searching for the elusive authenticity of religious and cultural traditions, of assuming that those traditions can be discovered rather than constructed and negotiated, and of reconstructing those traditions as static, immutable, and monolithic. Second, a religious conception of tolerance still does not extend beyond tolerance of religious difference.

It is unlikely that religious tolerance could speak to the importance of tolerating those who think, act and live differently, if those differences were based on something other than religion. Such a strategy may not tolerate sex workers or homosexuals, and may continue to encourage the incarceration of homosexuals and reinforcement of gender stereotypes. In these instances tolerance operates as a gatekeeper, policing the boundaries and drawing a line between those we like and those we do not like. It does not offer any vision of transformation and becomes a substitute for justice. A principle of tolerance must be one that is up to the challenge not only of promoting respect for difference along religious lines, but also along a range of other fault lines.

A shift towards delinking tolerance from its so-called religious moorings and towards a more political conception of tolerance – and living with difference and diversity rather than in opposition to it – appears to be a more promising model. But this idea is also fraught with limitations, and may again end up foregrounding religious identity, and relinquishing too much autonomy to highly conservative, even orthodox communities to manage their own affairs without sufficient concern for tolerance within their own ranks.

Struggle for equality

A more robust political conception of tolerance may certainly move away from the thin version of tolerance based on mere visibility and the premise of accepting people and their practices despite disagreements and disapproval. But the rub lies in the fact that tolerance does not resolve the underlying hatred and animosities felt about difference – as recently demonstrated in the responses to statements by Shahrukh Khan and Aamir Khan – that lie just below the surface. A more robust political understanding of tolerance draws a line, but it is not the solution. While this call for tolerance can play an important role in reducing, if not altogether preventing harassment, incarceration, violence and abuse, it has also become an alternative to arguing in favour of full legal equality.

And this is the crux of the matter. Discussions on tolerance divert attention from addressing the discriminations that have been experienced by sub-groups – sexual, religious, caste, as well as on the basis of gender. Substantive equality in law does not demand sameness in treatment and conformity; it demands that historical, structural and systemic disadvantages be addressed –  which requires at times difference in treatment, in order to ensure equality in result. Tolerance becomes the mechanism for denying full legal equality to those on its receiving end – a method for ensuring majoritarian rule as well as sustaining an antagonistic posture towards difference and the continuing perception of that difference or `otherness’ as threatening or toxic.

Ratna Kapur is Professor of Law, Jindal Global Law School