Participants from across the world sing during a candlelight service under the banner of the 'torches for tolerance' campaign on the opening day of the third UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban on Aug. 31, 2001. (Photo: AFP)
Most Indians like to brag that theirs is a very “tolerant” society and compare it with China, for instance, or the Islamic countries of West Asia. But speak to a Dalit, a tribal or a woman in this country, and you get a very different story.
The truth is that a caste-ridden society can never be respectful and accepting of others, and in the India of today not only is there violence based on caste but growing intolerance based on religion.
Nov. 16 is the day designated by the UN for increasing tolerance in every society and making the acceptance of the “other” a part of our most cherished beliefs.
The point is, will we?
"Curiously, Christianity has been one of the foremost intolerant societies in the world"
Tolerance is the ability or willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behavior that one dislikes or disagrees with. Intolerance comes from many sources: it can be religious, ideological, regional, and linguistic — or simply the dislike of people with a different skin color or a “funny smell.”
Curiously, Christianity has been one of the foremost intolerant societies in the world. “Show me a monotheistic religion,” said the Somali activist Ayaan Hirsa Ali, “and I will show an intolerant and violent society.”
It certainly seems true of Christianity and Islam throughout history.
Probably this comes from the conscious feeling that “we possess the truth, the whole truth,” and that “error has no rights.” This has made Christians throughout history exclusivist, intolerant and patronizing towards other races and other religions.
Most of this intolerance was directed towards the Jews in Europe where anti-Semitism showed itself in frequent pogroms, culminating finally in the Nazi genocide.
But there have been other instances too. Religious exclusivism is just one short step away from racism, and it is European (and American) Christians who have been most harshly intolerant of other races, either through colonization or slavery.
"Even those who do not accept these principles, like to pretend that they do"
It is with relief therefore that in today’s world, secularism has come to be the working model for so many societies.
Deriving from saeculum, the Latin word for ‘this world,’ secularism broke radically with the ‘throne-altar’ connection of all traditional states and used rationality as its basis for government, not the sacred texts of any scripture.
Today secularism and democracy form the foundation of most nation-states. Even those who do not accept these principles, like to pretend that they do!
Is Hindu society a tolerant society, by contrast?
A caution here. Hindu society is tolerant and accepting of philosophies and religious beliefs; it is intolerant and harsh with regard to social practice.
One reason for this is caste, in many ways the Hindu equivalent of race. Nothing terrifies a contemporary Hindu more than “losing caste” — being socially ostracized for social practices like intermarrying, eating forbidden foods, or co-mingling with the “other.”
Modernity has brought many changes to this country, not all of them welcomed and adjusted to. Many parts of feudal India hate the fact that Dalits have equal rights and harass them in many ways, like depriving them of education and welfare.
"The present ideology holding sway in India is fascist and majoritarian"
The extreme reluctance of the — largely caste Hindu — government to grant constitutional concessions to Muslim and Christian Dalits is a case in point.
Nor is the situation within the Indian Church any better. Many Christian Dalits from southern India complain of being precluded from education in Catholic institutions and excluded from higher office in the Church.
Will all this change? Yes, it will, but very slowly.
The present ideology holding sway in India is fascist and majoritarian. It would like to impose its authoritarian forms of thinking and acting to create a uniform Hindustan in “white shirts and khaki shorts.”
But it is on the wrong side of history and is doomed to failure.
For what we are witnessing today is the greatest movement of people across frontiers because of pleasure (tourism), work (economic migration), and security (freedom from persecution).
"They may have their moment in the sun, but history will consign them to its garbage pit"
This has been helped by the ‘communications revolution’ whereby cheap and universal travel has assisted the movement of millions.
And not just physical travel, the electronic media have spread all kinds of ideas and values just everywhere — through television, cinema, radio, the internet and social media. So it’s not just yoga in Paris, but Valentine’s Day in Mumbai, and cricket and futebol all over. We are no longer “frogs in a well.”
Today everyone is inescapably linked to everyone else, no matter what his/her religion, nationality, or skin color.
Of course, hegemons and dictators still try desperately to enforce their own beliefs through violent means, but they will never succeed. They may have their moment in the sun, but history will consign them to its garbage pit.
So today let’s make tolerance and acceptance the foundation of our societies and practice sincerely that ancient Indian adage, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family).
For this, we need to banish all hate speech, and all disparaging jokes based on racist and gender differences. More, as Gandhi would say, we need to practice non-violence (ahimsa) as a method within our families and neighborhoods.
Tolerance and acceptance isn't just the best way. In our complicated world, it is the only way.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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