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The Tolerance of Intolerance


Sharad Bailur

There is everything wrong with democracy. It begins with disbelief in the goodness of human nature. It does not accept that God will sort out our societal mess. It continues with a suspicion of the motives of people, particularly those who would rule over us. It is the fount of rebellion and contrary opinion. It survives on a cacophony of views, most of them ill considered and wrong. And, in a crisis it is the scum of the earth that rises to the top. Nobody has any real power. Even those who are elected to rule, are hobbled at every step with checks and balances. The process of election can so easily be subverted. Those that do get elected represent the lowest common denominator, both intellectually and morally. In a country like ours each of these problems is compounded by the vastness of the country, the size of its population, the illiteracy, the diversity of its cultures and languages and the everyday divertissement of religion and caste that the people love more than food, clothing and shelter.

One might as well agree with Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena leader, who says that India needs a "benevolent dictatorship". Thackeray has made this comment, unmindful of the contradiction in terms, on more than one occasion and most recently in a television interview, which he ended with the characteristic crudity, "To hell with democracy!".

But first things first. The phrase, "benevolent dictatorship" has been used by many to mean many things. First how do you define benevolence in a dictatorship? Second, in a dictatorship, who decides what is benevolence? Third, in the event the dictator turns out less than benevolent, what recourse do the people have? Fourth, who should be that dictator? And last, who decides who should be dictator? It is clear from just these simple questions that Mr. Thackeray knows no more about the answers than the average clerk from the Secretariat. While the clerk does no harm when he expounds such opinions over his daily quota of hooch with his equally uneducated friends, Mr. Thackeray is in the unique position of being heard and is therefore, till this society remains liberal and democratic, open to criticism.

The problem with democracy is that it tolerates opposition. In doing so it implies that while the majority in itself holds roughly one particular opinion, contrary opinions are not merely possible but also likely to hold water and validity. It was Edmund Burke who said," I don't agree with your opinion; but I will defend to the death your right to hold it." That, in the event a contrary opinion is later found by the majority to be acceptable, it will change itself to accept the new opinion. In essence therefore true democracy is agnostic in nature. It accepts the possibility that even the majority that gets to choose the government may be wrong and therefore may not know enough. John Stuart Mill wrote in his treatise, "On Liberty" of the need to protect the right of opinion of the minority. To the extent that democracy is agnostic therefore it is incapable of extremism either in thought or action.

Unfortunately, this is its greatest weakness as well as its greatest strength. The strength lies in the contrary opinion being accepted or rejected by a majority and therefore living or dying as a result. The weakness lies in the fact that contrary opinions held by people like Thackeray are nurtured for the sole purpose of subverting the tolerance of the entire system itself.

Further the problem does not lie with just Thackeray or the Shiv Sena. All political parties that espouse extremist causes are capable of subverting a democratic structure. In fact, a careful analysis of the constitutions of the various Communist parties in the country will show that they are just as extreme in their political agenda as is the Shiv Sena. If the Shiv Sena believes in "Shiv Shahi" in whatever vague sense it appeals to them, the Communist hold on to Dialectical Materialism, their own dogma out of Karl Marx.

All extremist opinion irrespective of its source appeals to a centralisation of power and the arrogation of power to itself. It therefore relies on depriving the people of the power they wield in a democracy. In saying therefore that he believes in a "benevolent dictatorship" what Thackeray means is that he proposes to wield absolute power himself and no one will be allowed to prevent him from doing so. That the people will no more have the power to remove him if they dislike him for whatever reason. They will not even be able to tell him they dislike him.

This centralisation of power comes about in various contexts. But in all contexts it comes about because of dogma which needs to be interpreted by 'specialists'. The very existence of dogma makes for intolerance of opinion or views contrary to itself. In this sense it is not just extremist political philosophies which are intolerant.

All religions have in some form or another an extremist side. There is not much point in talking only about Islamic Fundamentalism or Hindu Fundamentalism. Christianity went through its own form of fundamentalism in the Middle Ages. Even today it is probably the most aggressive of all living religions. The Crusades in Europe and North Africa and the era of the Conquistadors in Central America was essentially fundamentalist in nature. It was also perhaps the most rapacious scourge invented by Man ever, and did more to spread misery, death, disease and destruction than many diseases for which, in those days there was no cure.

Few religions have been remiss about persecuting those who did not agree with them. Those that have not followed a policy of active proselytisation like the religion of the Parsis or orthodox Hinduism follow a system of unstated and subtle social ostracism of those who have not the good fortune to be born within the fold. In India the Parsis found their true métier. They have lived in perfect harmony with Hindus; both practising their own brand of social ostracism. This may have led to mutual exclusivity, but it also led to peace and harmony.

It is tempting to draw parallels between extremist political systems and different religions. For every Kaaba, Prophet and Quran of the Muslims there is the Vatican, Jesus and the Bible for the Christians and (till recently) there was Moscow and now perhaps there is Beijing, Karl Marx and Das Kapital for the Communists. The Nazis had Aryanisation, Mein Kampf and Adolf Hitler. The ideologisation of Maharashtrianism according to the Shiv Sena likewise has Shiv Shahi and Thackeray. He has not yet invented a book. Given a bit of time he will; and it will read quite like Mein Kampf.

What is expected of a liberal democratic structure is that it allows not just differing opinions to exist but that extremist opinions which can destroy it should also be allowed not just be to aired, but to flourish. You can take liberalism so far. But it should not be taken to a situation in which it is destroyed from within by positions which spawn and grow in its benign atmosphere. No extremist philosophy or antidemocratic political structure permits competing forms of liberalism or even other forms of extremism to exist in its environs let alone allow their nurture within its own structure.

There is therefore a case to be made in favour of banning all forms of extremism in a democratic setup. Unfortunately such a ban itself smacks of extremism and extremists like Thackeray will be the first to accuse the state of sponsoring terrorism. Despite this, the banning of the Thackeray variety is probably not all that difficult. Getting rid of other forms of intolerance however, will take a lifetime of education and persistent enlightened leadership to give the people an understanding of what the moderation of democracy is all about.

The tolerance of contrary opinion is a democratic asset that needs to be constantly nurtured with care. But the tolerance of intolerance is not a democratic asset. It is mere spinelessness and the inability to defend a liberal ideal. This, if left unattended can destroy the entire edifice of a liberal, modern and enlightened society. It is true therefore that democracy has many ills, particularly in our country. It is also true that a misunderstanding of the tolerance of democracy in India can be a very real threat to democracy itself. But as Winston Churchill said, "Democracy is the worst possible form of government - except for all the others." Perhaps that is reason enough for people to swear by it .