Recent incidents in different parts of the country are causing a lot of anxiety to all the right thinking people whose concept of inclusive and tolerant India needs reinforcement. As a matter of fact, majority of the people in our country are very tolerant and appreciative of the cultural and social diversity. And yet, a small fringe of extremists gets far more attention than may be due, because of their extreme unacceptable intolerance. In every society there are only a few people who have the temerity to take the law in their hand and when they start defining the boundaries of civil discourse, the society is in trouble.
Recent shooting incident in the USA, furore on the publishing of a cartoon in France and Denmark, the murder in UP, shaming boys and girls going together in Karnataka, murder of Independent Thinkers/rationalist in Karnataka and Maharashtra, extremely provocative statements in Hyderabad, enthusiasm of a few young people for middle-east extremist terrorists, etc., are a few examples of the limits being put on the democratic dialogue. Are we saying that Indian tradition of immense tolerance for the charvaks in the Buddhist period has run its course? In the contemporary history we have an example of leaders writing a critical article about themselves in a magazine. Why cannot we expand the space for dissent and democracy by ensuring that disagreement, no matter how intense it is, doesnot become a reason for disrespect and in extreme cases, violence.
The Hindu society is one of the most diverse society. In north India, marriage of a boy and a girl from the same village is abhorred. In parts of South India, a girl is married to her maternal uncle as an auspicious relationship. Likewise, in food, the Brahmins in Bengal and Kashmir eat meat without any compunction. In fact the meat is offered to the deity. Which model of Hinduism is to be adopted as a national and cultural point of reference? The caste system has imprinted itself on Christianity and Islam in India. Mazhabi Sikhs find it difficult to marry higher caste Sikhs. There is no religion which doesnot have scope for reforms. In Indonesia, Muslim craftsmen make some of the most beautiful puppets for enacting Ramayana. Many Muslim entrepreneurs of Malaysia keep Idol of Ganesha on their table for good luck. In India, we fly kites on Uttarayan made by Muslims as well as Hindus. Where will we draw the line?
Let every college and school have an honest dialogue on these questions. I am not saying that extremism is more or less among the followers of any particular religion. But a religion which has permitted hundreds of different versions of Ramayana and Mahabharata, which does not insist on any one way of believing in God either as superior or the only way, cannot be cast in new monothetic mould.
Indian march towards progress and development, as several leaders have rightly pointed out, cannot be distracted by such extremely condemnable acts of extremism. Our education system must encourage open dialogue and debate about the notion of inclusive India. The amount of energy that gets dissipated in such a divisive discourse will not take us far. Indian democracy has survived all such attempts to impose extremist ideologies. The electoral results show that extremist and exclusionary viewpoints do not get much popular support. It is neither in any body’s political interest nor in the socio-economic interest of any right thinking group to divide society on various caste, communal, regional or other grounds. The debate has to be on different models of socioeconomic development. I hope that we will start a discussion in our homes on this highly contentious issue and grant people a right to disagree without being disagreeable.