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Amartya Sen: The problem is... Indians have been much too tolerant of intolerance
13 February 2016
New Delhi,13/February/2016 (ITNN)>>>> On a day that the State and street alike turned to choke dissent in the capital, one of India’s most eminent voices told the citizenry it wasn’t dissenting enough. The problem is not that Indians have been intolerant, it is that we have been much too tolerant of intolerance,” Nobel laureate Amartya Sen said this evening. And so I am arguing that this has to end.

We must be more intolerant of intolerance. That is not happening adequately right now, or even earlier. We should no longer tolerate an intolerance that undermines democracy and allows a culture of impunity and tormentors.”
Breeding or pandering to intolerance, Sen made plain, was not the creed of the present government alone “although it has added substantially to restrictions”.

He ticked off Congress governments of the past for acting – or not acting – in ways that curtailed freedom. He picked out the ban on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and the harassment of M.F. Husain as illustrations of how Congress regimes had responded to intolerant voices. Husain was hounded out vociferously by a minority, and he had to run away and he died abroad.

The government should have done much more to protect him. The laureate was speaking to an overflowing house at the India International Centre. A deferential hush attended his discourse; it was left to Sen himself to break the rapt silence with bursts of wry humour. When one of the organisers placed an aerated beverage he had asked for on his lectern, he quickly removed the glass and placed it precariously on the edge. The lectern is a slope you see,and my physics lessons tell me.

Ringing laughter. Sen made clear at the outset he wasn’t only speaking of “what’s going on today but his remarks came inextricably attached to a
context. His stage at the Rajendra Mathur Memorial lecture organised by the Editors’Guild of India had been set by daylong penal and political
broadsides against those who had allegedly eulogised Afzal Guru, hanged in 2013 for his part in the terror attack on Parliament.

But Sen chose to locate the preface of his discourse on “The Centrality of Dissent” 80-odd years ago during the British Raj. He spoke of an uncle,
Jyotirmoy Sengupta, who was jailed by the British and whose conversations Sen said he felt “very inspired” by.“He used to tell me that he felt committed to removing the unfreedoms heaped upon us by our rulers, and that has stayed with me. How happy would he have been today? Have our unfreedoms really ended? … The courts, particularly the Supreme Court,have good reason to examine if India is not being led astray by rules of the Raj that we fought so hard to end.”

Thereon, Sen proceeded to make an eloquent case not only that our shackles persist but also, more fervently, for what must be done to shake them off.“ We should criticise governments if we are unhappy with them. Defeatism is never going to get us anywhere, and we have to remember we have to do it ourselves. Imagine if Gandhi were to have said,look the British are too powerful, they are going to throw my whole family in jail.

Just think about what would have happened then.”He picked out two imperial era laws that he believed should go – Article 377, which criminalises gay sex, and Article 295 A, which makes hurting religious sentiment punishable.“I am happy a special bench of the Supreme Court is looking at 377, but what is the purpose of retaining 295 A today? The British had purposes it served because it also kept us divided on religious lines, but we must ask what is the purpose of retaining it today.

we find ourselves easily offended because offence has become a major industry.“Are you eating beef or pork? But is that really of anyone’s business, what I and you eat at home. You eat beef at your home, I get offended sitting in my home, what is this about? … The Indian Constitution has nothing against eating beef or storing it in the refrigerator, but today the realm of religious sentiment seems to extend interminably far… strange claims on religion are
being made by a small, but radical, group ready to jump on everyone.”

Religion, Sen argued, was not always a thing to berate in public life. “Religion has been used for the public good. Christian missionaries have used it to spread education, to set up hospitals and other welfare institutions. The Ramakrishna Mission has done that admirably. But when it is used to silence people because they follow another faith or don’t follow any, then it goes against freedom of expression and democracy itself.” Flagging regulations enforced by some BJP-run governments,Sen said: “Some states want to extend unfreedoms through legislation. Like banning kinds of foods people eat. The courts should examine this for individual freedoms and the way we want to live, without giving cause to violation of public order.”

Most Indians, “most of them classified as Hindus like me”, Sen argued, had been “familiar with and tolerant about religious beliefs of others” for very long. “We have good reason to be proud of our plurality and tolerance, but we also have to fight very hard to preserve it. Vigilance has long been recognised to be the price of freedom,” Sen said. Asked,during a brief interaction that followed, how he would convince those who would not listen to his reason, Sen bluntly said: “You don’t have to try to convince people who will not do that. You just have to tell them they are running against the Constitution. Freedom of expression is fairly well defined in the Constitution, and reason is a good tool, is this for the better or not? Reason has to be employed, reason is a good tool.”