Why fuss so much when intolerance is not new; it’s been around since 1947

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There's a tweet going around, which says it all: "Nowadays when I get invited for an awards show, I'm not sure whether they are giving it out or taking it back."
The issue that has now grabbed the nation’s attention is what the opposition parties are calling "the growing intolerance being encouraged by the government." Others argue it is only a perception, not reality. It started with Jawaharlal Nehru's niece, Nayantara Sahgal, returning her Sahitya Akademi award. Before long, it expanded to include a motley bunch of writers, poets, and filmmakers, mostly of leftist in dispensation, and more recently, a few scientists, a couple of business leaders, and a film star. On Friday, 20 filmmakers, including director Kundan Shah announced they too were giving up various awards. Infosys co-founder NR Narayana Murthy was one of the first among business leaders. Talking to a TV news channel, Murthy said there is considerable fear now among minorities and migrants over their safety and security. Unless there was no strife, no distress and no fear, it would be difficult to address problems of poverty, inequality, and disparity. Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, chairperson of Biocon Limited, struck a similar note with The Sunday Express, "I am very disturbed by fringe elements trying to disturb communal harmony. Communal harmony has to be preserved for economic progress to happen." Bollywood actor Anupam Kher, Madhur Bhandarkar and other film personalities during their "March for India" programme over intolerance issue, from National Museum to Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on Saturday. PTI

Bollywood actor Anupam Kher, Madhur Bhandarkar and other film personalities during their "March for India" programme over intolerance issue, from National Museum to Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on Saturday. PTI
Murthy’s former Infosys colleague TV Mohandas Pai tweeted soon after Murthy’s interview, "Please ask NRN (Murthy) to show us data!" That’s not an unreasonable request. Both Murthy and Shaw work in data-driven areas. In fact, Murthy has famously said: "In God we trust, everybody else bring data to the table." So, what was his data?

The data actually shows that the communal riots took place with equal frequency and violence under Congress rule. While tens of thousands died over the years, around 1000 died during the ten years of UPA I and II. No one blamed the Congress. Nobody returned awards. Why is it, under the present government, everything becomes an issue? Take for example, a convocation address at IIT Delhi by Raghuram Rajan, Governor, Reserve Bank of India, which was turned into a call against intolerance, thanks to some lazy reporting. In the speech, Rajan was talking generally about what is needed to encourage ideas in educational institutions and nations. Tolerance was one of the factors he listed. Next day’s headlines said, "Raghuram Rajan warns against intolerance."

Rajan issued a clarification. He told Bloomberg News: "It wasn't a speech about 'here and now'. It was more about where is the dialogue going and how are we going to maximise the advantage we already have." Everybody needs to calm down a bit, he said, addressing both sides of the intolerance debate. Historian Irfan Habib compared the RSS to the Islamic State. Coincidentally, his astonishing comment came around the same time that Moody’s Analytics, not exactly the same as the rating agency, put out a paper saying that "Modi must keep his members in check or risk losing domestic and global credibility." Not an unreasonable observation, given the extraordinary statements coming out the BJP and its associated organisations. What happened next was curious. A story that appeared on social media platforms claimed that the junior analyst who wrote the Moody’s report was Habib’s son-in-law. Habib’s daughter denied it and the narrative changed from one in which a leftist historian had made a ridiculous accusation to a young woman who was wrongly accused.

Still, the award wapsi brigade is coming under fire. Actress Raveena Tandon called Hindi movie director Dibakar Bannerjee, one of the wapsi brigade, a "joke." Here’s why. Banerjee returned a national award for the 2006 movie Khosla Ka Ghosla. But Savitha Rai Hiremath, the movie’s producer, was furious. The award was for best movie and belonged to the producer. Banerjee was the director and the award was never his for him to return. This is not a comedy of errors, it is out-and-out comedy!

Strangely, Banerjee did not choose to return an award that was legitimately his; a national award for best director for his movie Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye. Hiremath told a newspaper: "Why would I give up something so dear for a cause, which seems politically motivated?"

Politically motivated? Maybe it is. Others have chimed in too, opposing the concept of award wapsi. Veteran actor Kamal Hasan, himself a victim of intolerance, said he would not return his several hard-earned and well-deserved awards; and so did actress Vidya Balan. And their numbers are growing. Anupam Kher, whose wife is a BJP MP, today led a tolerance march similar to the Congress party’s intolerance march, to Rashtrapathi Bhavan. He was accompanied by dozens of people from the film industry. Sadly, the ruling party’s own rank and file is feeding the fire. In Karnataka, for instance, low-level BJP leader N Channabasappa threatened state Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, "If you have the guts come to Gopi circle (in Shimoga town) and state that you will eat beef, there is no doubt that on that day you will be beheaded." He was arrested and is hopefully mulling over the folly of his words. Controversial BJP MP Yogi Adithyanath compared actor Shah Rukh Khan to Lashkar-e-Tayyaba supremo Hafiz Saeed. Khan had recently said that there was growing intolerance in the country. Another BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya, who initially attacked Khan, retracted, but said if there was so much intolerance, Khan would not be one of the most popular actors in the country.

As much as the opposition demands it, Prime Minister Narendra Modi need not respond every time his partymen talk out of turn, which, alas, has become too frequent. The BJP claims that it does chastise offenders, but the public does not see it happening. The opposition may claim that intolerance is growing in India, but is that the truth? Actor Kamal Hasan got it right when he said at a press conference earlier this week that intolerance has been around since 1947. Maybe, but, when offenders go unpunished and live to offend again, the perception of intolerance grows, both bigger and uglier.