At the very heart of democracy is respect for and tolerance of difference. This means that democracy provides space and freedom for the expression of various points of view. Hundreds of flowers and even weeds bloom and grow — or should — in a democracy. Indian democracy is witnessing a shrinking of these spaces and restrictions on the freedom of individuals to express themselves. The first victims of this are intellectuals, writers and artists — Arundhati Roy, M.F. Husain, Kamal Haasan, Salman Rushdie, Ashis Nandy and so on. It is a long list and it does not include the names of less famous who have also been victims. There is an alarming growth in intolerance in India. Mr Rushdie has with some justification described it as a “cultural emergency”. No one has quite declared this emergency but this does not detract from its presence. On the contrary, it makes it more dangerous since if it is allowed to flourish unopposed, it will become part of a manufactured consensus. That will kill dissent and thereby democracy.
The State is not the sole source of this intolerance although its arms are often the agency of implementation. But there are instances when the State is directly involved, for example, in charging Ms Roy with sedition or refusing permission to Mr Rushdie to speak in a literary festival. There are occasions when religious fundamentalism restricts freedom. Husain, Mr Haasan and Mr Rushdie have in different ways been victims of this kind of intolerance. The State surrenders meekly to this kind of fundamentalism because it finds it convenient to do so. Mr Rushdie was not allowed to visit Calcutta because because the chief minister felt that this was one way to woo a particular vote bank. There is also the more straightforward opposition to views that some political and social groups find unacceptable. Mr Nandy has found himself face to face with this kind of intolerance. Equally alarming is the imposition of State terror by a government or an individual running a government: in West Bengal an academic was arrested because he had circulated a cartoon making fun of the chief minister. There are thus many facets of the intolerance that has cast a long and dark shadow on Indian democracy.
One way to combat the intolerance is to point out over and over again that it is totally alien to India’s intellectual tradition. But equally important is to take steps to strengthen the institutions of democracy and to expose every single act or statement that violates the freedom of individuals as guaranteed in the Constitution. Democracy is a precious gift enshrined in the Constitution. The official Emergency in 1970s briefly subverted this. The unofficial emergency that is now creeping upon the republic, if unopposed, will also subvert freedom. Apathy is as dangerous an enemy of democracy and freedom as intolerance. Indeed apathy allows intolerance to breed.