The debate on whether India has become intolerant or whether we still remain tolerant is misplaced. Any culture, and even more so in a complex and diverse society like India, will always have a range of beliefs, with an equally diverse range of reactions shown to the beliefs of others. Some will show tolerance and some will show intolerance, and this variation occurs consistently across the ideological spectrum from right to left. It is likely that the extent of both tolerance and intolerance within Indian society has not varied substantively over the years. This is not the issue: what matters is how the government of the day reacts to the incidents of intolerance. And the primary responsibility of the government is to ensure that the rule of law prevails.
Unfortunately, this has not been the case, and we have have had many incidents in our history where the constitutional rule of law has not prevailed. To name some prominent cases: the Emergency in 1975-77, the riots against Sikhs in Delhi in 1984, and the Gujarat riots in 2002. And many more have taken place on a day-to-day basis, out of the gaze of front page headlines, through the misuse of parliamentary acts such as POTA, TADA, and AFSPA. In most cases, perpetrators of injustice have not been brought to book, despite there being sufficient evidence against them.
Often, it is the institutions that are supposed to uphold the law who appear to ignore it, and it is difficult to say whether this happens out of defiance, ignorance or apathy. Take the case of the constitutional protection of free speech. The language of the constitution is imprecise and allows the suppression of speech if necessary to maintain public order, without precisely defining what is meant by ‘public order’. But this has subsequently been clarified in judgments of the Supreme Court, with the court recognising that the constitution should be read with a bias toward freedom, and therefore the threshold at which speech can be suppressed for the sake of public order is only when it contains an explicit and imminent incitement to violence. It is therefore necessary that the Constitution be read in conjunction with this clarifying case law laid down by the Supreme Court. Yet, legal accusations of sedition continue to be filed in reactions to statement or slogans where there has never been imminent incitement to violence; and police file First Information Reports on the basis of these complaints, and lower courts accept these cases for hearing. Even more ominous is when one hears reports of violation of fundamental rights by the police or army, or when the senior-most levels of the central government remain relatively silent on public instances of violent mobs seeking to implement vigilante justice. It appears that we need a new consciousness on the spirit of the Constitution that must permeate all levels of public institutions of governance, law and order.
In the US presidential campaign of 1992, Bill Clinton was campaigning against the incumbent George H.W. Bush. James Carville, a strategist in the Clinton team, sought to keep the campaign focused by hanging up a sign at the headquarters at Little Rock with three slogans on it: “It’s the Economy, Stupid”, “Change vs. More of the Same”, and “Don’t Forget Health Care”. Although this was meant as an internal message for the campaign team, the phrase “It’s the Economy, Stupid” became a frequently repeated phrase with many variants in American political culture, used when it was necessary to argue that politics must recover a focus on essential issues that lie at the core. It appears that we need a variant of this phrase in India now: every public institution should be trained to abide by the spirit of a slogan that hangs in their office which reads, “It’s the Constitution, Stupid!”