To call tolerance a virtue is to make virtue of a necessity. Tolerance is necessary. Without tolerance, a society would be at perpetual war with itself, because we understand the alternative of tolerance to be intolerance and violence.

But if we pause to consider what tolerance means, it is only an adequate response to the unfamiliar; it is not an ideal, and not a desired state. In many Indian languages, the word that comes closest to tolerance is sahanshilta or sahishnuta, both of which indicate endurance or sufferance—necessary, but neither of which is necessarily pleasant. Tolerance is built on the idea that the one with power—a king, a government, a majority—allows the others to live their lives the way they wish; the underlying assumption being that the others should not cross specific markers, which may or may not be defined. Tolerance also means acceptance, or submission, to the will of that ruler, the government, or the majority, where the ones without power go along, because the consequences would not be pleasant.

It is instructive that the British writer E.M. Forster called tolerance a “dull" virtue. He was speaking in the context of World War II. In that wartime address, he pragmatically said, “It merely means putting up with people, being able to stand things. No one has ever written an ode to tolerance, or raised a statue to her." He added that a civilized future could be built on tolerance, implying that tolerance is the building block, not the end goal. He cited Asoka, Erasmus, Montaigne, Locke and Goethe as rulers and thinkers who stepped away from fanatics and outrage-manufacturers of their time to speak in a civil tone of the need to accept, respect, live and let live.

Indians have always been tolerant, just as Indians have always been intolerant. Indians have tolerated colonialism, sluggish economic growth, inequality, uncollected garbage, appalling air quality, books being banned, corrupt bureaucracy, slow court procedures, the hounding of lovers of different castes or faiths, and laws on statute books that outlaw same-sex relationships. Indians have also shown intolerance for cricketers who lose matches by attacking their homes, vandalizing buses and public property when something they disapprove of happens, filed sedition cases against individuals they disagree with, and bristled when someone criticizes the country or doesn’t stand up when the national anthem is played. The irony of the anthem is acute: Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote the national anthem, had actually decried rabid nationalism in three fine essays and in his fiction—think of Nikhil’s disquiet over Sandip’s chest-thumping nationalism in Ghare Baire (The Home and The World).

Nayantara Sahgal, Krishna Sobti, Raghuram Rajan, Narayana Murthy, Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan don’t see the tolerance-intolerance debate as a zero-sum game. The two have co-existed in India for millennia. Their concern arises over the consequences of intolerance. This is beyond data analysis. The question—is India more intolerant today than it was 18 months ago—is meaningless for the victims of intolerance today. Mohammed Akhlaq’s widow won’t get solace if she is told that riots were more prevalent between 2004 and 2014. Indeed, far many more people have died in riots under Congress rule than under non-Congress governments, because Congress has ruled India for 55 of the 68 years since independence. But how does it comfort a victim today to be told that it was much worse to other victims at an earlier time? It is as irrelevant as telling people that they’d be worse off in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. Since when did those countries become the benchmark for India? Intimidating someone because his wife feels insecure in India, and shouting at him that Indians are tolerant, would be funny if it weren’t real. To tell Aamir Khan that he should be grateful that Indians made him a star has an unstated corollary: enjoy what you have; don’t ask for more.

That ‘more’ need not be love—that would require civilizational, and not merely generational, change. That ‘more’ is respect for his dignity. By insulting authors who return awards, actors who question the direction of the country, and executives concerned about the economic consequences of bigotry, supporters of the government—and indeed some of its ministers—want to eliminate dissenting views. One people, one nation, under one leader, marching together—we know where such thinking originated, and where it can lead.

Tolerance is the means towards an end—a more humane society. Given that tolerance is not the end, but the means, it is all the more important for the government not to justify intolerance. But ministerial bluster and prime ministerial silence are making intolerance, and indeed hatred, acceptable norms. It makes public virtue of private hatred.

Things aren’t so bad—the intolerant ones are the fringe, we are told. But what happens when the fringe shouts and the centre is silent? Is there a centre? Or is the fringe the centre? And what if the centre cannot hold?

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com

To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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