Image Source: The Atlantic

In a conversation with Anant Goenka in the recently concluded Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards, Aamir Khan added his two cents — that gained in worth significantly after he said it — to the intolerance debate that has gripped the nation for months.

He opened up about the growing sense of “despondency” in the country owing to rising instances of intolerance in the last six to eight months and spoke about his conversation with wife and filmmaker Kiran Rao, who asked him whether they should move out of India. She fears for her child and for the atmosphere that’s likely to be created in the future, he said.

“This shows that there is a sense of disquiet in India, apart from alarm,” said Aamir.

Before Aamir spoke up about intolerance in India, a candid Shah Rukh seemed to agree with Barkha Dutt in an NDTV interview that religious intolerance was on the rise in the country. Although Shah Rukh never explicitly said the words, “India is intolerant,” he did, however, say that religious intolerance was an impediment to a country’s progress and that “in our country, if we keep talking about religion, we will only go back to the dark ages.” He has denied saying anything about India being intolerant ever since.

Aamir Khan on intolerance:

Shah Rukh Khan’s interview with Barkha Dutt:

Coming from the big superstars of the country, the actors’ statements resonated in the minds of many liberals, but mostly drew the ire of many public figures, mostly including politicians from the ruling party and its sympathizers. Others seemed concerned about India’s image being tarnished internationally with these statements — as though the matter would have remained hidden otherwise. Haven’t they heard of the World Wide Web?

Of all actors participating in this debate, Bollywood actor Anupam Kher went all guns blazing. He held a protest march in New Delhi against those who claimed that India was growing intolerant. In a striking display of irony, he said on the morning of the march,

“Nobody has the right to call our country intolerant. We are secular people and don’t believe in selective outrage.”

Raveena Tandon, like many others, turned this issue into a Congress-BJP debate. She said that the people speaking up about rising intolerance were against the BJP, as per her tweets.

These are just the popular names among the many that have spoken for and against the rise of intolerance in India. Unfortunately, the collective voice of everyone online, in newspapers and magazines, and on TV has taken over the impressive and unprecedented Award Wapsi movement — the return of awards by writers across India who rose in protest against the killing of writers. The inspiring movement is now unfortunately overtaken by the politics of the matter.

There’s one thing, however, that has been completely overshadowed; or rather, lost its meaning and is being misused — the word ‘intolerance’.

It started out right, as religious intolerance, after we learnt about the instances of killing of writers who criticized religious beliefs, the gruesome lynching of a man by a mob who suspected him of eating beef in Dadri during the beef ban, the ink attack by Shiv Sena on writer Sudheendra Kulkarni — which was in parts religious and nationalistic, the hidden cases of forced religious conversions, and petty outrage in the name of religion, like the one that happened in Bengaluru a couple of months ago.

These instances clearly pointed towards religious intolerance in the country, but the word intolerance has ceased to mean anything real ever since. It’s now just a word thrown around for reasons other than to mean what it does.

This reminds me of George Orwell’s seminal 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, in which he refers to this kind of a lazy use of words in political discourse, often to conceal the brutality of the truth.

“As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.”

In a statement issued while returning her national award, author Arundhati Roy indicated towards the misuse of the word.

“Intolerance” is the wrong word to use for the lynching, shooting, burning and mass murder of fellow human beings,” she said.

In any case, intolerance is a demon that’s here to stay. Unfortunately, though, it’s the wrong kind of intolerance — the kind that’s not likely to help India in any way, a kind that’s likely to be a source of endless debates on TV and elsewhere, creating a lot of avoidable noise and ruckus — but not real, meaningful change.

But can intolerance — a highly demonized word around the world — cause real, significant change?

Image Source: The Huffington Post

It can. It depends purely on where the intolerance is directed at. Some of the greatest movements in history have come about as a result of intolerance more than anything. Of course, not of the kind that’s been telecast endlessly on news channels today. It’s of a different kind.

History gives us ample examples of this kind of intolerance — the right kind, if you will — the kind that changed the world for the better.

At a time in the 1800s, when slavery was legal in many parts of the US — and was, naturally, the status quo — Abraham Lincoln opposed it. He went against a system that many of the founding fathers of America themselves had partaken in over a hundred years ago. He was intolerant of slavery, to put it aptly.

When he was in power, he initially worked to prevent slavery from spilling over to different states. Then, he eventually declared the Emancipation Proclamation, which is recognized as a landmark event leading to the freeing of the slaves.

It’s important to understand that there was a time in history when slavery was normal, even when though we now consider it wrong. So there needed to be a strong level of intolerance for it to stir up a movement against it.

In another instance, in a racially divided South Africa ruled over by an oppressive white minority regime, Nelson Mandela stood up against racial discrimination. Such was his passion for making a change for the better of the people of color that he joined politics and fiercely opposed the system of racial classification and segregation called apartheid.

His intolerance landed him in prison, where he remained for 27 long years, before being released in 1990. His fight didn’t stop even then. After his release, he continued to partake in the eradication of apartheid and became the first black president of South Africa in the process.

None of this would have been possible if not for his intolerance towards the socially unjust system of apartheid.

Much closer home, Gandhi was quite intolerant towards everything British and acted sensibly against it, with his powerful peace marches and hunger strikes.

Interestingly, his journey started in South Africa, where he opposed racial discrimination to the hilt, just like Nelson Mandela. But then, after returning to India, he discovered plenty of things to be intolerant about. It was largely the British rule, but this film has too many subplots, like unfair taxation, brazen massacres, and religious conflicts.

The historic Salt March came about as a result of Gandhi’s intolerance against a particular law of the British government that forbade the production of salt from seawater. It’s interesting to think that, without this kind of intolerance, the Salt March, the Non-Cooperation Movement, the Satyagraha — none of these revolutionary movements would ever have taken place.

Can you imagine a free and independent India without these protests, whose foundation was intolerance?

Taking a cue from these historic instances of intolerance, the key lesson here is that you, I, and the rest of India — the rich, the powerful, the poor, the downtrodden — need to start being intolerant for the right reasons. The educated and the well-off have a special responsibility towards the country since they have the ability to stand against injustice.

Where do we start? Here’s a handy list.

The marriage of girl children in villages, the employment of kids for someone’s profit.

The abduction of and the sale of young girls into prostitution.

The lack of public toilets for children and women across the country.

The wastage of the hard-earned tax money by corrupt politicians.

Violence against women — whether domestic violence at home or rape in public.

The non-availability of water in many parts of India.

The lack of proper infrastructure across the length and breadth of the country.

The degradation of the environment — especially by polluting vehicles and the rapid felling of trees.

The constant political bickering that doesn’t help the regular Indian in any way.

The discrimination of people based on caste, creed, region, or religion.

The blatant disregard for the plight of farmers who are knee deep in debt and unable to feed their families.

India finds itself at this juncture, where it takes two steps forward, but then takes a step or two back. If we have to progress as a country, we have to resolve these problems urgently. And this can start with stark intolerance towards them.

So, if intolerance indeed is the buzzword of the season, let’s not get bogged down by it. Let’s use it to our advantage — to drive great political and social change.

So, what are you choosing to be intolerant about today?