Posts Tagged ‘intolerance’

The American Nightmare

This presidential hopeful called Trump

Into politics has made a big jump

His speeches loquacious

Are truly audacious

And may lead to an American slump

The American Dream has seduced millions across the world, ever since the docking of the Mayflower in Provincetown Harbor in 1620 and the establishment of the first settlement at Plymouth, Massachusetts. In recent years, the dream started souring with the 2008 meltdown and a gridlocked Congress which could never agree on legislation. The aftermath of 9/11 also saw the growth of a xenophobic distrust of certain categories of human beings, typified by humiliating airport searches and surveillance of those who did not fit into the neat, comfortable definition of “us”. But never in their wildest dreams would most Americans have ever visualised that a rank pretender to the post of the President of America would not only secure the Republican Party nomination but also be in serious contention for the top job come the eighth of November. Like a master bridge player, Donald has Trumped his Republican opponents and virtually rewritten the rules of political debate. The American Dream is giving way to the American Nightmare, with likely precipitous consequences not only for that nation but for the rest of the world as well.

The bruising election campaign is symptomatic of the strains America has gone through in the first fifteen years of the twenty first century. The nearly two century old Monroe Doctrine has been tested in North America only twice, the first time when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. The second attack of 9/11 was the first assault on mainland America, with the emphasis moving from state to non-state actors. Since that fateful day, America has seen a gradual, creeping erosion of her preeminent political and economic status, which seemed to have been secured after the collapse of the former Soviet Union. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have ended in bloody stalemates and laid the foundations for even more bitter conflicts across the Middle East. Syrian refugees pour into Europe, straining the social fabric of the countries on that continent. The Arab Spring has turned into winter. The Islamic State is still to be comprehensively subdued. And terrorism has truly become a decentralised, cottage industry, when any person with a warped ideological mindset can lay his (and increasingly her) hands on weapons of mass destruction to wreak havoc on unsuspecting (but increasingly fearful) populations.

But it would be naive to believe that the rise and rise of Donald Trump is reflective of only recent trends in the popular mood. In her seminal work “The Authoritarian Dynamic”, Australian academic Karen Stenner has underlined the importance of the prevalence of an “authoritarian predisposition” among segments of a population that extends beyond animosity to just one group, ideology or evolving social value. This predisposition is latent in the individual when economic and social conditions seem stable but is activated when a normative threat is perceived. It then manifests itself in three forms of intolerance — racial (fuelled by ethnic or religious diversity), political (against dissent, as expressed by divergent views) and moral (opposed to deviance in sexuality-related or other issues pertaining to morality). The authoritarian individual’s threat perception is particularly activated by the lack of consensus in society (as reflected in widely varying views on political, social and economic issues) and a loss of faith in the ability of politicians and the prevailing political system and institutions to manage and minimise these differences. This “American authoritarian prototype” (white-male-Protestant-heterosexual) constitutes the core of Trump supporters and its genesis predates Trump’s entry into the political arena.

Since the end of the Second World War, America has been a participant in theatres of armed conflict in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. The less than successful interventions in the new millennium in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East have punctured the myth of American armed invincibility. The Iraq invasion exposed the duplicity and lying of the American political elite as they capitalised on the fear psychosis created by 9/11 to promote narrow partisan interests. The “open society” was riven by suspicion and mistrust, even as accounts of use of extrajudicial measures and human rights violations against prisoners of war created disquiet amongst thinking, sensitive sections of the US public.

It took almost one hundred years after the end of a civil war waged to abolish black slavery to formalise the equal status of blacks in the USA through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While this legislation has been followed in letter (if not always in spirit), the American authoritarian prototype has never really reconciled to the loss of his erstwhile superior, separate status. The growing presence of blacks in the government and private sectors, including at increasingly higher levels, has raised the hackles of especially those of their white brethren who have lost out in the education and employment sweepstakes. The ascension to the top job in 2008 of a black man only served to reinforce this bitterness and brought to the top the latent anti-black prejudice, as witnessed by the cheap slander of the incumbent President’s personal life and consistent efforts to derail his policies.

The icing on the cake came with the bursting of the housing bubble in 2008. Virtually overnight, working class families were plunged in debt with severe erosion in asset values. The credibility of politicians hit a new low with the common perception that Wall Street got away with murder, thanks to a sympathetic government in Washington, DC. Add to this the fear of loss of jobs to Chinese, Indians and those from a host of emerging economies and you have a situation tailor-made for the appearance of a demagogue: Trump stepped into the breach, virtually hijacking the Republican nomination. Americans have now reached a position where voting for either candidate is seen as a choice between “the devil and the deep blue sea.” Neither is seen as having the ability to heal the growing fissures and discontent in American society, Trump because of his extreme positions on minorities, the economy and foreign policy, and Clinton, because of her perceived links to a tainted political and financial establishment.

Many commentators see the implications of this “authoritarian predisposition” extending well beyond just the current election. If Trump wins, it is extremely doubtful if he will be able to walk his talk, but the continued use of a divisive and demagogic approach to issues will cause irreparable damage to the social fabric of the world’s longest-existing democracy. If Clinton wins, but her Democratic Party fails to gain control of the two Houses of Congress, the US will go through another phase of paralysis in policy-making at a time when it faces global challenges on various fronts. Even if her Presidency is accompanied by Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress, civil strife could still be a grim reality, given the rising assertiveness of the black minority, the reality of joblessness for the less-educated white population and the evolution of unipolar challenges to America’s dominance on the world economic and political stage.

Just over a hundred years ago, on the eve of the First World War, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey presciently observed “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”. Europe is going through the throes of an existential crisis today with the very idea of a liberal democratic system, founded on pluralism, free speech and diversity, being questioned: the Brexit saga was just one of its manifestations. The virus is spreading across continental Europe, exacerbated by the Syrian refugee crisis. Its existence in the New World across the Atlantic shows the resilience of this strain, with the credulous belief that a “strong man” can solve all the problems confronting citizens today. Karen Stenner reaches a rather sobering conclusion in her book “If there are inherent predispositions to intolerance of difference…and if those predispositions are actually activated by the experience of living in a vibrant democracy, then freedom feeds fear that undermines personal freedom, and democracy is its own undoing”.  Even the political scientist Francis Fukuyama who, in his book “The End of History and the Last Man”, had been optimistic, in the heady years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, of the prospects for the universal spread of liberal democracy has qualified his optimism by expressing doubts as to whether, having reached the liberal democratic destination, citizens might not again look for new political arrangements. The USA, in 1776, acted as a beacon on the democratic road taken by other countries: we can only hope that 2016 does not set humankind on an altogether different, destructive path.







Intolerance…for the rule of law

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (S.G. Tallentyre)

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines tolerance as “willingness to accept feelings, habits or beliefs that are different from your own.” A related definition is “the ability to accept, experience or survive something harmful or unpleasant.” Acceptance is the word common to both definitions: this implies accommodation by the individual of the acts or thoughts of another, even though they may conflict with his deepest convictions, indeed with his very way of life. The limits of such tolerance are set by the legal framework; the Constitution of India, while enunciating the inalienable freedoms available to every resident of India, has also circumscribed these to the extent necessary to protect the rights of other individuals and to preserve the essential social fabric of the country. All other laws are subordinate to the Constitution; over the past almost seven decades the superior courts have struck down a number of legislative enactments which were deemed to violate the basic structure of the Constitution. Implicit in this process is the recognition that a democracy is run by the rule of law and the final arbiter of any act, whether by word or deed, is the judiciary.

It is, therefore, with a sinking feeling that one observes the steadily growing tendency of different groups to ignore and often show their contempt for the rule of law. Indian society has, like any other society, displayed strains of intolerance towards socially disadvantaged sections, based on caste, religion and gender, to name just three categories. In recent times, the shabby treatment of the noted artist, M. F. Hussain, and the politically motivated attacks in Maharashtra on newspaper editors and academic institutions that were deemed to have insulted the memory of the warrior king Shivaji were instances of intolerance that made headlines. What is disturbing in India’s history over the past many decades is the resort to violence against helpless individuals and the perceived failure of the law and order machinery to protect them or bring the perpetrators of violence to book. Most recently, the mob violence in Muzaffarnagar in 2013 and the lynching of a man in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, in 2015 for allegedly consuming beef have been followed by the execrable act of lawyers indulging in violence against a student leader accused of the crime of sedition. What these three incidents starkly bring out is the brazen disregard for the operation of the rule of law. In all three cases, apologists belonging to the currently ruling dispensation have sought to ex post facto justify the perpetration of violence. More dangerous even than the display of intolerance towards fellow human beings is the utter contempt for the rule of law that these actions reveal.

Democracy is traditionally believed to rest on four pillars: the executive, legislature, judiciary and the press. With the spread of representative democracy and the growth of the internet, many commentators add a fifth pillar in the form of civil society. The 2011 Arab Spring is a vivid reminder of the power of public opinion and social media in shaping the course of events in a country. How has India fared in terms of the performance of these pillars and what are the lessons to be learnt if the tender plant of democracy is to take firm root in Indian soil?

Organs of the government, especially the police, have often displayed distressing levels of partisanship in handling conflicts between different communities and in protecting life and property. Indira Gandhi’s “committed bureaucracy” has been a spectator to, if not a participant in, India’s worst communal conflagrations — Delhi (1984), Mumbai (1993) and Gujarat (2002). The executive arm of the state is generally intolerant of criticism and the Indian executive is certainly no exception to this rule. But what marked out the latest incident in the public eye, the JNU case, is the extraordinary interest shown by the highest levels of the government in what were statements by youth in its usual phase of excited fervour. What could have been handled as a local incident and dealt with (if at all necessary) as a disciplinary matter by the University has been allowed to blow up into a controversy which has attracted national and international attention. Having committed one error of judgment, the executive compounded its problems by failing to act firmly against those who attempted to browbeat judicial institutions and interfered with the course of justice.

The second arm, the legislature, exemplified by Parliament at the national level, has, in recent years, often generated more heat than light. It has also dragged its feet on crucial legislation over the past decade, with parliamentarians more interested in winning battles of lung power than contributing to legislation that will promote economic growth and development. Over the years, legislations on a unified indirect tax system for the entire country, rationalization of archaic land laws and establishment of anti-corruption watchdogs have languished. A colonial era sedition provision, introduced in India after the 1857 mutiny, is still extant, although the mother country, the United Kingdom, dispensed with this statute over five years ago. Although no less a person than Jawaharlal Nehru espoused the sentiment (as far back as 1950) that this obnoxious provision should vanish from the statute books, independent India still retains this pernicious law that is freely available for abuse by insecure governments. To my knowledge, no honourable Member of Parliament has made any attempt to get this section in the Indian Penal Code repealed.

The one bright spot in the firmament of democratic institutions has been the legal system, though there is, obviously, the issue of the interminable judicial delays which frustrate the delivery of justice and tend to make the ordinary citizen cynical about the rule of law. This has to be qualified by the caveat that, while the judiciary, especially the higher judiciary, has been the one beacon of hope for the common man, the fraternity of lawyers has sometimes conducted itself with an appalling lack of dignity. Jokes about lawyers’ habits are commonplace in all democracies but the legal fraternity in India has, in recent years, besmirched its reputation with behaviour that is more suited to a beer hall than to a bar association, as witnessed in recent incidents on court precincts in Chennai and Delhi. In the recent case involving the production of the student leader arrested for sedition in the magistrate’s court, the nation and the world were witness to ugly scenes of alleged assault by “lawyers” on the student leader (a matter which is still under investigation), with the police apparently standing by as mute witnesses. Surely, lawyers, if the assailants were indeed lawyers, ought to be aware that the law must take its course.

The fourth pillar, the press, has been an increasing cause of concern in recent times. The print media, under threat from the electronic media and now social media, has generally tended to focus on avenues like advertising revenue, with lesser concern for factual reporting and issues of social concern. The electronic media, with almost no exceptions, is engrossed with sensationalism and “breaking news.” Even more disturbing is the tendency for news channels to act as adjudicators of legal issues, especially cases currently under investigation by the law enforcement authorities. Judgments have virtually been passed on most news channels in the high profile case involving Indrani Mukerjea. In the JNU student leader case, unverified audiovisual evidence has been casually bandied about by certain news channels. Value judgments on the patriotism of individuals and their actions have been passed without leaving the matter to be decided by the appropriate judicial forum. If the press was felt to be compliant during the Emergency years of 1975-77, there is now reason to worry whether it is complicit today with certain segments of society that seek to impose their narrow sectarian, nationalistic view on the country.

The biggest hope for a healthy, flourishing democracy lies in a questioning, independent civil society that accommodates a diversity of views and encourages discussion and dissent. No less a person than Raghuram Rajan, the present Governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) observed in a lecture in October 2015 at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai that societal self-interest lies in the protection of the right to question and challenge, for only through encouraging the challenge of innovative rebels does society develop.  The growing partisan shrillness of discourse and the recourse to vituperative, often libellous language in the social media is a sad reflection on the deteriorating standards of public debate in a country that has produced outstanding thinkers like Ambedkar, Nehru and Rajaji. It should occasion no surprise when we have commentators in recent days opining that students should go to universities to study, forgetting the important role of universities and other institutions of higher learning in fostering the spirit of questioning in individuals and equipping them to contribute to political and social development in their future lives. While it has been heartening to see the large number of those who have taken a stand against the attempts to straitjacket thinking and debate, there is no denying the growing numbers who refuse to use hard facts to bolster their viewpoint, relying instead on emotion and unverified information to push their worldview as the only acceptable one. When they lose out in the battle of words, as is bound to happen when reason does not inform argument, they descend to the use of swords.

Democracy in India, like the nation state, is a concept that has been put together since 1947 and has (despite various gloomy prognostications) lasted over nearly seventy years, in contrast to most other countries that achieved independence around the middle of the twentieth century. The people of India have chosen their governments at the national level sixteen times since independence and have ushered out the incumbents on eight of these occasions. But the right to bloodlessly change governments (Karl Popper’s fundamental classification of a democracy) is hardly the only characteristic of a democracy. It is the rule of law which guides the functioning of a democracy in the interregnum between elections. Seen from this viewpoint, the “five pillars” of Indian democracy can be said to have secured barely passing grades. Nor, regretfully, do most Indians show tolerance for the words and actions of their fellow humans, whether from India or outside. The rule of law apparently applies only when one is wronged, not when one wrongs one’s fellow human. Two examples will suffice: progressive writers in Bengaluru choosing to boycott the Literature Festival because one of the organisers had differing views on the Award Wapsi controversy and the intolerance shown by Left parties to political dissent in Bengal over their 34-year rule. Respect for the individual’s right to freedom of expression, consumption and decision (three freedoms which are being questioned at various levels today) is still to be ingrained in the Indian democratic psyche. Till this tolerance becomes a matter of habit, we cannot claim that our country functions on the principle of the rule of law.





Killing Mockingbirds – A Twenty First Century Syndrome

It is not often that a writer hits the bestseller list with her first novel. Harper Lee achieved that with her masterpiece “To Kill A Mockingbird”, which describes the racism and social inequality prevalent in the 1930s in the American South. A black man, Tom Robinson, is falsely accused of raping a white woman from one of the most wretched white communities on the fringes of society. The prevailing animosity of whites towards blacks, seventy years after slavery was formally abolished, manifests itself in efforts of some members of the white community to lynch the accused. In the ensuing trial by an all-white jury, Tom is sentenced to death, despite a brilliant defence put up by his white lawyer, Atticus Finch. Atticus is able to discredit the evidence of the rape complainant very comprehensively, although this does not lead to a verdict of acquittal. Despairing of getting justice in a system weighted against his community, Tom is killed while trying to escape from jail. The father of the complainant, a down and out reject of society, seeks to avenge his humiliation at the trial by attempting to kill Atticus’ children, losing his own life in the process. What the novel highlights is the number of innocents who are caught in the web of this bigotry and hatred. The author likens these to mockingbirds, which cause no trouble to humans and give pleasure through their singing. Hence the injunction of Atticus Finch to his children never to hunt mockingbirds. Tom Robinson, like many others in the novel, is the mockingbird caught in a vortex not of his making but of which he has to reap the grim consequences.

Twenty first century India is in some ways (and unfortunately increasingly so) reminiscent of the American South of an earlier generation. In recent times, women, children, householders, truckers, scholars, writers and journalists have been at the receiving end of lynch mobs for just trying to live their lives as they deemed best, without in any way interfering in the lives of others. The provocation (as so termed by vigilante groups) can be linked to a certain worldview about “culture”, which gives no space to diversity of individual behaviour, intellectual thought and even dietary practices. Women in Mangaluru (and elsewhere) have been targeted for expressing their individuality in ways which in no sense constituted any violation of the law of the land but “offended” patriarchal mindsets of some groups. Violence against women has been a longstanding feature of Indian society (protestations of its veneration of women notwithstanding) – what is disturbing in recent years has been the concentration of violence against women seen as bucking traditional mores and behaviours expected of women – whether it is association with the opposite sex, visiting places (e.g. pubs) seen as male prerogatives or even establishing their financial independence through gainful employment. Freedom of expression (enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution of India) has been sought to be curbed extra-legally ever since the forcible exile of M. F. Husain two decades ago. Then we had the unedifying spectacle of hooligans from the Nationalist Congress Party (in power in Maharashtra at the time) vandalizing the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune  and destroying priceless manuscripts to protest the research support it is supposed to have given to a “controversial” book on the Maratha ruler, Shivaji. More recently, writers like Perumal Murugan in Tamil Nadu have been pressurized to disown their writings which some social groups objected to, apart from the as yet unsolved murders of three rationalist scholars over the past two years. The last straw on the camel’s back has been the recent incidents of mob violence against members of minority denominations by socially dominant groups enjoying political patronage, ostensibly on the grounds of offending religious sensitivities related to alleged beef consumption.

There are two disturbing aspects to these developments that make all right-thinking, sober Indians reflect on (and despair of) the direction that Indian society seems to have taken. The first refers to what the political theorist Hannah Arendt has termed as “tribal nationalism” in her book “The Origins of Totalitarianism”. As she puts it “(Tribal nationalism) can be easily recognized by the tremendous arrogance, inherent in its self-concentration, which dares to measure a people, its past and present, by the yardstick of exalted inner qualities and inevitably rejects its visible existence, tradition, institutions and culture…tribal nationalism always insists its own people is surrounded by “a world of enemies”, “one against all”, that a fundamental difference exists between this people and all others. It claims its people to be unique, individual, incompatible with all others and denies theoretically the very possibility of a common mankind…”. The concept of an Indian nation is barely seventy years old. National pride was sought to be rekindled during the two hundred years of British rule by hearkening back to a pre-Muslim conquest glorious past, as though to deny the existence of history after 1192 CE (the Battle of Tarain), which marks the start of Muslim political ascendancy in India. It is unfortunate that, today, history is sought to be rewritten on the same basis, ignoring six centuries of social and political evolution which influenced the mosaic that is present-day India. It is even more unfortunate that this ersatz history has had its impact on certain sections of society, especially those exposed to a limited worldview founded on prejudice and a marked sense of inferiority, leading to a conviction that the majority community must assume its “rightful” place in the country. The “other” then becomes a convenient scapegoat for all one’s shortcomings and no effort is spared to impose a majoritarian worldview on all other communities.

The second aspect, and this is one that can be fatal to the very existence of a democracy, is the lack of respect for and observance of the rule of law. The police and security forces have, on a number of occasions, been swayed by partisan considerations in the maintenance of law and order and in the prosecution of criminal offences. Matters have not been helped by a creaking judicial system that takes decades to punish the guilty, if at all they are brought to trial. It is not surprising, therefore, that two tendencies manifest themselves: (a) using every loophole in criminal investigation and judicial procedures, those with money, influence and power delay, or thwart, the course of justice; (b) in frustration, those denied justice take the law into their own hands. A sense of impunity develops where the absence of the fear of deterrent punishment encourages vigilante groups and mobs to go on killing sprees; India’s experience is testimony to numerous such cases.

All sections of the state and society in India bear some of the blame for this sorry state of affairs. Political parties in India have always operated on the basis of expediency and short-term political gains. Right from Indian independence, the political class has used divisions of religion, caste and language to further its agenda of survival. With the cynicism (or should I say, realism) of thirty years in government, I would say the Indian political class amply justifies Goethe’s description of “estimable in the individual and wretched in the generality.” While there must be many politicians who are unhappy with the state of affairs today, it is rather optimistic to expect a statesmanlike response from them to promoting communal harmony and refraining from using sectarian propaganda to further their political prospects. The media has tried to highlight the various instances of intolerance and hatred; unfortunately, in the babble of voices and utterances in print, electronic and social media, no reasoned debate on issues based on factual evidence is possible, with battle lines already drawn in advance. There are only two silver linings in an otherwise rather dark thundercloud: the judiciary and independent citizens in different spheres of society. The courts have upheld a number of individual freedoms and have, especially at the highest levels, sought to jealously guard their independence from executive encroachment and ensure that the basic structure of the Constitution of India is not tampered with. Even more heartening has been the fearless response from people representing a wide spectrum of opinion, cutting across gender, community, religion and caste barriers.

Ultimately, the India that the framers of the Constitution dreamed of (and that every right-thinking Indian aspires for) will be realised only when two prerequisites are met. Firstly, reason has to guide actions, rather than blind emotions arising from intolerance, hatred and a sense of inadequacy. Every Indian has to put the past behind and focus on the path ahead. Today’s situation has to be taken as a given, to be improved on, rather than ventilating past grievances and manufacturing unrealistic future scenarios. Secondly, every individual and institution in the country has to abide by and promote the rule of law. At the individual level, this requires adherence to laws and regulations. At the institutional level (especially the executive and judicial arms), this requires the fair and impartial administration of these laws and prompt delivery of services to the aam aurat/aadmi to address common needs that are often the source of frustration and anger. Above all, at a time, when the world is wracked by violence and destruction linked to religious and ethnic differences, there is a special responsibility cast on the inhabitants of the world’s largest democracy to set an example of compassion, love and humanity for their brothers and sisters in India and across the globe. In this context, it is apposite to end with portions selected from the masterpiece of the immortal bard, Rabindranath Tagore:

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.