Back in August, I read a heart-warming piece by a Jewish Indian named Nathaniel Jhirad that celebrated India’s ecumenism and religious diversity. Recalling the chant of his synagogue’s hazan being followed immediately by a similar sounding azaan issuing from a nearby mosque, Jhirad wrote, “This is what it means to me to be Jewish in India: The idea that multiple faiths can peacefully intermingle not only doesn’t shock us, as it does for some in the West ‒ it’s actually taken for granted."

The comments on the essay from non-Indians ranged from sceptical to scathing. Responders wrote the piece was extraordinarily naïve, ignoring India’s history of sectarian violence and caste oppression. They didn’t attack the writer personally in the manner now ubiquitous on Indian websites, but provided coherent arguments and solid data to back up their contentions. To deny them would have been to whitewash India’s history, but even as I accepted their point of view, I didn’t feel it undermined Jhirad’s experience of Indian traditions of tolerance and mutual respect. After all, I had myself experienced those traditions, and taken them for granted till I moved to a nation that did not share them, England. This is not to say I found England an intolerant society. On the contrary it was in most ways far more tolerant than India. But its tolerance had a very different texture, seeming like something learned gradually, with difficulty but also determination, while India appeared from a distance like a society where tolerance had grown organically, and has a far longer history, and was more deep rooted for that reason.

While India’s tolerance was deeper, though, it was not as wide as England’s, for it was based on a respect for religious rights and customary rights but did not extend to any modern conception of individual rights as a whole. To illustrate what I mean, think of the incident a few months ago where the Shiv Sena MP Rajan Vichare, dissatisfied with the food served in Delhi’s Maharashtra Sadan, acted in the manner typical of a Shiv Sainik, stuffing a chapatti in the mouth of a catering supervisor. The man happened to be Muslim, and happened to be fasting for Ramzan. The offence, captured on a cell phone video, was momentary, and appeared so even when looped in slow motion on news channels, but Vichare found few defenders even among Hindutvavadis, for he had transgressed against a religious taboo respected even by those who didn’t share it.  The same regard for religious and customary rights makes Indians wary of European laws that restrict the wearing of turbans and burkhas. At the same time, far more serious violations of human rights and Indian law, such as the torture that we all know is routine in police stations across the country and often directed at innocents, do not evoke anger or elicit any protest from the population at large.

The raging debate

In the established discourse of tolerance versus intolerance, the two categories are mutually exclusive, and yet a number of societies exhibit tolerance, or something deeper and more positive, within a limited sphere, without a wider universalist appreciation of human rights. To complicate the issue further, the deep but limited respect of which I speak is easily experienced in person, but difficult to convey in words, as the response to Nathaniel Jhirad’s article demonstrates.

I recall taking a couple of Yale academics around Bombay a decade ago. Their reference point was the most important book written about the metropolis in the years leading up to their trip, Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City. As we went around town, and observed the way in which a wide variety of people went about their daily lives, the Americans realised the ideas they had formed on the basis of Mehta’s book (essentially the belief that Hindus and Muslims emerge from their homes each morning and start throwing rocks at each other) were wildly misplaced. Their response was to question the veracity of what Mehta had written, because they had internalised the paradigm of an absolute divide between tolerance and intolerance, rather than the complex mix of mutual respect and suspicion shading into downright hatred that characterises relations between communities in India. I explained what they had experienced in no way negated the importance of what Mehta had uncovered; the hitch lay in basing their idea of ordinary inter-communal life in Bombay and India on his narrative of rioting and murder in a particular historical situation.

Something similar happens in the discourse about Islam and Islamist extremism. Those unfamiliar with Islam tend to view it on the basis of news reports the way the two Yale professors viewed life in Bombay. Conversely, Muslims who experience their religion as grounded in amity, goodwill and compassion respond to news reports of terror by saying, “This is not Islam at all." And both sides are wrong in the sense of failing to capture the complexity of what I have called limited but organic tolerance.

In this light, it is easy to understand the negative reaction of large sections of the public to intellectuals returning awards in protest against growing intolerance. One would wish the responses were less personal and vitriolic, but their general drift is natural. These are people who experience daily the respect for religious rights evident in Indian society, and can’t understand why a few isolated and seemingly unexceptional incidents have led people to take such a step.

Recognising the threat

Perhaps those who are worried about intolerance (and I count myself among them) are exaggerating the danger, but the viewpoint deserves more open-minded consideration than it has received. For one thing, admirable though our tradition of religious tolerance is, it has never extended to a respect for human rights as a whole, or for the rule of law, which ought to be the aim of any modern nation. Moreover, there is a parallel tradition of abuse, especially casteist abuse, that needs to be incorporated into any complete picture of our society.

Secondly, If Congress-led governments have been pusillanimous and inconsistent in protecting rights, we now have for the first time an administration that is openly contemptuous of them and intent on stifling dissent by branding it anti-national. Third, India is a rare but not unique case in its tradition of organic tolerance. Across Asia in particular, we find numerous examples of communities living together through some form of amicable compromise that stops short of a liberal recognition of individual rights. We also find examples of those traditions coming to an end, often a violent one, under the pressure of nation-states defining themselves in narrow religious, ethnic, or linguistic terms that fail to capture their historic diversity. Pakistan is the most obvious example of that unfortunate trend.

Most likely, the Modi era will pass without tweezing out the inter-communal respect that is woven into the fabric of Indian society. We certainly will not witness a move from our organic respect for religious customs to a wider comprehension of human rights. Considering how quickly stable societies have been known to spiral into sectarian chaos, though, it’s sensible to err in exaggerating threats to freedom rather than staying complacent for too long about the resilience of our traditions of tolerance.