I am amazed when Indians glibly claim that tolerance, pluralism and unity in diversity have always been the hallmark of our nation. Pluralism and diversity I would grant, but tolerance? We need to get real. We have always been a most intolerant people.Yes, we are ready to celebrate festivals of all religions – Holi, Eid, Christmas and the birthdays of all and sundry. But that’s because we love festivals; the more, louder and vulgar in their ostentation, the better. We are also highly superstitious. So we are as ready to gift a goat for sacrifice to a Muslim fakir as to feed cows, crows, dogs etc or wear astrological stones at the behest of a Hindu tantric.

But as soon as it comes to dissent, we are highly intolerant. Let me cite two instances, one from the public and the other from the private domain.

Mahatma Gandhi, the epitome of tolerance, when faced with active dissent, was intolerant enough to condemn the re-election of Subhas Chandra Bose as Congress president in 1939 when he defeated Pattabhi Sitaramayya, the candidate favoured by Gandhi. When Gandhi said he would give up his ‘four anna membership’ of Congress if Bose became president, some members of the working committee resigned, forcing an anguished Bose to quit.

Now, a personal experience. Khushwant Singh, one of the most liberal of writers, railed against me in public and in his columns, when we were together in Germany in 1993 during a literary event for being a vegetarian – which he considered idiotic – and for writing in Hindi, which he declared was a poor language. He got angrier when I told him that I was not a total vegetarian but chose to be one when abroad because I did not eat red meat and was selective about sea food, so did not want to embarrass my hosts by refusing what they might serve.

The animosity peaked at a dinner where I found just one carrot and a boiled potato on my plate, as if to mock my vegetarianism, while Khushwant Singh’s had bread, rice and other oddments in addition to his meat dish. I quietly picked up his plate, put the meat on to my mine, and then exchanged plates.  I proceeded to eat, saying I was a vegetarian and not a vegetable freak. They quickly replenished his plate with side dishes. Poor male chauvinists; their fun was totally ruined.


But the same Khushwant Singh praised my stories in writing and publicly acknowledged in Berlin itself that I was a better reader of my text than he was, though I read in Hindi, poor enough to have only one word for mouse and rat. It prompted one German youth to remark that he believed there were no rats in India… barring one or two! Upon that, Khushwant Singh told me curtly that we had to leave immediately as he was tired. The organisers said, he could go, but as there was a separate car for me, would I please stay. Yet he went on to recommend my novel Chittacobra in English translation for publication by Penguin India, to which he was an adviser. That it was not published is another matter for which he could not be blamed. My point is that even a magnanimous man like Khushwant Singh, like many Indians, could turn nasty and do petty things when faced by dissent and defiance, more so by a woman.

I had a taste of this when I was arrested for writing Chittacobra. Not a single writer of Hindi, not even the ones most vocal about intolerance now, raised any objection. In fact, some even fanned the case against me – and simply because I had dared to offer dissent to their idea of morality!

As for arts and literature, if the state does not ban a book or movie, self-appointed moral custodians burn it or force its closure. If the state does not arrest an author or artist, there are goons who are ready to harass or even kill him. The pity is that if and when dissent is shown by people, it is quickly centralised and non-conformity or dissent with that particular concept of dissent is not tolerated. This was amply demonstrated at the recent much touted ‘Pratirodh’ meeting organised by some writers, artists, historians, filmmakers, ‘rationalists’ etc, where a few speakers had been selected beforehand. No one else present got a chance to murmur a spontaneous dissent to the established pratirodh (dissent).

Dissent is anathema in our everyday life too. In Europe everyone loves a lover, in India, the opposite is true. I am not talking of khap panchayats or religious fundamentalists but ordinary people. The moment a young man or woman falls in love, even if not with someone from a different caste, religion or geographical area, the elders protest because the very idea of love spells dissent with custom and tradition or status quo. When they say you are too young to know what is good for you, what they mean is, how dare you show dissent with accepted canons of ennui in marriage?

We are tolerant of everything which has always been there: of crime, corruption, pollution, filth, bad roads, atrocious public transport, mismanagement and bad governance. We routinely rail against them but don’t bother to make them election issues, to offer dissent or force political parties to dissent with an accepted but revolting way of life.

Mridula Garg is a Hindi writer and Sahitya Akademi award winner