The Year Of Living Intolerantly

The Year Of Living Intolerantly

by Vamsee Juluri - Thursday, December 31, 2015 11:44 PM IST
The Year Of Living Intolerantly

In the past few months, the so-called left-liberals have spread a fear about intolerance, which has little real or factual basis. People who feel, sense, and know the mendacity and hypocrisy of this intolerance factory need to fight this war at an intellectual level, with a deep sense of history, of past, present, and possible future, rooted in a clear, decolonized understanding. 

For a country that has been rapidly deluged by media in various forms, India remains barely equipped with the skills needed to critically counter media hype and propaganda.

In the United States, where I teach, there is perhaps a far more widespread culture of criticism and resistance to media discourses that is often reflected in the mainstream media itself. For example, at the peak of the utterly baseless and delusional media madness about WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) and Iraq that spread across American media, from the understandably hell-yeah Fox News to the self-styled liberal paper of record, The New York Times, the two “fake news” programmes hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert turned into a daily ritual of affirmation of sanity against a world going wrong.

In the mainstream media at that time, no one in a position of authority could dare to question the WMD conspiracy theory. A deadly mixture of anger and fear marched America into a war against a country that had nothing to do with the terrible terrorist attacks of 9/11, and left it in a state of chaos that remains to this day. Opinion polls reported that around 90 per cent of Americans supported the war. At such a time, it was only under the guise of comedy that anyone could speak the truth, and that is what the conscience-figures masquerading as entertainers on Comedy Central did.

There is a difference in the place of media criticism, and in the scale and power of media deception between a first world country like the US and a post-colonial country like India. In America, the tools of media criticism are well organized in some quarters, and widely available. Universities widely teach Noam Chomsky and other critics, and encourage the questioning of dominant American paradigms in the classroom. On the Right, various well-funded think tanks advance their agendas, and religious organizations offer well-organized resistance to media issues, usually on matters of social and cultural difference. Even the mainstream publishing world regularly features well-promoted books about how the media thrives on fear. A healthy scepticism about corporations and media magnates has become a part of the common sense, especially among the young, and that is of course, also appropriated and reflected back in stories about totalitarian futures, say, like The Matrix. Whether one can escape it or not, one can freely fight it.


What has happened in India though in the past few months is a media war that has taken advantage of the absence of an organized intellectual resistance and widespread availability of resources for critical thinking. Like the “electrolytes” that the dumbed-down people of future America in the movie Idiocracy swear by (no one drinks water any more in this ad-infested pop culture nightmare, only coloured drinks that they also use for their crops, thereby destroying them and ending up close to famine), “intolerance” quickly became a self-evident truth, indeed a badge of belonging in a section of Indian society. After all, the American President said it after his visit, the world media said it, the Indian news media said it, the concerned writers and artists of India said it, and pretty soon virtually everyone not already condemned as a “bhakt” was perhaps swearing by it.

It is not like there was no resistance to it from a large part of India able to see a reality around them very different from the frightening depiction of it in the media. The stalwarts of new media, that old and much-exploited intellectual base of the new government, held its own, trending memes, exposing lies and inconsistencies, and offering what seemed like a bubble of sanity against an ocean of electrolytes. From inside this world, the truth was apparent. There was little real or factual basis to this growing fear about intolerance. In a land of one billion people, in a context of several crimes which unfortunately do happen from time to time, three unrelated murders from around the country somehow got picked up and strung together as evidence of nefarious intent in a Prime Minister who has consistently toed an extremely tolerant line as befits his office. As expected, once the elections in Bihar got over, the discourse went quiet, but not after having re-interpreted a local, caste-based electoral result as nothing less than a victory for the self-declared “good guys” of India against intolerance.

All this is apparent, and yet…

The tragedy in India today, or at least in the world of intellectual discourse and debate is this. The right people are in the wrong places. Without a foothold in academia and media, or even the tools to engage competently in this terrain, the people who feel, sense, and know the profound injustice, mendacity and hypocrisy of the intolerance factory (after all, no one cried intolerance about the murders of a cow-rescue activist in Karnataka, or the Hindu volunteers of Kerala, or more recently the calls for death being issues by massive mobs for an individual’s intemperate comment about their religion’s founder), are facing a challenge that cannot be taken lightly, nor dismissed with the complacence that somehow our internet communities have our opponents on the run.

We watch the truth being fought for, valiantly, in the tiny boxes that permit 140 characters and no more, in the ephemeral glow of hand-held gadgets, and see that it is not an equal fight. The right people are in the wrong places.

And in the right places, in the spaces of academia, media, and high society are people with wrong ideas. I say “wrong ideas” and not “wrong people” because this is not a situation that will be won with grandiose ideas about revolutionary sweeps or widespread personnel changes. It is already apparent that for a ruling party, that too with its own majority, the BJP government is incredibly incapable or unwilling to take on the intellectual fight ahead. On that point, Ramachandra Guha is right. Despite my meaningful and cordial experiences of having discussed my book Rearming Hinduism and media bias issues with several people on the Hindu activist side, I can sense a widespread perception that the leadership is unable to see the larger picture. At best, we have a leadership that can sense and engage in a battle for votes, power, networks and such but not the battle of ideas. That, it cannot even see. It believes, somehow, that its opponents are insignificant, mere Marxists and humanities-hacks who can be ignored or bought over.

They underestimate the influence and power the other side has not only in institutions like media and academia, but also on the large, easily swayed, middle-of-the-road sort of people in the country; people who voted cheerfully for Modi in 2014, but now say on social media that he has allowed “intolerance” to proliferate. Their minds and hearts are firmly inside the “intolerance” narrative. It engages with their conscience. The complacence of whatever sort of leadership exists in India’s leadiing party today, however, fails to offer a suitable challenge. To put it simply, they are talking about murder, hate, respect for human life and dignity (whether baseless or not), and the response has been to say “shut up and stand up for the national anthem.” That’s how uneven this is.

Civil Society and its absent leadership

The leadership will not lead, and once again it has fallen mainly to civil society, so to speak, the “internet Hindus,” as they are called, to offer a substantial critique of the presumptiveness and one-sidedness of the intolerance accusation. My concern though is about how this is going to happen. Magazines like Swarajya, India Facts, Op India and others have done an important task in keeping sanity alive. And yet, these have to be strengthened by mainstream engagement, with a sustained programme of institutionalization. The conversation has started, but the challenge before us is this: how does one take the argument beyond those who are already convinced? Can we hope to respectfully and reasonably challenge the assumptions and beliefs of those people who have already assumed, without even a doubt, that India has been infested by intolerance, that there is, for example, some “war on Muslims” going on, as Shashi Tharoor just pontificated in a video for The Guardian (before backing down by calling it a “war on pluralism”)?

One challenge we should recognize at the outset is that the language of critique, suspicion, dissent, conscientious objection, freedom of thought, alterity (“otherness” or being “subaltern”), which, in many ways, belongs to the less powerful or marginalized group or view, has been used to great effect by what is in truth the dominant, powerful position in Indian discourse today. In turn, the language that the Hindu counter-narrative speaks is still caught up in a presumption of power that makes it easily dead on arrival, as far as challenging the myth of our being powerful fascists goes. It may well be because of an aversion to speaking a language of victimization and victimhood, or it may be because of the influence of Western tropes of anti-liberal criticism, but we often fail to get off the ground by rejecting the language of the Left altogether; condemning terms like “suspicion” and “scepticism” and so on. To the extent of serving to build morale among like-minded people, it might work, but in engaging with the mainstream, with those who are already very convinced we are now in some war on tolerance, a different and nuanced approach is necessary.

Engage and Digest

There have been several important articles and arguments made in the last few months in magazines like Swarajya about the need for a new narrative. Various institutional initiatives, such as the NRI community’s attempts to fund new Hindu Studies programmes were discussed, and concerns about “feeding the crocodile” rightly raised. In India too, we heard many ideas at the India Ideas Enclave in Goa and elsewhere about the need for creating an “alternative ecosystem.” While the need is indisputable, the question we have to ask is this: can a debate come into life in a ghetto,which is where we are, to some extent, now?

The key quality of intellectual change is that it has to engage somehow with what is already out there, especially if it is already widespread and accepted as “normal,” which is what the secular charge about intolerance quite frankly is. The “resistance” to the intolerance drama, especially “award wapsi,” served to lift spirits, but frankly did not break its presumptions. In my view, that moment passed when Anupam Kher called the audience in Mumbai a “paid audience”. A “rude audience,” or an “intolerant audience” would have been accurate, but an attack on personal motives does nothing to their position. By setting the confrontation as one between patriotism and intolerance, the appeal did not go beyond those who are already convinced about the dichotomy here. It did not challenge the ground on which the intolerance plank was being mounted (and notice how easily the patriotism language now is already being appropriated by people like Tharoor who are out to say intolerance is unpatriotic and such!).

The lesson for us from this impasse is this. We cannot afford to fool ourselves into thinking that we are righteous and firm in our own truth and it will prevail. We cannot afford to presume that by acknowledging the assumptions of the other side, we are somehow seeking their validation (or “sucking up,” as internet bravado makes some anonymous heroes on our side declare). To use a comparison from my children’s online class-level understanding of coding, the program, so to speak, does not run unless we attach our new instructions into the block of code that’s already out there and disrupt it intelligently. In a free, democratic society, in a civilization that values intelligence over blind faith and dogma, that is the only way to change a narrative. It cannot be bought, bullied, or acquired in the manner of some corporate takeover or vote-booth capture (or first-day first-show fan club machismo display, as some internet Hindus seem to like to do it). It has to be an accurate engagement, which is what many of our outbursts and deeply felt responses sometimes fail to achieve.

Tolerant or Intolerant?

There are several strategies by way of critical media thinking that we need to be aware of in countering what we might feel deeply is an ideological propaganda war, but not always be aware of how to express that feeling in objective terms.

The first step is to approach media bias as a matter of objective study, and not as a claim about intention. While assaults on personal character and intent make for exciting Twitter warfare (and I am absolutely not condoning it when it comes from the “other side” as well) the fact remains that we are on uneven terrain. The dominant discourse of the day, which maintains that India is exploding with intolerance, that there is a war on Muslims and non-vegetarians and even egg-eating schoolchildren and such, now operates at both levels, that of institutional, academic discourse as well as no-holds-barred dirty personal attacks on the internet. However, the counter discourse does not yet have the institutional or intellectual resources on a comparable scale. So it is important to engage more and more with the content of media, and as objectively as possible at that, refraining from the temptation to yield to personal jibes about opponents’ intention and identity.

One of the first issues we can address about media content is simply the amount of attention given to a particular issue. For example, in the 1980s, Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign against drugs suddenly got so much media attention that opinion polls suddenly began to find “drugs” replaced “the economy” as the main concern for voters. This is a classic case of what media researchers have described as the agenda-setting function of the press. Similarly, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there was an increase in the amount of attention given to crime on television, especially on local TV news programmes, as well as “reality” shows like Cops. Researchers found consistently that heavy viewers of TV believed there was a lot more crime in the world than relatively light viewers (the “mean world syndrome”). In reality, there was no substantial increase in either drug use or crime, but the increased exposure to this issue made it appear that way; not unlike the ways in which “intolerance” was played up heavily in the media this year, while actual incidents of communal violence did not increase (as Rupa Subramanya and others noted) in any substantial manner.

At a more in-depth, qualitative level, the “intolerance” media phenomenon also reveals a very selective sort of framing of issues by the news media. One important issue to compare is the way in which some issues are framed as “identity” issues and others as merely “law and order” ones. At a polemical level, this inconsistency has also been exposed widely in internet memes about how the Paris massacre was being explained by several commentators as having had nothing to do with religion, whereas the three unrelated murders in India on which the intolerance outcry was based was held up as evidence of intolerance among members of one religion in India, Hindus (a claim questioned brilliantly in parts by Anand Ranganathan, who pointed out in a September 14 article published on that intolerant members of other religions also had grievances against some of the murder victims and yet it was widely assumed in the media that Hindus were responsible.

Appropriating Tolerance

The second strategy that we need to consider in addressing a propaganda war centred on a powerful concept or ideal like tolerance is the sheer difficulty of contesting it outright. There is, in my view, equal merit to arguments that can be made both ways about contemporary India. One can say, with good evidence ranging from crime data to everyday examples, that India remains still a deeply tolerant place to live. One can also say, with good evidence, that there are several examples of intolerance at every level and in every form that is taking place, but it is by no means specific to Hindus, as the intolerance campaign made it out to be. Let us examine the uses and limitations of both cases.

The challenge with saying there has been no real increase in intolerance is that it somehow becomes tantamount to becoming an apologist for every real injustice and inequity that exists in India. It also raises the inevitable question about identity, ostensibly born from a deeply felt sense of empathy and pain for injustice. How would you know? Would you be saying that if you were not upper-caste Hindu male? And so on. This quality might seem annoying, but it is not inherently bad, and it is a very widespread part of global millennial-generation culture, in my view. It’s an elementary kind of liberal, tolerant thinking, which we have seen expressed often in MTV promos, advertising and the like. It is often incredibly shallow and superficial, equating a consumerist class’s sense of entitlement to self-gratification with bigger social issues, but it has to be handled compassionately.

One example: a few months ago, I was accused by a young dog-lover in America of not being empathetic enough when I suggested that a pit bull may not be the ideal breed of dog to have as a pet in a house with children (“How would you feel if you were a pit bull and someone said that about you,” I was told). On the one hand, I was happy with the fact that today’s youth culture is very compassionate, anti-racist, anti-sexist, animal-friendly, and vegan/ vegetarian-supportive, but was also amused by the extreme and rather machine-like way in which tolerance and empathy is being practiced.

In some ways, we cannot argue with the premise that there are things wrong with the world, and a combination of youthful idealism, widespread liberal-arts critical thinking about oppression and social justice, and just political correctness, have ensured that. In such a situation, it makes sense to then accept the premise of intolerance, but expand it to make it more accurate—name and condemn all that is wrong, and not leave it at an extremely selective and narrow framework which is what the propaganda campaign of the last few months effectively did. We can accept the fact that intolerance, hate, injustice, all of these do exist—rather than hold up unquestionable patriotism as the defence—and then proceed to show how it is best addressed in terms independent of identity.

At the same time, the assertion that India by and large remains defined by tolerance rather than intolerance also has merit. For me, the strongest example of tolerance, albeit not in that textbook identity-correct sense, is the everyday reality we have of dealing with traffic and life virtually anywhere in India. Do we not endure incredible improvizations, hardships, invisible footpaths, and everything else that makes us comfortable with ethnic, religious, caste, linguistic, sartorial and even olfactory difference on a scale which genteel and sparsely populated Western societies with their vaunted individualism and privacy could barely even survive? If the truth of tolerance and patience being conditions for our everyday survival seems insufficient to persuade others, then perhaps it is best to question, precisely and respectfully, whether the narrative blaming Hindu intolerance for certain crimes in India is accurate.

For example, the fact that thousands of people continue to eat beef in India freely, from upscale restaurants to the privacy of their homes, without anyone bothering to peer into their kitchens or plates, should be evidence enough that the Dadri incident was an aberration, and not some cause for a petulant and narcissistic “I eat beef so kill me” tweet strut.

Dharma and the Global Generation

India voted for Narendra Modi, as I wrote in a blog post for the HuffPost last year that went viral, not because it chose some sterile and vague “development” over “communalism,” but because it rejected the secular/ communal binary as defined by a Hinduphobic discourse altogether. What that means for today’s intolerance debate is that India is once again being confronted by a deeper choice that goes beyond what it is framed as in the dominant media discourse. In the media discourse, the choice has been put forth as intolerance/Modi/Hindus versus tolerance/pluralism/secularism and such, which, ostensibly, is represented by every politician other than Modi, including Arvind Kejriwal, the Gandhi family, Laloo Yadav, Mamata Banerjee and so on. The real choice, in my view, is between a deeper, silent Indian universalism grounded in millennia-old Hindu views of acceptance of other religions, and a newer, imported rights discourse which is not inherently bad, but deeply flawed in India because of its inaccurate and selective usage.

It is an incomprehensible irony to many educated observers abroad and even in India that many Hindus feel disempowered in a country that is their home and in which they are a supposed majority. Academia, media, and even schools today seem to perpetuate the idea that feeling aggrieved as a Hindu in India is as historically and politically unjustified as feeling aggrieved as a white male in America. The plight of African-Americans brought to America as slaves and subject even today to incredible amounts of profiling, brutality and incarceration is used easily as a model for the condition of Muslims in India.

While no liberal Hindu would deny the injustice or difficulties Muslims (or any other group in India) might face, what has become outlandish is the unsubstantiated way in which the anointed liberals of the big media and academia blindly bark their outrage at Hindus. They claim that Hindus have a “persecution complex” and happily pretend that 1,000 years of persecution by imperialist forces did not matter. In other contexts, they will admit that colonialism was a devastating force, but in India, somehow, all the critique seems to be built on assuming deviously that the Hindus were somehow really oppressing their own country!

At its core, the intolerance frenzy was based on an illusion that is now being called out at long last. The anointed liberal discourse in India rests on one single lie that avoids detection: that the Hindus are basically some pretend-Nazi-colonizers who need to be condemned for never having become liberal whites, like other liberal whites in the West. The Aryan Invasion Theory, even if somewhat diluted now into a “migration”, is the big bogus excuse for the entire South Asian academic-activist enterprise as it exists today.

Wendy Doniger, after all, clearly lays out her belief in The Hindus: An Alternative History that the wandering of the Vedic people grew into the Nazi Anschluss.

It’s an old colonizer’s fantasy, born perhaps in the colonial era out of an uneasy truce between the imperial and racist supremacist agenda and the immoveable resistance of a civilization that would give up its sovereignty for surviving these madmen but not its sense of self. We kept our soul, and that is a triumph. But today, what we gave up then is coming back to whip us because we failed to disarm the ignorance that lay among our own.

What happened in the past few months, motives and conspiracies aside, was basically an attempt to replicate a simplistic and baseless picture of an intolerant majority grinding its minorities down by imposing its diet and culture on them, when in fact anyone in India knows how far from true that was. Even though many saw through this, that insight was not perhaps enough to change things. We can expect more, much more of this sort of attacks to come in the years ahead of us, and it will be a tremendous challenge because of the highly unequal terrain of engagement.

The major institutions of knowledge production such as media and academia are going to keep hammering home their framework of intolerant majorities oppressing hapless minorities, and portraying any disagreement with that characterization as fundamentalism, nationalism, or at the very least a rhetorical ploy (for example “whataboutery”; please see “What About Whataboutery”, page 44). The institutional response that can come forth even now, namely from a government with lofty goals of digital revolutions and information-based political participation, shows no sign of being up to the task of taking care of itself, much less those who have defied the currents of our dominant discourse to support it. The storm will continue to come heavily, because it is driven not just by political interests but by several independent actors and individuals who don’t see themselves as Congress supporters at all but nonetheless inhabit an uncritical belief system that suits that political agenda.

Given all this, it is essential for people like the readers of this magazine and similar bold new intellectual ventures to step up their preparedness. We may not have institutions or professional experience to take on an organized mass propaganda phenomenon, but we are confronting it nonetheless with conviction, and that is a tremendous thing. One essential framework for an intellectual resistance to be developed is a sense of history, of past, present, and possible future, rooted in a clear, decolonized understanding. At the moment, much of the attempt to imagine a decolonized vision of India plods along with staccato attempts to recreate some picture of what it really was like in the past. The social reality of today is far too mixed up to assume that we can dig up some perfectly preserved specimen or fossil that will be our new template. We have to imagine and invent ourselves as we go along now, fully aware that this journey is taking place against the odds, against a force of institutionalized adharma, so to speak, and have the faith that what we are doing is indeed for dharma and in dharma too.

Luckily for us, even if our lessons in school and demagogues in television haven’t a clue about dharma, our everyday life and popular sensibilities still contain an enormous storehouse of dharmic thinking and feeling. Our tolerance was never a simple, mechanistic, individualistic, rules and rights-based one where without rules and punishments we would turn into Game of Thrones characters, slaughtering one another. Our civilization came from a deep sense of being in life and nature, and even in these unnatural times and environments we live in in the late modern age, we still feel it often. Whether we get the resources from our bhajans, scriptures, gurus, TV shows, old movies, or just each other, we have to put everything into generating a new discourse of dharma that goes beyond the trap of identity politics as it exists today.

Our universalism, and not its pale shadow of saying “anything goes” and “everything is fine,” has to find expression as a powerful, compelling and unignorable discourse about today’s world that the shallow and selective rights and identities regime cannot find an answer to. We survived open conflict with open and hostile ideologies of religious supremacism in the past. The conflict today is not with that any more, at least not in the public sphere. We cannot fight a 21st century fight with 19th century tools.

We must speak our sanathana dharma, as it demands of us.

We must speak it now.

Vamsee Juluri is a Professor of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco and the author of several books including ‘Rearming Hinduism’ and ‘The Kishkindha Chronicles’ (forthcoming from Westland in January 2017)

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