The Roots of Intolerance in India


Intolerance is not new to our culture — it is a phenomenon that is at least a thousand years old. The root of untouchability, the caste system, lies deep in our so-called ancient culture. These can be considered as the height of intolerance because the very birth of an individual fixes roles for him/ her for the rest of their lives. It determines and defines all your social, cultural and professional roles. Associated with this comes the intolerance to what others may do, eat, touch; how they live, dress or any other thing for that matter. While traditionally what are held as upper-caste practices, are the ones to aspire for. Those of the ones lower down the caste ladder are the ones to be looked down upon. These being the case, labels are fixed on what is “good” and “bad”. It is this Manuvadi system that is the breeding ground for intolerance in the Indian society. The practices, the appearances, the apparel, the social conduct are all determined by the laws of Manu and this is the foundation of all discrimination.

The so-called acceptable standards of behaviour for the society are dependent on a number of factors which also include gender stereotypes. Things considered as totally normal for a male may be looked upon as sacrilege when done by a female. What is considered normal for one caste may be looked upon as blasphemy when done by another and so on. Our history and mythology are full of such examples. Starting from Rama killing Shambuka for the study of Vedas, to taboos on widow remarriage, to considering dalits as sub-human are all examples of this intolerance. This resulted in the indigenous population being measured by their yardsticks too. The already complicated situation became a maze with the introduction of these. The last of these were the Britishers who introduced their Victorian morality on a society already full of prejudices of its own. The present situation is a result of that.

Let us go back to the days of independence from British rule. Though India became a “secular” state, secularism was hardly practised. Most of the practices, mindset and machinery of the state remained set in the age old Brahminical practices which have been called as Hinduism and have been inflicted upon the whole population. The traditional methods of worship of the indigenous people were looked down upon as inferior, their diets as abhorrent, their culture uncivilised. A type of Brahminical culture which included their dietary habits, their forms of worship, and their deities was gradually thrust upon the others in the name of Indian culture. The calendar art of Ravi Varma defined the appearances of the gods and the goddesses of the pantheon, and all the good ones were shown to be fair-skinned with Aryan looks while the evil portrayed as dark with features of the indigenous populations like the adivasis, the dalits etc. This resulted in the perpetuation of the stereotypes of good and evil, the fair-skinned ones being the good ones and the others, the evil. There are a number of proverbs like dal men kuch kala hai, kale dhandhe and so on reflecting this prejudice. This can be seen in the TV serials and movies even now. This also applies to the cultural practices of the Abrahamic religions which have always been looked down upon as alien due to their origin outside the geographical limits of this sub continent.

These religions, with their proselytising zeal and rigidity, have been looked upon as aggressors responsible for all the intolerance seen in the Indian society. In fact, untouchability, caste practices have been pointed out as the off-shoots of foreign rule, though they have existed much before that. In fact they are prevalent in a country like Nepal which was, till recently, a Hindu kingdom, never subject to any foreign aggression or rule. In fact, many followers of the Abrahamic religions exist in places where there has been no rule by external kings. A typical example of this would be Kerala which has always been ruled by Hindu kings but has a sizeable Muslim and Christian population going back to old times not very distant from the times when these originated in the Middle East. Funnily enough, despite all claims of equality under their original dogmas, the strangle hold of the caste system has not been totally eliminated by these conversions. So, the claim is that though one’s belief system has changed, the caste has not. The same prejudices and intolerance can be seen among the Roman Catholics of Goa and coastal Karnataka where they would prefer a same caste interreligious marriage to an inter-caste, same religion matrimonial alliance. Anyway, more about that when we come to a case study of the rise of intolerance in the city of Mangalore. This city deserves a proper case study as it has been hitting the headlines since the past two decades for its intolerance, despite having a very cosmopolitan population. The composition is thus:

Hinduism is the religion of the majority in Mangalore city with 68.99% followers. Islam is the second most popular religion in Mangalore with approximately 17.40% followers. In Mangalore city, Christianity is followed by 13.15%, Jainism by 0.21%, Sikhism by 0.08% and Buddhism by 0.08%. Around 0.00% stated “Other Religion”; approximately 0.12% stated “No Particular Religion”.

The literacy rate is more than 94% and the standard of living is quite high. The four main languages in Mangalore are Tulu, Kannada, Canarese Konkani, and Beary, with Tulu being the mother tongue of the majority. English, Hindi and Urdu are also widely spoken in the city. A resident of Mangalore is known as a Mangalorean in English, Kuḍlada in Tulu, Mangalurna in Kannada, Koḍiyāḷci in Goud Saraswat Brahmin Konkani, Koḍiyāḷco in Catholic Konkani and Maikalta in Beary base. A fair number of the population is fluent in at least five languages; and with the representation of all religions, the cosmopolitan nature of its composition should have made it a very tolerant society.

The various communities and the linguistic groups existed in harmony, or at least in tolerance, with each other for years until the communal forces stepped in a few decades ago. This city had a vibrant progressive left movement with well organised trade unions of the left parties. The workers fought for their rights and got fair wages and educated their children who started gravitating towards the religious right. In this atmosphere, the apparent “appeasement” of the so-called minorities by the congress created an atmosphere for Hindutva forces to grow.

This growth resulted in the polarisation of these forces due to which the anti-social elements got the umbrella of Hindutva and grew in strength. Their anti-social activities were needed by the political right to a certain limit and in some situations only. They wanted them as storm troopers and goons to threaten the others. For political posts they wanted their own upper caste, middle or affluent class candidates to appeal to the “decent” voter. They were being used but they did not have any power. The caste composition was such that the workers on the ground were from the lower castes while those at the helm of affairs, were the upper castes. So, these people split away and started their own local level outfits like the senas and the dals. Polarisation on communal lines had started in Mangalore much before it started in the rest of the country. In fact, coastal Karnataka was considered the laboratory of communalism much before these things happened in rest of India.

The cultural-religious practices in this area were related more to the local culture than the manuvadi brahminical ones imported from outside. There were some local deities called Bhootas who were part of a form of ancestral worship. They were all brought “under” a chief, who was labelled as a “gana” of Shiva called Annappa, who was again under the thumb of the brahminical priests. So, hegemony was established over these. These local Bhootas were all inclusive — there were various caste combinations, some animal-like forms, and even Muslim bhootas like Ali. These Bhootas were worshipped in ceremonies called Bhootal kolas. They would be taken in processions with flags of various colours. Now the picture has changed — there are only saffron flags; none other. Even in the melas connected with these rituals, banners have been put up announcing that only Hindus can put up stalls.

This area was under the control of various rajas; each one replacing the other. Then Tipu Sultan took over and when he got defeated, the area came under the British rule. After Independence, the linguistic re-organisations of states happened and Mangalore was brought under Karnataka, not because the majority was those who were with Kannada as the mother tongue, but because it was the language used by the majority of the people, as the other major languages spoken had no script. It was at this stage that the communal forces started growing and reached the stage they are in today. With the oil rich Gulf States employing Muslims from this area, money started flowing in from the gulf and resulted in the Muslim identity asserting itself. Though the Hindutva forces were also growing simultaneously, we cannot say who nurtured the other. The smallest clash between members of the two communities would result in a communal conflagration.

If one looks at this, one gets a feeling that the community is totally divided on communal lines with no dealings with each other. But, this is far from the truth. Mangalore is a very important fishing centre and almost every one eats fish. The fishermen are mainly a Hindu community called Mogaveeras who land the catch. The landed catch is bought by the traders who are Muslims who buy that in auctions as soon as the boat lands. The catch is then sorted and sold to fish vendors who mainly belong to the fishing community. So, it is the Muslims who are an intermediary between the Hindu men and women belonging to the same community. Sometimes, love affairs happen between them and that leads to clashes. Mangalore is a major trading centre and the trade used to take place mainly by the sea route. So, the conversions to Islam were not done by force; and they predate the Islamic conquests of the North, though some might have happened during Tipu Sultan’s rule. The land and the buildings for trade are by the river side and are used by the Hindu trading community who are mainly Gowd Sarawat brahmins. Therefore, the default ideology for this community is Hindutvawad. They started trading in rented buildings which they purchased gradually. But, the coolies who do the loading and unloading are without exception Muslims. Though one can expect clashes, they are not very common due to this symbiotic relationship. As already said, these upper caste Hindutvawadis are clever in maintaining their own businesses and economic status.

The ruling Hindutwavadis are usually the upper castes with their families well provided for, with children working abroad as software engineers, doctors, management professionals etc. It is the children of the OBCs who are infused with rashtravad, deshprem and Bharatmata ki seva. They are also pawns in the communal disturbances and movements like gau raksha etc. But, when they get into trouble with the law, they are dropped like the proverbial hot potato. During clashes, some of them are even killed and hailed as martyrs to the cause. But, they almost never get the top posts. This has resulted in some of them rebelling and forming more extreme groups, sometimes even winning elections. The funny part is once they win the election they are welcomed back into their old party.

While love jihad is an old tool of the Hindutva forces, moral policing, which can be called immoral hooliganism, is another tool in their box. Attacking couples belonging to different castes and communities is one of the offshoots of this. Besides this, they would also like to prescribe dress codes, norms of behavior to all and sundry. The (in)famous pub and home stay attacks on parties of young people have hit the national and probably international headlines too. While it looks as if the communal elements of the two major communities are at loggerheads with each other, actually they are hand in glove and feed on each others’ atrocities. We know of cases where they have had cozy relationships with each other in fomenting communal trouble and have gained from it. In fact, many a times it appears as if their actions are synchronised by a central agency. This is also apparent from the politics of gaumata.

Like one man’s food is another one’s poison, it also happens that one community’s mata is the other community’s food. Though beef is not a banned commodity in Karnataka, the politics of the holy cow helps consolidate a vote bank, becomes a cause for conflict and a source of profit for the Hindutvawadis! While Hindus keep cows for milk production, others buy, eat and slaughter them. Beef is a good source of protein for a good number of communities particularly the dalits, Muslims and the Christians in our area. Though lots of cow traders are Hindus, the purchase for slaughter and the sale of meat is done by the others. This leads to a situation where a Hindus sells his old useless cow to a broker who belongs to his own community and who makes a profit by selling it to a Muslim who has to take the responsibility of transporting the cow for slaughter to his own area. The meat is sold in markets and served in restaurants owned by these communities. It is during the transport of these cattle, that tensions arise and clashes happen. There are numerous gau raksha samitis all over the district who specialise in catching those who transport these cattle for slaughter and hand them over to the police who promptly transfer them to “shelters” run by these people. Many a times, these people work hand in glove with their own butchers who slaughter these and sell the meat.

The case study of Mangalore is a good example of how a society can be made a hot bed of communalism and intolerance in a few decades. I am sure that this story is being replicated in thousands of other places all over the country and the world. We have examples of liberal democracies being converted into primitive theocratic states with all the consequent intolerance.

Well, how did that happen? We have the examples of Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and the whole of the Middle East going that way, and now we have India heading in that direction.

This is because of electoral politics and the game of expediency. It is also because of public apathy and the mindset of people. Our societies have made a lot of progress in terms of technology and the conveniences which are their offshoots. Communication has reached the speed of light; tools have been developed which can carry visual and audio messages from one end of the world in seconds. This also needs a mindset which is equally modern and liberal. This has not happened. We have a society in which the technology is of the 21st century while the mindset remains in the 16th or even behind. In India, in the sixteenth century if something happened in Kashmir, it would take at least a few months for the news to reach Kanya Kumari. But today, the same happens in a few minutes. The primitive mindset of our people with only the capacity to use the technology but not the mindset to interpret the event in a secular and civilised manner reacts to it the same way as it would have happened a few hundred years back. Besides, the force of the reaction is also multiplied through the very same technology. So, this makes a very explosive situation. If you take an example, an army with swords and horses would make a lesser impact as a marauding jihadist army, than one with modern weapons and tanks. The very tools of science are used to negate science itself.

How does one change the situation? We have to have reforms of the whole system. The combination of the capitalist, imperialist forces with the multinationals out to exploit the market by any means is one of the forces behind these things. If you want an example, just take the market for the so-called whitening creams — one of the most useless products on the earth which are sold by exploiting our prejudices against dark skin. Take the matrimonial ads in our newspapers. The so-called liberal westernised English print media should have carried those ads that are suitable for a modern developing society, but if one reads them, the pre-existing prejudices come into full form here. The caste, sub-caste, colour, religion and every other prejudice is exhibited here including superstitious beliefs in things like astrology. The schooling system (I do not call it education) helps to strengthen these by employing teachers who enforce them by their language and body signals. It does not help matters when the schooling system itself is the stranglehold of these religions, castes and regional groups everywhere. The media, which should have helped to do away with these, is actually promoting them by fanning the flames with their biased reporting.

It is time that we wake up to this situation and stop being mute spectators. If the country has to become strong, self-reliant and prosperous, it has to do away with the present mindset. We shall get split into narrower minded regional, caste and religion-based entities if we keep going at the present rate. Reversing the situation is possible only by installing a system of proper education and not the present system in which only basic literacy is being imparted. The present education system is actually becoming more primitive by emphasising mythology as history, fiction as science, and bigotry as ethics. Prejudices are imposed on children as morals, a distorted sense of nationalism being imposed as civics, and symbolism for progress. So, we need a wholesale reform in which the examination based system of education is replaced with a learning based one. The true nature of the constitution of our country and the aspirations of its makers can be fulfilled only by that. Finally, a few words of advice to fellow citizens of what the eminent parliamentarian Edmund Burke said — all it takes for the dark forces of evil to take over this world are enough number of good people who want to do nothing. This is what is happening in our country today. We have enough and more number of good people who want to do nothing, who are mute silent spectators to these evil forces of bigotry and intolerance taking over our public life. We, being “good people”, are just mute silent spectators.


Also read/ watch:

Rajendra Chenni's essay on the loss of syncretic culture in Karnataka here: In Dispute

Professor Muzaffar Assadi on the gradual demise of Karnataka's syncretic culture here

By Narendra Nayak:

The Karnataka Anti-Superstition Act and its Impact

The Claimants of Supernatural Powers in Rural India

Blind-Folded Seeing: Turning “Average” Kids into “Super Geniuses”