NEW DELHI: Indians have been ‘much too tolerant’ of intolerance, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen said on Friday and asked people to “work hard” to preserve the tradition of tolerance and plurality which he said was not being done adequately.
Sen, a distinguished economist and a Bharat Ratna recipient, emphasised that intolerance of dissent did not start with the “present government”. This period has only added substantially to the restrictions that already were, he said.
He also called for a reexamination of the need to continue with “remnants” of the the colonial rule such as Section 377 and Section 295 A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) which he said impose “unfreedom” on people.
“The Constitution does not have anything against having beef or storing it in the refrigerator,” Sen said while delivering the annual ‘Rajendra Mathur Memorial Lecture’ on the topic “The Centrality of the Right to Dissent” organised by the Editors Guild of India here.
“The problem is not that Indians have turned intolerant. It’s on the contrary. We have been much too tolerant even of intolerance. When some people are attacked by organised detractors they need our support.
“It’s not adequate for us to be offended by their attack. We need to do something about it. This is not happeing adequately right now. And it did not happen adequately earlier as well,” Sen said.
“Unfreedom is no longer imposed by us by our colonial masters. Have these unfreedoms really ended? Laws legislated by imperial rulers still govern may parts of our life. Section 377 is the most talked about,” he said. Section 377 criminalises gay sex.
Sen also pointed out Section 295 A to be another remnant of Britsh law under which a person can be can be sentenced for hurting the religious sentiment of others “however personal and however bizarrely delicate that outraged sentiment might be.”
Sen, the author of seminal works such as ‘The Argumentative Indian’ and ‘The Idea of Justice’, stressed it was important to “understand the reasons” if one feels offended. “Ask yourself why are you offended?…We are easily offended when offence becomes a major industry,” he observed.
As citizens, Sen said that Indians should “move away” from blaming the Indian constitution for what it “does not say.” “We should not allow colonial penal codes that impose unfreedom to remain unchallenged.”
“We should not tolerate the intolerance that undermines our democracy, that impoverishes the lives of many Indians, that facilitates the culture of impunity of tormentors.
“The courts, particularly the Supreme Court, have good reason to examine comprehensively whether India is not being led seriously astray by the continuation of the rules of the Raj. Not just Section 377 but the totality of the penal codes,” he said.
Noting that Indian media has a record of standing up to intimidation, Sen said that most Indians, including those classified as Hindus, have no difficulty whatsoever in accepting different food habits.
He said that small but “well organised” political groups, who are ready to jump on others, want to propagate beliefs and sentiments that have to be “protected from sunlight”.
“Silencing of dissent and the generating of fear in the minds of people violate the demands of personal liberty. It also makes it very much harder to have a dialogue-based democratic society,” Sen said.
Sen said that painter MF Hussain, who had to spend his later years in exile, was “hounded out” of India by relentless prosecution led by a small but orgainsed group.
“In that ghastly event Indian government was not directly involved but it could and should have done more. The government’s complicity was more direct when India became the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic verses,” he said.
He called for judicial scrutiny of laws that “organised tormentors” make use of and thrive on an “imagined entitlement” of not to be offended. I don’t know of a single country in the world with a similar scenario, he said.
“As Indians we have excellent reasons to be proud of the tradition of tolerance and plurality but we have to to work hard to preserve them…More is needed from courts and from the people at large,” he said.