We, the educated middle class, often ‘tolerate’ discrimination, without protesting about injustice. Do not tolerate lack of accountability, inefficiency, corruption, wrongdoing. That is not dissent or ‘anti-national behaviour’. It is the essence of good citizenship
What did the late Martin Luther King’s crusade in the US, and Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India movement have in common? That one’s easy -- both King and Gandhi refused to tolerate injustice. But what have the following in common:
When film star-turned politician Ambarish went to Singapore for treatment last year (accompanied by wife, two doctors and assorted staff) the Karnataka State government paid him Rs1.2 crore as medical reimbursement. Under the rules, only Rs5 lakh is permitted as reimbursement, that too, only if the treatment is not available within India. During that same month, an indigent, homeless immigrant working as a watchman in Bengaluru died of viral infection, unable to afford medical treatment though he lived within walking distance of a large hospital, leaving three children, a widow aged 29 and his elderly parents behind.
A group of Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) in Karnataka went on a junket to Fiji to ‘study sheep farming’, at taxpayers’ expense, while the state government was citing a ‘funds crunch’ for defaulting on salary payments to anganwadi staff for four months
Got it? In this second set of cases, there were no ‘intolerant’ protests from the public, asking why a poor watchman’s life was less valuable than that of a politician, or why public money is sanctioned to film stars who earn in crores. We, the educated middle class, ‘tolerate’ such discrimination, without protesting about injustice. After all, it is our money, yours and mine. Why do we ‘tolerate’ its misuse? The abjectly poor and deprived, the helpless, have no options, but we the educated middle class have an obligation to speak up, oppose unacceptable developments. Democracy is not merely about rights, it also encompasses obligations on the part of the people, to participate, monitor, and speak up.
In the context of the debate on intolerance, are we forgetting that there are occasions when tolerance is unacceptable? We would still be colonial subjects singing ‘God save the Queen’ if the freedom fighters including Mahatma Gandhi had not decided that we would not tolerate British rule. The blacks would still be second-class citizens in the US if Martin Luther King and others had not risen in protest against intolerable discrimination. There is a saying: “All it needs for evil to prosper, is for good people to keep quiet and do nothing.”
Speaking up, refusing to tolerate unacceptable deals is not only desirable but incumbent on all citizens in a democracy. It is not intolerance per se that we should condemn; it is intolerance based on bigotry, narrow mindedness and arrogant disregard of viewpoints other than one’s own.
Exactly three decades ago, the Consumer Guidance Society of India (CGSI) at Mumbai – India’s oldest consumer protection group – supported a move for legislation to make it mandatory for all packaged food items to have an expiry date printed on them. Before the law came into effect in 1991, buyers had no way of knowing whether a loaf of bread or a packet of biscuits was fresh or stale. The mandatory stamping of ‘best before’ date has benefited us all enormously. In fact, the entire consumer protection movement grew from a refusal to tolerate unfair practices that enriched manufacturers at the expense of buyers. If we had taken a ‘chalta hai’ attitude (known in Karnataka as ‘Irli, bidi’ –‘leave it, let it be’) there would have been no progress in legislation. Refusal to tolerate something that was unacceptable, not tolerance, was the basis for establishing a Bill of consumer rights.
The rape law amendment of 2013 grew from the massive protests that took place after the infamous Nirbhaya case in Delhi. “We will not tolerate such occurrences any more” was the thrust of the activists’ demands. Earlier, after the Mathura rape case too, it was a letter written by four lawyers protesting against the court’s verdict, which brought amendments to the law on evidence acceptable in rape cases.
Among the Padma Shri awardees this year was MC Mehta, famous for filing public interest litigations (PILs). With relentless ‘intolerance’, he sought legal interventions, in matters that needed to be addressed to oppose injustice. As President Pranab Mukherjee said in his Republic Day eve broadcast to the nation, in the context of intolerance, “Let’s continue to complain, to demand, to rebel. This too is a virtue of democracy.” Quite.
If viewpoints that differ from those of the party in power are labeled ‘anti-national’ (as it happened in the case of Magsaysay award winner Sandeep Pandey whose assignment as visiting faculty at Banaras Hindu University (BHU) was terminated for allegedly “spreading Naxalite thoughts and anti-national activities” -- he is known as a human rights activist), where are we headed?
One more example from down south – recently the Karnataka state government spent Rs20 crore on ‘toilet renovation’ to ‘replicate best possible 5-star models’, at Bengaluru’s Vidhana Soudha (assembly building) -- at Rs15 lakh per toilet, the government said. Besides the dubious arithmetic (were 120 toilets built in the assembly building?), this also raises the issue of squandering public money on ‘5-star toilets for legislators’, when a high court directive to ensure that all government schools have toilets and drinking water supply, has been flouted ‘for want of funds’. Why did the one crore residents of the metropolis tolerate such illogical spending, without any protest? How does tolerance become a virtue in such a context?
I am recalling a comment by Justice VR Krishna Iyer of the Supreme Court who left behind some precedent-setting judicial pronouncements. “The final defender of freedom,” he said, “is militant (my emphasis) public opinion and not paper safeguards—respect for dissenting viewpoints is the essence of democracy.” In other words, don’t tolerate lack of accountability, inefficiency, corruption, wrong doing. Demand that our leaders heed the voices of the people they are supposed to represent. That is not dissent or ‘anti-national behaviour’. It is the essence of good citizenship.
There may be virtue in the adage, “Look at the positive side – be grateful for what you have” but can that kind of tolerance for less-than-acceptable parameters (whether in life, business, politics or social conditions) but there are occasions where being compliant, not complaining, is the wrong response. A denouncement of intolerance based on religious affiliations (of the kind issued by presidential candidate Donald Trump, and the controversy about immigrants in Europe) circulated on the internet, had at last count, garnered 5,184 signatures from famous academics from Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, MIT and other universities, including authors Gayatri Chakravaty Spivak and Diana Eck. There are occasions and issues that call for tolerance and others where intolerance is the better option. The famous ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement that drew tens of thousands of protesters in the wake of the financial meltdown is another example when citizens said, “Enough is enough, we will not tolerate this kind of skewed economic policies anymore.”
As the tag line for Citizen Matters, an online magazine from Bengaluru says, “Speak up, it’s your city”. We don’t, not often enough. Civic facilities would be far better if more among us refused to ‘tolerate’ shoddy service. Can we afford to keep quiet? That would be anti-national, not dissent.
is a Bengaluru-based senior journalist, writer, musician and consumer activist.)