The other side of intolerance
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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
(Sakuntala Narasimhan  is a Bengaluru-based senior journalist, writer, musician and consumer activist.) 
Yashodhan Nagrale
8 years ago
True Local self Governance is the answer . Across Europe and americas , local bodies have huge power . Local corporation and Mayor have huge responsibilities and they themselves raise huge bonds (called munis) . It is easier to acess local leaders and impose responsibilty
8 years ago
It is so very well put.What ever has been enumerated in this article is undeniable and indisputable fact,however it is a universal phenomenon .
Subramani P K
8 years ago
A good article & congrats to the writer Sakunthala Narasimhan. The discrimination what ever is talked about is perfectly constitutional like caste, religion etc and protesting against it is unconstitutional & subject to punishment. Court has no power to take cases against sitting MLAs/MPs unless approved for prosecution by Governor or other appropriate authority. The activists who have protested against many of the atrocities have met with what fate is known. Criminals are in politics & criminalization of politics more or less has legal approval as a punishment for two years or less does not qualify for debarring to contest elections. Even the first citizen President behaves like a member of a political party. He does not show patriotism to ask his partymen to allow the majority elected reps to govern the country. Where chaos is the order of the day a common man is totally lost in the muddle of events & keep looking aghast at the sky cursing his/her fate for having born in such a unworthy situation & time in a country where it seems glorious Rama Rajyam was prevalent in the distant past. God save the country & people. Jai Bharath.
Gopalakrishnan T V
8 years ago
The writer is 100% right when she says we are tolerating anything and everything despite our paying huge taxes and getting nothing in return from the authorities. We pay vehicle tax,but there are no roads worth the name.We pay property tax for what it is paid is not known? We pay various taxes in different ways but the authorities seem to be insensitive and it is not that public tolerate all nonsense but they are helpless. They grumble, curse left and right,express their objections and protests but the authorities turn a deaf ear and behave as if what ever they do have to be accepted. There is no semblance of Governance anywhere is an accepted fact and many represent but in the absence of accountability, punishment for laxity,indifference, non delivery of service,inefficiency everywhere nothing happens. Corruption, black money, extortion and threat if anyone dares to protest have come to stay with or without our knowledge. These writings do not reach where it should reach and even if they reach the authorities simply ignore. But as responsible citizens we have no choice but continue to protest and learn to tolerate the intolerance in practice unless and until we are able to choose the candidate who should stand in the election.
D S Ranga Rao
Replied to Gopalakrishnan T V comment 8 years ago
".....unless and until we are able to choose the candidate who should stand in the election." Why delay, Sir? Did we do it in the last Bengaluru Mahanagarpalika polls? Or, the next, next...? When, when do we start doing it, please?
Simple Indian
8 years ago
I believe we as a country flawed in adopting a cut-paste Constitution which was ill-suited to India right from the beginning. Instead of the more-flawed parliamentary democracy, we should have adopted the better-suited Presidential form of democracy, as we had/have more in common with USA than we did with UK, whose Westminster model we copied. That our 'founding fathers' adopted a voluminous Constitution (a cut-paste job from assorted sources, no original work, really), with no safeguards against financial mismanagement by the elected leaders, they have virtually given a carte blanche to their ilk. We do have a CAG, but it has no powers to preempt spending by MPs/MLAs beforehand. Perhaps, it's time we had a strong law which will bar MPs/MLAs from raising their own salaries, going on junkets on public money in the garb of "study tours", often to exotic places overseas. Unless we have strong laws to prevent financial mismanagement by elected leaders, we will continue to cry foul only post facto, which does precious little to the exchequer. The CAG should be empowered to prevent improper spending, if it violates certain basic principles - of being in larger interest of citizens.
Meenal Mamdani
Replied to Simple Indian comment 8 years ago
I think blaming our system of government is incorrect. The Presidential system is far more dictatorial and unless there are strong checks on the President's authority, she/he can cause a lot of harm.

Also by its nature, office of the CAG cannot prevent misuse of funds. It can point out after the fact, and then it is up to the govt in power at the time to take action against the wrong doers. Too often the culprits and government are from the same political party so nothing happens.

Unfortunately we Indians want some one else to take action, usually passing the buck to the govt. Isn't it time that we form citizen associations dedicated to monitoring specific functions of govt and then hold their feet to the fire?

If Ms. Dalal and Mr. Basu had simply stopped with writing about wrong doing, where would we be? We need strong watch dogs like ML Foundation for many areas of public life like transport, road safety, public hygiene, the list is long. We are a young democracy and we all have to work at strengthening it.
D S Ranga Rao
Replied to Meenal Mamdani comment 8 years ago
When Constitutional bodies like CAG, ECI, etc., are not cared for, i do not know how "strong watch dogs like MLF" or any other NGOs will be cared for. Even otherwise, how a non-Constitutional body can act against the misuse of power by a government or its organs? Ultimately, after calling the bluff or unearthing a scam, the matter has to be registered, investigated and prosecuted, as the case may be, all by government agencies only. We, being the unelected, have to remain crying wolf or raising a hue and cry, not necessarily to be acted upon every time we do​ so​!
D S Ranga Rao
Replied to Simple Indian comment 8 years ago
Agreed. But, when and how can we change our Constitution? By sitting outside the Parliament?
8 years ago
I fully agree with every word written on this article. But is writing an article enough? We have to start acting. Lt us look up to some senior journalist like Ms.Narasimhan to lead us!
D S Ranga Rao
Replied to B. KRISHNAN comment 8 years ago
Yes, that's exactly the need of the hour.
8 years ago
entire govt spending and dole outs to favarites is a uncontrolled that is the reason opposition paries are there for every misdeed citizen protest then whole concept of democracy is dead.
8 years ago
Quite an interesting write-up; in that, apart from (re-) echoing certain largely, nay overwhelmingly prevailing, realities afflicting the entire humanity in general, underscores the crying need to be awakened and to resort to pro-action, in the common interests of our so called 'modern' and 'civilized' society. To be rightly taken as a serious INVITE to one and all, sufficiently inspiring to find time and mind to come out of the box, accord own independent thoughts aimed at 'effective altruism', and also share with the rest; not to simplistically mark, with ease, 'Like',

It is noteworthy, adding to the mentioned upright invitation from the Fist Citizen, a similar one of a recent origin has been extended by a member of the judiciary itself.

(Open TO Edit)
D S Ranga Rao
8 years ago
Well said, ma'm. As they say, the people get the government they deserve, so do we. As long as we do not long for good governance and repeat electing the wrong people again and again, we have to suffer. Incidentally, your quote: “All it needs for evil to prosper, is for good people to keep quiet and do nothing”, seems to rhyme with the slogan of 'JP', the Loksatta Party Founder, who says:“The answer to bad politics is not no politics, but good politics”. During the height of Lok Pal Bill agitation, Kapil Sibal and Chidambaram, then Union Ministers, were reported to have taunted Anna Hazare that he being unelected should not try to dictate terms to the elected! It's debatable that the then opposition party, now the ruling party, did prove to be different as yet. Therefore, it's time for all the well-meaning people to come together to join politics and strive for good governance.
Jayaram M
8 years ago
Agree. My opinion is that - (1) we generally follow the path of least resistance (not dissenting); (2) dissent may affect your career / income (that is why we have so many "yes" people around; (3) a form of survival in the real world (unless one / one's family is personally affected (??); (4) politics; in all its shades, has become a (self protecting)industry of its own.
Shailesh Gandhi and a few others (in Maharashtra)are at the forefront of "dissent".
I personally ascribe the recent happenings and the misuse of the "law" (everywhere) to, perhaps, "The (Thomas) Becket Principle" ??
8 years ago
Very well articulated article.Politicians feel they have the divine right to do what ever they wish to do.
ramdas naik
8 years ago
Totally agree. The problem in India is the chalta hai attitude. As long as it does not affect us & our comfort zone-we just don't bother. It took me 2yrs of constant prodding to get the Corporation in my city to get an encroachment demolished.
8 years ago
Well argued,
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