Intolerance and Religion

Rohit Dhankar


The dictionary meaning of ‘tolerance’ is ‘willingness to recognize and respect the beliefs, opinions and practices of others; particularly those that one disagrees with.’ And that of ‘intolerance’ is ‘unwillingness to recognize and respect differences in opinions, beliefs and practices.’ This ‘willingness’ and ‘unwillingness’ in both cases, obviously, is expressed through word and actions of people. Usually unwillingness to accept something expressed through civilized speech has to be considered within the limits of tolerance, even if one does not like it.

When we want to understand level of tolerance or intolerance in a society the issue becomes very complex. One, there are a range of practices, belief and behaviors which could be classifies into ‘social’, ‘political’, ‘religious’, etc.; and intolerance may be expressed towards some of them and not to others. On the other hand the agents could be seen as ‘individuals’, ‘communities’, ‘political parties’, ‘governments’, etc. Usually the statements of prominent citizens and opinion makers are rather general and do not specify what kind of intolerance among which section people they are talking about. Political correctness stops them from being precise; and that leave the interpretation open. Some interpret such statements as a judgment on the whole nation while others think it to be directed at a section of people or to the government. As a result the ensuing debate is actually a lot of statements with very imprecise meaning and anger; a lot of smoke and heat without much light.

There could be umpteen ways of interpreting stray incidents in any country at any given time. The most of the present day intolerance debate refers to killings of three rationalists (Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi), killings and attacks related to cow and attacks on Dalits. All these incidents are pinned down to BJP and a section within Hindu community, if there be such a unified community, that is. The incidents in themselves may not justify the tag of intolerance to the whole Indian society or the nation. But do demand serious thinking if something is going on within the Hindu community and if BJP is abetting it; if a process of political consolidation and religious intolerance is on the rise. Another issue that needs examination is the actions of the government in power. How the government responds to such incidents? The third is the actions and pronouncements of the supporters of and the people in the government, even if they are not considered representative either of the party (BJP) or of the government.

Since the last two are easier to deal with I will begin with them.

The supporters of the government

This, as I said above, includes those within the ruling party but are not recognized as official spokes persons. The most visible faces of such people are BJP MPs Sadhvi Prachi, Yogi Adityanath, Sakshi Maharaj, etc. There is also some little known national secretary of the BJP who said something recently. Their statements leave no doubt that these people are communal and want to foment trouble. Many of their statement are clearly against the constitution and secular ethos of the country. They definitely want to create an intolerant, fanatical and violent section within the Hindu community and want to project this rabid fringe as the protectors of Hinduism.

The government

The incidents themselves and sickeningly malevolent statements of these people may not in themselves be enough for the present day feeling of growing intolerance if the government acts decisively and condemns such incidents and statements. But the responsible people in the government seem to be either silent or protecting these evil forces. And that increases the feeling of insecurity and intolerance. The intolerance of stray individuals, small groups, and some elements within the government acquires a new meaning when they are ‘tolerated’ by the government. The government of the day is increasingly seen as not only tolerating this sick mindset, but seems to be encouraging it.

The opposition to intolerance

In spite of this scenario is the opposition of ‘intolerance’ helping the cause of secularism, tolerance and diversity in India? I have serious doubts about it. Their statements are made in a manner that they proclaim the Indian nation as a whole as intolerant. Second they give enough hints at various times that the intolerance is rising due to the Hindu community (not dues to some obnoxious people and organizations in it, but the Hindu community as whole). Three they are made in such a manner that they seem to be selective. Four, they often seem to be exaggerated. This deliberate or otherwise openness left in their statements is being hammered by the Hindu right in such a manner that they are seen as partisan and larger and larger sections of the common masses are being consolidated behind the lunatic fringe. If the liberals are serious about the issue beyond personal limelight and narrow party-politics agenda they have to raise the levels of clarity and depth of the debate. They have to address the so far ignored less educated, not too well informed Indians who do not share their theoretical lenses and lingo. If they are not able to do that they will lose the battle in spite of their stand being relatively (only relatively) closer to the constitutional vision of India.


On the religious intolerance

Common Indian has a very erroneous and gullible mindset on religion. They often pronounce platitudes like, (i) all religions say the same thing, (ii) no religion preaches violence, and (iii) it is not the religion per se that incites violence but the political use of religion. Many more of course such statement float unexamined in the public space, but let’s look at these three. It seems to me that these claim are patently wrong. They are either dishonest hypocritical statements or emerge out of ignorance or from faulty analysis.


Many scholars today realize that religion is not a single entity but a complex of more than one components or elements. Durkheim remarks that some of the definitions of religion cause problems because “[t]hey proceed as if it [religion] were a sort of indivisible entity”, while he thinks “as a matter of fact, it is made up of parts;  it is a more or less complex system of myths, dogmas, rites and ceremonies.”[1] One can cite many scholars who hold this view; but in this simple piece it is not necessary to do so. We will proceeded by accepting this claim of religion having many components.

The actual components any religion has can be roughly summarised as: (i) a belief system, (ii) a clergy (official or unofficial) that guards and interprets that belief system, (iii) a community of believers, and (iv) practices that bind the community of believers together.

The nature of religious belief systems is such that it cannot be rationally justified, and has to be taken on faith. For example no religions is possible without imagining life after death. This little stratagem makes it possible to make the present life look of little importance and the eternal life (ether in the Jannat or Swarga or in union with the supreme reality) more important. The one religion that does not make the life after death as enjoyable or in union with the supreme reality, namely Buddhism, dreams of complete emancipation from the snare of material life, even if to achieve only total obliteration. In any case the present life is only a means for either a better after life or annihilation of its continuity as rebirth. None of the claims about life after death can be rationally substantiated, therefore, have to be taken on faith. Faith in scriptures, founders of religions and in interpreters of belief system.

The very nature of this belief system makes it possible to churn out theories like karma-theory and piousness of certain acts. Through karma-theory Hinduism has been perpetrating untold slow violence on some sections of its believing community for ages; and through supposed to be piousness of some acts in the eyes of a vengeful God Islam has been producing killers of kafirs throughout the history. But the process of making submissive masses and bigoted zealots is not a simple one. I goes through complex mechanism.

The first problem of sustaining unreasonable belief system is to lull natural human tendency to have some grounds to believe, we can call it natural rational impulse. Religions produce such grounds in multiple ways. In each religion there are people who claim that they have realised a higher state of mind. Their behaviour and demeanour exudes calm, serenity, goodwill for people, and equanimity in the face of trouble. They are not all necessarily hypocrites—though many of them are. These ‘realised’ ones are capable of producing this state of mind through belief and practices. A community of believers is necessary for such practices to sustain. These people provide a toe hold for a common believer to accept the belief system, as they see these ‘realised’ ones as a ‘proof’ of that.

But humans also have a psychological need for security and meaningfulness of life. Some, a very small section, of total human population can manage both these needs through rational thought. A very large majority, however, needs something to lean on. The community of believer through a strong identity creation provides for this even to those who do not really have faith. Their identification and belonging to the community defines them. Their morality, practices and behaviour need the constant support from this community; which they think is based on the belief system. They become ‘projections’ of the ‘expressed common’ thinking of the community. Anything that undermines this community and openly challenges the faith then becomes a direct threat to their own existence as they define it, they are nothing but the ‘projection’ of the community, as said above.

The feeling of community provides social, economic and political benefits as well. And, therefore, this complex phenomena of religion becomes easily available for radicalisation. The principles of political unity in this need not be, and most often are not, justice for all humanity, but gains for one’s own community. The other, therefore, is a threat. And need to be either controlled or better, if possible, eliminated. The zeal of religious people to spread their own religion universally is this intense desire to eliminate the other couched in the language of bringing them to the right path.

When we want to understand whether religion teaches violence or not, we cannot talk of something idealised and ungraspable by human mind. We have to talk of (i) the beliefs as expressed in the scriptures and as interpreted today, (ii) we have to see the behaviour of the community of believers, (iii) we have to look at the practices and (iv) have to look at the political use that this complex phenomena is put to. We have to accept that what religious preaches or does not preach is a combined effect of all these elements. Isolating a particular interpretation of the belief system as ‘true religion’ and declaring all the evil effects of that belief system as nothing to do with the religion is a dogmatic position, if not downright mindless. Blind statements without looking at all these aspects teach us nothing; they simply delude good hearted people in the society and give space to the hatred, potential for which is available in religions.

In the coming sections of this piece I will argue against the common platitudes that:

  1. All religions say the same thing,
  2. No religion preaches violence,
  3. It is not the religion per se that incites violence but the political use of religion, and
  4. That if we want to protect secularism we have to discard these platitudes, otherwise germ of hatred will always be available for political use.


[1] EMILE DURKHEIM, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, translated from the French by Joseph Ward Swain, George Allen & Unwin Ltd. 1915 (Fifth Impression 1964) (page 36)

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