What is wrong with Amartya Sen’s well-argued article “Dissent and freedom in India”

February 13, 2016

Rohit Dhankar

Amartya Sen’s article in Indian Express, 13th February 2016, titled “Dissent and freedom in India” is very well-argued and balanced.

(http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/amartya-sens-column-dissent-and-freedom/ )

Sen rightly notes that we are too tolerant, to the extent tolerating intolerance. That we should be more determined and proactive in defending our freedom. He also rightly notes that neither Indian constitution nor Indian tradition, including Hindu tradition, can be blamed for this intolerance. The constitution gives Indians freedom to express and disagree. The Hindu tradition (he quotes the famous Nasadiya Sukta from Rig Veda, the ultimate in scepticism about God to my mind) according to him was “familiar with, and tolerant of, arguments about religious beliefs for more than 3,000 years”.

He blames the intolerance on, (1) small organised groups, (2) their “imagined entitlement of “not to be offended” (an alleged entitlement that does not seem to exist in this particular form in any other country)”, and (3) colonial era “British law, primarily Section 295(A)” which puts “on a pedestal … the sentiments of any religious group”. Then he suggests five strategic points to resist “unfreedom” being imposed on us, all of them are perfectly valid, very good and can be very effective if used with commitment and judgment.

In all these points one sees a clear mind of a Nobel Laureate and great intellectual. All these points are briefly but very well argued and make perfect sense. Actually they put the finger right on the ailing nerve.

And yet, something is deeply wrong with Sen’s article.

That wrong is not in what he says, not in what he argues for, not in the way he argues, not in his facts. That wrong lies in what Sen has left out unsaid, what he deliberately avoids, what he communicates without stating, an overall un-argued argument he makes effortlessly.

In his well-written 1200 word article Mr. Sen makes references to 9 examples of intolerant behaviour of small organised groups which imposed ‘unfreedom’ on the majority tolerant population. Seven of them are sound and justified examples, even if somewhat repetitive. One can question and debate only two of them. Court cases on MF Hussain and Wendy Doniger. They were court cases, and a citizen has the right to go to the court against something which s/he finds objectionable and illegal; it is for the courts to decide whether to uphold the appellant’s contention. In both these examples the cases were not pursued to the end. But he is partially right even here, as he blames Section 295(A) of IPC, on the basis of which such complaints become justiciable and in the light of which the outcomes might have gone in favour of the appellants.

What is wrong in the article is his careful choice of the examples. Out of nine examples only one example puts the blame of attacking freedom on a Muslim group—that of Satanic Verses. And even there it is put on the government of the day. All other examples are those of unjust restriction of freedom by Hindu groups.

Taslima Nasrn’s plight, attacks on Lokmat office in Maharashtra and subsequent unconditional apology of from the paper, Kamalesh Tiwari being in jail, having a prize of 51 lakh on his head announced by a UP cleric and continuing violent protest to hammer home the demand of death penalty for blasphemy, chopping of fingers of a Kerala professor for a question in examination paper that mentioned Muhammad; none of these are alluded to in his article. These are recent examples, if one goes little farther back than Satanic Verses one finds example of serious communal riots on making Muhammad a character in a Kannada story and a host of many more such cases.

Sen, therefore, is creating an impression that the threat to freedom and imposition of ‘unfreedom’ is from the small but organised Hindu groups. Actually, it might be alleged that he considers the examples of Muslim groups’ imposition  of unfreedom primarily as out comes of attack on a religious minority; and therefore, just a reaction from the minority and not instances of imposing unfreedom.

As long as our tallest intellectual remain selective in siting instances of intolerance and keep focussing on one wrong doer, either condoning or ignoring the other, we will not be able to defend the freedom of speech, we will not be able to stem the tide of intolerance. Actually, we will be strengthening one intolerant group (the Hindu one) and encouraging the other (the Muslim one).

Some very wise intellectuals interpret this demand for mentioning and condemning both groups as ‘a balancing act’ of giving ‘equal blows’ to both groups; a demand for ‘if hit one,  hit the other as well’. This is excessively moronic interpretation of this demand. It is not to balance your blows; but is a demand for commitment to always, by principle, call a spade a spade. Respecting the truth equally wherever and in whatever shape it is found; without considerations for political correctness or ideological commitments or your current political purposes. Because the truth filtered through these screens is no more a truth, it becomes a falsehood, it becomes what Harry Frankfurt calls “bullshit”.

Yes, this is a very high moral demand. Not easy to meet, even if you happen to be a great intellectual. But then freedom of expression is a very high moral principle; you cannot buy a diamond for dimes. If you are not prepared to pay the price of freedom in coins of truth and fairness you are condemned to forfeit it. The choice is yours.

It is important to say all this particularly in response to a well-argued and largely balanced article by a top level and much respected intellectual. As the value of valid and forceful arguments is likely to be reduced by simple omission which can be interpreted as a biased selection. And also, because the very potent strategic points listed in the article are likely to become operationalised in an imbalanced and unfair manner by the politically correct intellectuals.

In today’s climate it is easy to interpret what is written in the paragraphs above as a justification of what small organised Hindu groups are doing. Again, it would be a moronic interpretation. These groups rightly deserve condemnation and punishment as per the law; even if other groups committing similar crimes go scot-free, it does not justify leaving them scot-free as well. But such condemnation and one-sided punishment will not stop the intolerance. It will only create a mentality of unjustified victimhood in them and their resolve to perpetrate their heinous acts will only strengthen. To eradicate a malaise one has to give appropriate treatment to all infected by it; being selective leave the virus flourishing and it becomes resistant to your medication in due time.


Of Cows and Pigs: holding a country at ransom

November 30, 2015

Rohit Dhankar

This morning there was a news item that Haryana Police has killed a cattle smuggler who was smuggling cows. It is perhaps the fourth cow related death in last 2-3 months. By the afternoon there is a news of mob attacks on a newspaper who dared to publish a cartoon with a piggybank featuring in it.

Haryana has recently enacted a law that bans cow slaughter and smuggling to other states. The constitution of India mentions in a directive principle that cattle, including cows and calf, should be protected. There is a high octave campaign from some Hindu organizations to make cow a symbol that could be used to help arouse emotions and foment trouble. Hindus at the moment lack a symbol which can be used to raise cries of ‘hurt feelings’ and is capable of creating a rage across the community. They have tried Ram. Currently are trying cow and Bharat mata. Where there are no laws to protect such symbols they want to enact such laws. Where there are laws—respect for national flag and anthem, ban on cow slaughter—they are trying to act as vigilante and trying to take the law in their own hands. So far the fundamentalist organizations among the Hindu community are in a minority and face a lot of criticism from the intellectuals in the country, both Hindus and Muslims.

In this regard the liberal people in the country—all, without any regard of religions—should strongly condemn the vigilante attitude of some Hindu groups. Where the law is broken—for example, not sanding for national anthem, if there is actually such a law—people should inform the police and the tendency to act as the judge, jury and hangman should be strictly curbed. The liberals should also start a campaign against removing ‘cow and calf’ from the directive principles; and work against the laws banning cow slaughter. This has to be done without painting the whole nation and the whole Hindu community as intolerant or bigoted.

The Muslim mob has attacked Lokmat office, burnt copies of the paper and is protesting against an article that criticizes ISIS and carries a cartoon with a picture of a piggy-bank. It is construed as blasphemy and insult to Islam. This is the cartoon:


One wonders what is offensive about this cartoon. Why is it considered blasphemous? The Muslim community (Islam) does have the symbols which could be used for arousing emotions and anger. Allah, Muhammad, Quran, and any association with a pig can be easily used to arouse Muslim mass rage. Though the actual fundamentalists in the Muslim community are also in a minority at the moment. But their capability to foment trouble is much greater. Something as simple as naming a character in a piece of fiction as Muhammad has been used in India for wide spread riots.

The liberals have been almost always soft on such attacks on freedom of expression coming from Muslim groups. They do not seem to realize that rubble rousing Hindu groups are very jealous of the fact that Muslim groups have rallying symbols that can be used to agitate the whole community while the Hindu groups don’t. They want to create such symbols. The liberals also don’t seem to realize that being soft on bigotry of Muslim groups, the kind shown in the Lokmat incident, will make the Hindu hardliners take even more intolerant stances. This will also create a favorable feeling for the fringe groups in the larger community.

Following the massive protest, the editor of the Lokmat later extended an immediate apology for the cartoon and assured that action will be taken against those responsible for the publication of the particular cartoon.” This shows the power of Islamic fundamentalism and fear created by it. As long as we want to speak openly about intolerance of Bajarang Dal, VHP and BJP but capitulate on the first sign of Muslim anger we will not be able to curb intolerance.

Curtailment of freedom of expression, be that for the feigned love of cow or hatred for pig, has to be equally criticised. Both groups need to be kept under control.


Intolerance and Religion

November 29, 2015

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)

The mindless cacophony

November 5, 2015

Rohit Dhankar

We are passing (hopefully!) through the period characterized by mindless cacophony. That might be a reflection of who is considered worth listening to by our worthy media.

Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) proclaimed that “There is intolerance, there is extreme intolerance… there is I think… there is growing intolerance”. Now he is a celebrity; therefore, what he says has to be paid attention to. I will come back at the end regarding veracity of his proclamation. But he is as good a citizen of India as Mohan Bhagwat of any Parvar worthy. And he has as much right to state his opinion openly and fearlessly as, again, Mohan Bhagwat or any parivar big wig.

But a general secretary of BJP is quick to attack: “Shah Rukh Khan lives in India, but his soul is in Pakistan. His films make crores here but he thinks India to be intolerant”. It is hard to imagine something more stupid and poisonous than this; unless the likes of Vijayvergiya help us by creating even more obnoxious examples. It is stupid because Vijayvargiya actually is providing easy and immediate proof of intolerance, proving SRK immediately right, at the least partially.

Next comes someone from the Grand-old Feudal Fiefdom of India: “he [SRK] comes from a family of freedom fighters. How can he become a ‘Pakistani’ when his family fought for the freedom of this country? On the other hand, none of your family members have fought for the freedom of this country and you call yourself patriot?” What a beautifully stupid argument. If your ancestors were patriots you are a patriot; if your ancestors were unknown small people you can never be a patriot; if your ancestors were against the country’s good (as seen at that time) you are treacherous. He does not thinks that this will lead to in investigation of record of his own party’s leaders and their ancestors; just for example: Sindhias and Nehrus is 1957.

Now, SRK thinks that India is extremely intolerant. Of course he has the right to hold and express his views. But his understand of what is called ‘extreme intolerance’ seem to be seriously limited; may be because he lives in India. He should pay attention to China on Falun Gong movement in the past. He should pay attention to Pakistan of today (not because there is any reason to believe that he has any sympathy with that country, for he does not; but simply to understand the meaning of ‘extreme intolerance’); where about 30 Hindu women are abducted, forcibly converted and married off to Muslims. The law of that lawless-land is totally in favour of the abductors! He should pay attention to Saudi Arabia where you cannot practice your religion publicly, if it happens to be other than Islam. He should look at the record of ISIS (that will be useful for Professor Habib as well). That Mr. Khan, will help you understand the definition of extreme intolerance better.

Does that criticism of SRK mean that we should be happy or should not be worried about the level of intolerance in our country today; by no means. That simply means that we need to be careful and closer to the reality in our proclamations. We cannot fight intolerance by exaggeration and hyperbole.

And we, the masses of India, have to develop the capability to be critical about this cacophony and sift the grain from the chaff.