New Delhi: Nobel laureate Amartya Sen on Friday expressed dismay over Indians becoming “much too tolerant” of intolerance and asked people to “work hard” to preserve tolerance and plurality of the country. He, however, said intolerance was not a new phenomenon.
“The Constitution does not have anything against having beef or storing it in the refrigerator,” he said. “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 happening adequately right now. And it did not happen adequately earlier as well,” the noted economist said.
He was speaking at the annual ‘Rajendra Mathur Memorial Lecture’ organised by the Editors’ Guild of India at India International Centre in New Delhi. The topic was “The Centrality of the Right to Dissent”.
He blamed the government for not doing enough to protect the renowned artist MF Husain when was chastised by organised groups. He also noted with regret that India became the first country to ban the book The Satanic Verses.
Husain, as may be recalled, was hounded out of India in 2006 by right wing fundamentalists over his allegedly controversial paintings of Hindu deities and lived between London and Dubai until his death in 2011.
Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, was banned by India in the year of its publication, 1988.
In the animated discussion on freedom of expression vis-à-vis recent crackdown on students for raising their voice, he said in response to a query, “Public discussion and debate is necessary over this topic. Freedom is a big thing and Freedom of Expression is well defined in Indian Constitution. Hence, one has to think about many aspects of this freedom. I will give you an example of what freedom of expression is. In this hall, can you shout? No! So, you have to accept certain rules in a society. There’s a need for defending the freedom of expression through public discussion.”
Sen’s prescription for issues related to intolerance, dissent, curbing of democracy, conflict of identity, etc was to “see issues in context and in proper perspective”.
The author of The Argumentative Indian, Sen argued, while discussing conflict of identity, that argument and reasoning were powerful forces. Citing the example of Islamic fundamentalists, he said, “They lay thrust only on the Quran, but never mention how advance they were in Mathematics; they don’t talk about Algebra that they had invented. This causes conflict of identity for Muslims. We need argumentative approach to know identity.”
Replying to a question on the misuse of religion to silence dissent, Sen said that religion could be used in many different ways and when it was used to silence people because of their faith or no faith, it then clearly violated one’s fundamental right to Freedom of Speech.
Sen also called upon people to deal with the attacks on their freedom in a democratic manner as they were living in a democratic society. “You should criticize the government, if you feel unhappy. Defeatism takes you nowhere. It is up to you to change the society,” he added.