All sects of Christianity and 72 sects of Islam exist only and only in India
Everyone wants absolute freedom of expression for oneself but wants to deny it to others. Latest controversy on freedom of expression and speech in the context of JNU and debate on tolerance is reflection of this attitude. No country, no society, no democracy and no nation can afford unhindered, uncontrolled, absolute freedom of expression. Anarchists may advocate absolute rights in theory but even they can’t accept them in reality.
Indian society is fundamentally a tolerant society. Vedic Dharma is a very tolerant, both in theory and practice. It has not only, tolerated differences in beliefs and rituals but has always defended and encouraged them. This was possible only because freedom of expression and belief is the strongest pillar of Bharatiya sabhyata and parampara. Hindu Dharma even accepted atheists and those who questioned its fundamental ideas. Islam and Christianity were not rejected or confronted but accepted as one of the many paths to reach the Almighty Creator or Brahma.
Indian rulers or kings, by their very character, were not always tolerant of freedoms of thought or beliefs and even the most autocratic could not impose an intolerant political system on Indian people for long. Muslim rulers from the first King, Qutb al-Din Aibak down to Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor, practiced a very tolerant version of Islam to remain in control. All sects of Christianity and 72 sects of Islam exist only and only in India, because of the fundamental tolerant nature of Indian people and society. Even during long rule of various Muslim dynasties, the Sufi saints defied and challenged the political version of Islam of the rulers. Muslim rulers not only tolerated but encouraged various faiths of Christianity, Zoroastrians and Jews to propagate and settle in India.
Indian Constitution has not only codified but set the limits of these freedoms, which in the past were at the mercy of the ruler of the moment. Right to Expression under Article 19 was placed in a proper framework, by putting the restrictions of decency and morality, public order, incitement to an offence, security of the state, sovereignty and integrity of India. Controversial Section 124A, of the IPC further restricted this right by maintaining the Law of Sedition as part of the Indian Law.
Slogans which were raised by some people in JNU, attracted the Law of Sedition, but in my view, they could have been dealt with without invoking sedition. We must restrict freedom of expression, but should be very careful in interpreting these restrictions under Indian Law. Universities should have much more space for dissent, disagreement, and even harsh criticism of the Government, State and even of the Constitution. The cause of Justice is not always served by strictly implementing laws; it’s served better sometime by looking the other way. If someone says, rightly or wrongly, that, intolerance is increasing in the country, then we must remove his fears, instead of calling him or her, anti-national, and threatening to send him or her to Pakistan, as such proving their point.
JNU episode has taught us many lessons. Those on the Right, who support right to abuse and make fun of a particular faith, should understand the moral limitations of such a right. Those on the Left, who defend freedom to denounce Indian nation and the Constitution, should realise that such freedom will only lead to anarchy and chaos. The Media must realise that sensationalising such sensitive national issues is detrimental to the very survival of a free Media in a Democracy. The government must learn that loosely invoking the Law of Sedition will make this law lose its effectiveness and seriousness.
Tolerance and freedom is the very foundation of Vedic Dharma and the Indian philosophy. No government can take it away from the people of India.
(The writer is former Rajya Sabha MP and chief editor of Urdu weekly Nai Duniya)