Towards a new culture of tolerance


Soli J. Sorabjee
Eminent jurist and a former Attorney-General for India

The priority should be to promote tolerance in our multi-religious, multi-cultural nation and strengthen pluralist democracy


Democracy has various definitions and many features. However, its indispensable features are the right to dissent and prevalence of tolerance. Tolerance entails a positive attitude, which permits and protects not only the expression of thoughts and ideas that are acceptable but also accords an accommodation as hospitable to the thought we hate as that assured to the orthodoxies of the day.

In other words, there should be freedom of thought and opinions although we may be in complete disagreement with them. Disagreement with the beliefs and ideology of others is no reason for their suppression because tolerance recognises that there can be more than one path for the attainment of truth and salvation.

What are the causes of intolerance? What is its driving force? Intolerance stems from an invincible assumption of the infallibility of one’s system, the dogmatic conviction about the rightness of one’s tenets and beliefs and their superiority over others. An intolerant regime cannot tolerate expression of ideas in the form of writings, plays, music or paintings which challenge its ideology. Intolerance thrives on prejudice. It fosters feelings of ill-will and enmity between different classes and communities. Intolerance eventually leads to forcible imposition of one’s ideology and doctrines on others and results in violent conflicts and breaches of peace.

History is replete with instances of violent upheavals and breach of peace on account of intolerance, leading to oppression of minorities and other unpopular groups.

The violent conflicts we are witnessing today are also the result of intolerance, which has reached menacing heights in our society. For example, the ideas and views of Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Geelani and Lone on Kashmir may be objectionable. But it is more objectionable to rough them up at seminars and other functions and prevent them from expressing their views.

The proper course is to rebut their ideas with cogent arguments and material and expose their hollowness. The use of violence against speakers and disruption of meetings are fascist methods and in a democratic country, which respects the rule of law, that is entirely impermissible. This fascist trend is on the rise, as is evident from the methods employed by the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra of vandalising the premises of the electronic or print media which have published or aired views unpalatable to them. If this trend is not curbed stringently it will undermine our democracy.

The necessity for tolerance has been highlighted in the Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations, which proclaims that to achieve the goals of the charter we need “to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours.” Again, the Declaration of October 24, 1970, on the Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States also states “that the peoples of the United Nations are determined to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another.” The link between tolerance and peace is clearly recognised.

Our Supreme Court has accorded a high place to tolerance in our polity. A Constitution Bench dealing with the power of the State to select textbooks for obligatory use by students unequivocally declared that “it is our firm belief, nay, a conviction which constitutes one of the basic values of a free society to which we are wedded under our Constitution, that there must be freedom not only for the thoughts that we cherish, but also for the thought that we hate.”

A fine example of tolerance is the landmark decision of our Supreme Court in Bijoe Emmanuel vs. State of Kerala. Three students of the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith were expelled by the educational authorities because of their refusal to sing the Indian National Anthem even though they respectfully stood up in silence when it was sung. The High Court of Kerala upheld the action of expulsion. In appeal, the Supreme Court accepted the plea of the students that they were forbidden by their religious beliefs to sing the national anthem of any country. The court invalidated their expulsion. It concluded with a ringing note: “Our tradition teaches tolerance; our philosophy preaches tolerance; our Constitution practices tolerance; let us not dilute it”.

In its celebrated judgement in S. Rangarajan vs. P. Jagjivan Ram our Supreme Court again emphasised that “freedom of expression protects not merely ideas that are accepted but those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of the pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no democratic society”.

The Bench further made the following significant observations. “Freedom of expression which is legitimate and constitutionally protected, cannot be held to ransom by an intolerant group of people. We must practice tolerance to the views of others. Intolerance is as much dangerous to democracy as to the person himself.”

Tolerance as such cannot be legislated. We must develop the capacity for tolerance by fostering an environment of tolerance, a culture of tolerance. Our priority should be to promote tolerance in our multi-religious, multi-cultural nation and thereby strengthen our pluralist democracy.

The Press has an important role to play in this behalf. It should incessantly preach the message that no group or body has the monopoly of truth and wisdom and we must respect the point of view of the ‘other minded’. It must unequivocally condemn instances of intolerance without fear of consequences.

The role of education in this connection cannot be overemphasised. It should inculcate the virtue of tolerance in students at all levels. It should ensure that prejudices and stereotypes about certain communities and classes are eschewed and perpetuated.

Our Constitution prescribes a list of Fundamental Duties to be performed by citizens. To my mind, it is imperative that the practice of tolerance should be included in the list. If that duty is conscientiously performed it would result in a salutary change in our society and also bring about peace and harmony in relations between peoples of our country and the world.


One thought on “Towards a new culture of tolerance

  1. Dear Sir,

    Your article is interesting but deserves second thought in light of the present days expressions in the form of violence, Laden Vad, Mao Vad, Antakvad etc. Do you say that your tolerance extend to accomodate all these?? Do you mean that all these are included in `freedom of expressions’ per citation S. Rangrajan v/s. Jagjivanram relied by you ??

    Will you please reply/comment??

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