There should be no room in India for the intolerant Indian. India has been since ancient times a bastion of free thought, speech and expression. Our society has always been characterised by the open contestation of diverse schools of thought.”
So declared President Pranab Mukherjee on Thursday. But those who link those words to the violent nationalism versus free speech clashes following the tweets of a Delhi University student would be wrong. Because the president has said similar things earlier. “It is my firm conviction that India’s pluralism and her ... diversity are our greatest strength. Our tradition has always celebrated the ‘argumentative’ Indian; not the ‘intolerant’ Indian,’’ he said in his pre-Republic Day address to the nation on Jan. 25.
“There has been an unfortunate tendency in our country from time to time to take umbrage at the expression of any view perceived to be hostile to our social or cultural institutions, past or present,” he said in Thiruvananthapuram on Dec. 29, 2016. “Similarly, critical appraisals of our heroes and national icons of the past have been met with hostility and sometimes even violence. The freedom to doubt, disagree and dispute intellectually must be protected as an essential pillar of our democracy.”
A year ago, in Birbhum, on Oct. 19, 2015 in the backdrop of a series of hate incidents, including in Mumbai where Shiv Sena forced the cancellation of a music concert by Pakistani legend Ghulam Ali, and an attack on Sudheendra Kulkarni, head of the organisation that brought former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri for his book launch to Mumbai, the president wondered “whether tolerance and acceptance of dissent are on the wane” in India.
Now the President is not known to say things without deep thought and reflection. Is it not time that the government, and we the people, asked ourselves the same question?