#IntoleranceDebate was a letdown. But we should have seen it coming
The debate on intolerance ended after two days of heated arguments in the Lok Sabha. There were loads of allegations and counter allegations, posturing and verbal attacks, controversies and defences - everything, that is, except a meaningful discussion and any effort to actually solve the problem.
Given that the national discourse has largely revolved around "growing intolerance" for the past three months, it was expected that the Opposition would raise the issue during the winter session. It duly did.
Indeed, when the Lok Sabha sat down for business Monday, the notice for a discussion on the issue was waiting.
But after two days of debate, it's hard to find identify positives, especially for those left most vulnerable in this climate of fear.
The entire exercise can be summed up in the following points.
1) What did the Opposition say?
From Md Salim to Asaduddin Owaisi to Rahul Gandhi, opposition leaders attacked the government for its silence on the incidents of intolerance in the country.
Rahul said, "A general, who is missing from the House today, likened two little babies who were burned to death to dogs. He has directly challenged the Constitution and the fundamental right to equality by equating Dalit children with dogs. Our Prime Minister allows this man to continue as minister as if nothing has happened".
Rajnath Singh on #DadriLynching: we are ready for a CBI probe if the UP government requests it
The Congress leader continued, "Fanatics shot dead Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi in cold blood. The prime minster has nothing to say. In Gujarat, the government's response to the Patidar agitation was filing 20,000 FIRs against them for sedition. Even former Union minister Arun Shourie was not spared; BJP supporters even abused his son who has cerebral palsy."
Recalling that the BJP had termed the writers, scholars and artists' protests against growing intolerance as "manufactured", Rahul said, "Mr Jaitley, do you think people like Narayana Murthy, Raghuram Rajan and PM Bhargava have nothing better to do than to manufacture protest against you? They are saying it because they are disturbed like millions of people in this country."
2) What was the government's response?
To the government's relief, the controversy over Md Salim's remarks on Rajnath Singh diverted focus from the issue on the first day. By the time it was put to rest by an apology from the Outlook magazine, the BJP was prepared to go on the offensive.
Meenakshi Lekhi made a forceful speech, attacking the opposition for being intolerant in the past. She accused the writers and scholars who have returned awards of being "selective" about intolerance.
Minister of State for Home, Kiran Rijuju said the Opposition should respect the mandate of the Narendra Modi regime and "stop maligning the image of the country". Many allies of the NDA repeated the argument.
But it was left to Rajnath to make the strongest defence of the government. He started by seeking to redefine "intolerance". The word, he explained, has three meanings - prithakta, algaav, kasht, or differences, separation, pain. It didn't mean, he was implying, what those protesting growing intolerance took it to mean.
"India is the most tolerant country in the world. It was tolerant and will remain so in the future," the home minister said. He was, however, quick to add that "BJP and PM Modi are the biggest victims of intolerance".
And lest anyone forgot, Rajnath recalled, "the three biggest incidents of intolerance since independence were the partition in 1947, the Emergency and Sikh riots in 1984 - all under Congress governments".
On the Dadri lynching, he put the blame on the Uttar Pradesh government. "The state government's report to the Centre has no mention of intentional killing, communalism and beef. They didn't recommend CBI inquiry. We are still ready for a CBI investigation if the state government requests it."
Undeterred by the Congress members walkout halfway through his speech, Rajnath appealed the writers and scientists who have returned awards to take them back. He invited them for a "meaningful discussion", saying "we are ready to correct the mistakes, if any".
3) What did both sides miss?
Instead of a serious discussion that could help resolve the issue, the exercise ended up being a blame game, everyone pointing out how others had more stains on their sleeves.
Having raised this issue outside the parliament and giving notice for the debate, it was primarily the opposition parties' responsibility to push for a meaningful and accountable debate. But they failed to do so.
#IntoleranceDebate failure: the opposition didn't have any new arguments, no concrete suggestions
Instead, they repeated the arguments they had been making for weeks. They didn't seem to have anything new to say - no strong arguments, no concrete suggestions for the government.
This is not to absolve the government of blame. Its senior figures behaved like party spokespersons rather than responsible, democratic rulers. Most of them didn't so much acknowledge genuine concerns raised inside and outside the parliament, instead trading charges.
When listing out the past instances of intolerance, for example, Rajnath conveniently omitted the demolition of Babri Masjid and the Gujarat riots.
The repeated chants of "India is the most tolerant country in the world" and "you are tarnishing the country's image" are tropes that did not belong in a serious debate.
4) Was the debate just a formality?
It certainly seems so. It was a disappointment for those who are worried about rising intolerance and were expecting a meaningful debate.
Perhaps, it's not difficult to understand why. The main participants, the BJP Congress and the Left, all came with sullied hands - from Emergency, Babri Masjid, Gujarat, Lakshmanpur Bathe, Jhajjar, Narmada Valley, Kudankulum, Delhi, Nandigram, Muzaffarnagar.
Most victims of these and many such tragedies are still awaiting justice. To them, intolerance and communal hatred are lived horrors, not mere words to be parsed for meaning.
At the very least, their parliament owed them, and a large population now living with a sense of dread, a meaningful debate. It failed miserably.
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