Is India a tolerant society?

On one hand, you could say that India is a notably tolerant country. Conversely, many argue that this isn’t so. Conflicts within the country between different castes and classes leave the impression that India is not so tolerant. However, treatment of tourists and foreign immigrants reveal characteristics of a tolerant society. An article in the New York Times highlights some main points about tolerance in Indian society. Akash Kapur argues in an article (NYTimes Article) that despite India’s episodes of intolerance, India is an extremely tolerant society. Looking at the two sides of the argument I couldn’t come to a conclusion on whether or not India could be considered a tolerant society.

As more and more western immigrants inhabit the country you would expect to see cultural clashes and rising tensions. However it doesn’t seem like, this is the case in India. There have been few episodes of hostility towards foreigners. Why is this?

Tolerance is shown throughout India’s history. India is one of the most culturally diverse countries, with over 22 official languages and encompasses people following almost every major religion in the world. Political life in India is based on the concept of secularism, and a complete separation of church from state. Rather than portraying hostility towards religion, India maintains a state of indifference that may play an important part of India’s tolerant disposition. Secularism in India can be traced back to Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, who rejected the idea that India should form a religious state. It seems the tradition of religious tolerance in ancient India still prevails today. But does it really?

Despite India’s tolerance toward the rest of the world, episodes of intolerance are still present in Indian society. For example, one of the most evident displays of intolerance is the discrimination against lower castes, in additions to communal riots highlighting persistent tensions between religious groups. There have been multiple clashes between Hindus and Christians and between Hindus and Muslims.

In 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots broke out killing more that 1,000 people. In the early 1990’s Hindu-Muslim violence arose as a result of the destruction of a Muslim mosque by a Hindu mob. In the aftermath of the incident, 2,000 people were killed in the riots and the bomb blasts that accompanied the incident. More recently there were protests against a Bollywood star supporting Pakistanis on Indian cricket teams. These protests were instigated by Bal Thackery led Shiv Sena party. These are just a few examples of some of the intolerances that have surfaced within India. Another interesting article I found in the New York Times (Click Here) views tolerance as a weak pillar in India.

In spite of all this, India is engaged and open with the rest of the world and as a result thriving. India has been able to work with other cultures enabling the Indian economy to gain a great deal of strength. Without a general attitude of tolerance, would the country have been able to accomplish its current economic success?

Is India a tolerant society? Can tolerance be the foundation for economic prosperity in India? Is there something we can learn from India’s openness and engagement with the rest of the world?

Additional Sources:

– Jordan Wente

Addendum from Hemanth

Please consider the complexity of the country when making any judgement. It is still a 60 year young vibrant country with people coming from so many different races and cultures. Before the Indian Union was carved out in 1947, Indian people were never part of what you call an Indian State. There were more than 900 different princely states at that time. There were bound to be clashes given such diversity. Most British Commentators thought that the country was ungovernable and unmanageable. They thought it will break up into 900 different parts again before they even blinked. But Indian state has not only survived but thrived.

We have had setbacks no doubt. Partition of India into India and Pakistan was the biggest of those, and a very challenging one at that because of religious overtones. Thousands lost lives because of the uncertainty over their status after partition. Pakistan turned into an Islamic Republic while India chose to be a secular state in spite of the fact that 80% of the population was Hindu majority. The state itself was founded on the pillars of respect and tolerance for all religions, and why not? Even Hinduism was not a single religion. It was a combination of multitude of religions which existed, clashed, and integrated . So, toleration for all religions was an in-built quantity. Second incident which tested Indian state’s secular credentials was the Khalistan movement by some radical organizations in Punjab. Third incident which really left a blot on our secular credentials was when historic Babri masjid (mosque) in Ayodhya was brought down. Hindus considered it a holy place as it was the birth place of lord Rama. When Muslim kings ruled India before the British, they destroyed the earlier shrines that existed and constructed mosques right over the sites. Some Hindu fanatics got together in 1992 and incited the crowd to destroy the mosque. That started a long and bloody communal riot. In 2002 as you have rightly pointed out, another communal riot happened which started with a group of Muslim fanatics burning a passenger compartment full of Hindus chanting “Hail lord Rama”. Aggressive proselytizing tactics by Christian groups were met with intense hatred by fanatical groups. All these and much more, is very much part of Indian History. In fact, I feel these were necessary speed-bumps in India’s progress in national reconciliation and regional power equation corrections.

However, in general, toleration is appreciated, toleration is taught, and toleration is practiced in India. We as India, wouldn’t be existing if not for tolerance. In fact, I feel India is one of the most tolerant countries in the world, considering its diversity. See its leaders for instance. Dr. Manmohan Singh (India’s PM) is a practising Sikh which is a minority religion in India. Sonia Gandhi is the head of the Congress Party which is in power. She is an Italian catholic lady wed into the Nehru-Gandhi family and she is probably more powerful than the prime minister himself. Our recent president Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, was a Muslim, and he was a very popular head of the state. He was a leading missile and nuclear scientist. In India, like US, religion is not a qualification for success.

Recently the prime minister of India made the following statement at a conclave which I believe very accurately describes India’s progress in spite of the hurdles.

“While people all over are legitimately proud of India’s vibrant democracy, the Government had not been able to deliver in full measure on the enormous promise and potential of the country. I recognize the frustration well wishers feel when they lament why things don’t work faster or why well formulated plans and policies don’t get implemented as well as they should be. There is a price India is paying to carry all sections of its people along in national development, but the price is worth paying.”

An Interesting Religious Map of India

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4 Responses to Is India a tolerant society?

  1. Jordan Wente says:

    Thank you for the additional information. It was a hard topic to write about and information was limited. I agree with you, India is an extremely tolerant society given its size and diversity. I was not making any kind of judgements. My goal was to highlight India’s remarkable tolerance. In particular toward the rest of the world. While many western countries are running scared of globalization and integration, India has been able to embrace globalization and prosper from openly participation with the rest of the world, without bias toward religion or culture. I think that this is a direct result of India’s tolerant nature and diversity. My point was that maybe other countries could learn from how well India has been able to assimilate. In an effort to get feedback I left both sides open to discussion. In my research I found a few articles in the New York TImes that claimed that India is not a tolerant society based on various reasons and I provided some of those examples above. I found it interesting that even though India has had some rough patches, like every country has at one point or another, the article does not look at the bigger picture. So then I guess my question would have been better stated to say; Are these incidents evidence enough to classify India as an intolerant country?

  2. Jeff says:

    I personally think it’s remarkable that India can be made up of such a diverse peoples yet can still be governed through a democracy. I do think having so many different viewpoints slows the process way down, and because there are so many conflicting views, it’s difficult to gain a consensus on anything. They do seem to be making progress however (as opposed to our US democracy where congress is afraid of their shadows)

  3. Hemanth,
    I am not judging the content of either Jordan’s post or your addendum but I feel like changing people’s posts is not okay. If I submit something to be posted on this site, I want it to be posted unchanged (apart from typos etc).
    Please don’t get this the wrong way, I really appreciate your inside view on some of the topics posted here. I think your comments add value to the discussion and the content of this site. However, I think you should give your input in form of comments.


  4. sachidananda says:

    Well articulated. There is no doubt on the issue of India’s tolerance society. Irrespective of periodical violence and indisciplined behaviour if Indian mass, India has shown commendable tolerance throughout its history. The sub countinent has been a bundle of regional states ruled by various kings and sects engaged in mutual conflict. They have been attacked by foreign rulers, subdued forcefully, converted, reconverted times and again. India has kissed everybody and assimilated everybody to its main stream slowly and permanently. Nowhere in world can one see such a diverse culture unified with a common thread of Indian culture. Whoever has come to India with whatever intention has been enamoured by it and has been infatuated by it. Hinduism is the mother religion of India and it has remained so with secularism its main plank. Be it Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity or any other sectarian identity, all have taken root on the gene of Indian culture and mingled with the social fabric of Hinduism. Tolerance is in the breathing of Indianness. It will be gross injustice to term Indian society as intolerant.

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