Not a customary record

December 29, 2019

A subjective recollection of instances of intolerance that puts chronology aside and lets memory be the guide

One may be forgiven for thinking that tolerance is an overused word, to the extent of sounding boring. In our context, it is understood more as a Western ideal that people must adhere to, but like everywhere else in the developing world, fail at. Actually, we in this country haven’t heard the word as often as we think, let alone getting a chance to debate it. Our focus has been more on the opposite — intolerance — of which we keep a customary record at the end of each year.

Intolerance, I would say, is the word that is overused manifesting in extreme examples adding to our disappointments, with no signs of it going away.

Analysts have tried to trace the roots of intolerance without realising that, perhaps, we have never really been educated in what tolerance is. Tolerance is to accept ideas, people, politics, practices, beliefs that you do not agree with. That is the essence. A good education ensures that one does not consider one’s own standpoint as the ultimate truth, seeks it in diversity and difference and thus, enriches one’s own truth. Intolerance, on the contrary, is a refusal to accept difference, and try to punish or cause harm over holding or practising a view different from one’s own.

Expected to cast a backward look at the year to highlight the vagaries of intolerance, I don’t know where to start. I am convinced that the examples of social, cultural, religious and political intolerance that I am supposed to record are as connected with each other as they are with the past.

I would prefer to put chronology aside and let memory be the guide. It’s a rather subjective recollection but may give a better sense of what we want to look at.

I recently happened to be in a room full of representatives of minority religions for a consultation (I am not entirely comfortable with the word ‘minority’ but it’s one recognised widely in the rights-based discourse). It was a strange feeling. To be in a room where half the participants belonged to religions different from the one practised by 96 percent of the population. The discussion was heated because the platform was ‘safe’. One sentence uttered by a Hindu MP from Sindh struck a chord when she said that we must be sensitive about terms we use like ‘non-Muslims’, which is a negative categorisation. To prove her point, she said in the West no one refers to Muslims or Hindus or Sikhs as ‘non-Christians’.

Tolerance is accepting ideas, people, politics, practices, beliefs that you do not agree with. That is the essence.

At this time of the year, I am bothered by a video clip of the assistant commissioner of Attock. Sitting in a chair surrounded by fuming university students, this young woman had to testify to the truth of her majority-endorsed faith and the infidelity of another sect that she had named while seeking unity among different sects and religions in her address to the students. I am reminded of the Ahmadi representatives in that multi-religious room who while narrating their persecution said they did not want minority rights; they only sought citizenship rights granted by the Constitution of Pakistan.

There must be tolerance for the other, differing view, no doubt, but there have to be limits to accepting intolerance — in the form of laws, where needed. That is where the state has failed, not in terms of enacting laws but in acting upon and implementing those laws. As someone rightly asked, under what authority was the assistant commissioner brought face-to-face with the accusing students? Should there not be action against those who did this?

Students, our own children in educational institutions, have been demonstrating ‘intolerance’, for want of a better word, for some years now. The brutal beating to death of Mashal Khan by his fellow students within the university premises ought to have been a stark reminder of our collective shame. It failed to become one. In March this year, a student in Bahawalpur murdered his professor, Khalid Hameed, for allowing a ‘mixed’ — girls and boys — welcome party.

This may have begun with intolerance but segued into instances of brutalisation and impunity. The antidote may lie in student marches and the rise of a different kind of student politics.

Speaking to me, a teacher said that the Bahawalpur incident was sad but what does one expect when the state itself believes in summary justice; where military courts are preferred over regular courts; where extrajudicial killings are acceptable; and where the spectacle of public hangings haunts people’s imagination.

Another strong memory is again from early this year. It was the second year of Aurat March, where women irrespective of class, age and other considerations, came out to demonstrate against their persecution, seeking equality. They looked confident – at par with the march of history – happy to have reclaimed the public space at least on this one day. The retaliation to this march was swift, unpleasant and reeking of extreme intolerance.

It was the second year of retaliation of this kind, with a silver lining — the march next year is likely going to be many times bigger.

Women’s resilience is an exceptional development and may prove unstoppable. As for the rest, perhaps the state itself needs a lesson in tolerance. Instead of seeking an identity that nullifies a multiple approach, it needs to rethink itself in a different mould. It must begin with its own conception as a democracy, which has to contend not with less democracy but with more authoritarianism. That’s the important beginning it needs.

There is a crucial link between the insecurities of a state created in the name of religion and the intolerance at work among its citizens. There was no scope for local cultures in a bid to promote a centrist state, where everyone thought alike. That model clearly did not work.

As was made visible once again in the case of the assistant commissioner, this intolerance has started eating up the state. A different model of state

will not need to ‘disappear’ people, and to control or suppress media. It will have to be more inclusive than exclusive; to include in textbooks lessons about people who are different from us, to let our children know about them — about who they are and what they think of themselves, and not what we think of them.

The writer is former editor of  The News on Sunday.

Tolerance — the need of the hour in Pakistan