When the intellectuals of the country accepted ‘Charwak’ as Rishi, Akbar initiated Din-i-Ilahi, Mahatma Gandhi advocated paying lump-sum amount to Pakistan after partition, Pandit Nehru fostered the presence of opposition parties in the Parliament and Atal Behari Vajpayee reminded Narendra Modi of Raj-Dharma after the Gujarat carnage, what they all were doing was basically translating the essence of political tolerance. But all these examples, somehow, were indicators of exceptional behavior that our leaders showed in the past. Talk of local, national or international politics, the spirit behind these moves has never really been the custom of political arena. Although we see a sharp division between the behaviours of leaders and the masses, humanity, all over the world is laden with the incidents of deliberate denial of the doctrine of political tolerance, which is the essence of democracy. Therefore, on this International Day of Democracy (September 15, 2009) the theme for which is ‘Democracy and Political Tolerance’ as decided by the United Nations, we need to discuss, debate and imbibe the cherished culture of political tolerance in our day to day behavior.
What is Political Tolerance?
Political tolerance can be defined as “the willingness to extend basic rights and civil liberties to persons and groups whose viewpoints differ from one's own”. This is a central tenet of liberal democracy. Democracy must encourage a wide array of ideas, values and beliefs - even those which may offend segments of the population, provided such rights and freedoms are guaranteed by the law of the land. Democracy functions better when there is perfect harmony between the will of the majority and respect for the rights of individuals and groups in the minority. Without safeguards for free expression of divergent opinions, there is the risk of perpetration of “tyranny of the majority”. In a free and open society, public deliberation should expose "bad" ideas instead of suppressing them.
In simpler terms, political (religious and social) tolerance means accepting (accommodating, living and putting up with, and respecting) the views and ideas of others you do not agree with.
The exercise of political tolerance and promoting a culture of political pluralism are the cornerstone of democracy. Democracy is unthinkable when only the dominant political discourse and views are heard. Tight control or the monopoly of information by the dominant class of society stifles debate and undermines citizen’s ability to influence government’s decisions and policies. All ideas must therefore be allowed a place in the “market place of ideas” as connoted by renowned political thinker John Stuart Mill. The best public policy should arise out of competition among divergent views and ideas that are expressed in a free and transparent public discourse.
Remember Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989 in China, anti-Sikh riots of 1984, Gujarat violence in 2002 and very recently the Nandigram Massacre in 2007. These incidents explicitly narrate the story of the debauchery of democratic values and political tolerance in and outside the country which appears to have direct or sometimes hidden consent of respective state machineries. This no doubt is deplorable but there is a darker face of it which needs serious condemnation on all the levels of national life.
Who can forget the denouncement of a group of noted intellectuals and artists, who were known for their non-partisan political approach, by the left government in West Bengal, expulsion of a onetime best parliamentarian known for his unflinching ideological adherence from CPM, the forced exile of Taslima Nasreen, house detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, huge criticism faced by L.K. Advani after his statement over Jinnah and very recently, the expulsion of veteran B.J.P leader Jaswant Singh just because of a few pro-Jinnah remarks in his book? Are these merely some discrete incidents or they underline a very subtle kind of violation of the principle of political tolerance growing in the mind of the masses and the political parties governing them? On this occasion of International Day of Democracy the situation demands thorough attention of all pro-democracy activists, academicians and scholars.