‘The battlefields are different now. Today it’s also a battle of minds and hearts. We have to fight it in intimate, personal spaces’: Harsh Mander

Intolerance Tracker interviews Harsh Mander, well known social worker and writer who works with survivors of mass violence and hunger, as well as homeless persons and streets children. He is the Director of the Centre for Equity Studies and a Special Commissioner to the Supreme Court of India in the Right to Food case. Harsh speaks about his understanding of tolerance and how it has evolved in South Asia particularly in India. He also speaks of how different stakeholders can take part in building inclusive societies.



Terms like ‘tolerance’ and ‘intolerance’ are hard to describe, or pin down to one definition. What, in your understanding, do these terms mean?

Harsh: I’m not particularly fond of the term ‘tolerance’, I think it sets too low a threshold for the terms on people with differences should live together. It seems to suggest just that we should put up with each other. We should be aspiring for something much higher. I think the decline in our aspirations for the ways we live with difference has happened over time. Just observe changes in Mahatma Gandhi’s thinking. If you look at the early days of the freedom struggle, the slogan was of ‘Hindu-Muslim unity’. Gandhiji would say that Hindus and Muslims are like my two eyes. To join the Indian National Congress, you had only to pay a chavanni, and sign a pledge saying you believed in Hindu-Muslim unity. Later on, you see he starts to lose heart about the possibility of real unity, so instead he talks about ‘communal harmony’ and not unity; or in other words, even if we are not one people, let us have goodwill towards each other. But towards the end of his life, when he witnessed a million people die in the horrific Partition riots, he toned down his appeal at what could be described ‘peaceful coexistence’; we are not united, we may not even have goodwill to each other, but at least let is learn to live side by side peacefully. This is closest I think to what we define as ‘tolerance’ today.

But sadly even this minimal idea of peaceful co-living is breaking down in India and indeed South Asia. One of the major consequences we see of communal violence in India, in the few decades, is that people of different religious communities stop living together after communal violence. We see this over and over again in our work in many sites of large communal massacres of religious minorities, mainly Muslims, like Bhagalpur, Gujarat or Muzaffarnagar. Minority groups tend to move out of mixed colonies where they may have lived for generations, to Muslim majority areas – ghettoes – where they feel safety in numbers. There is also an active majoritarian triumphalist expulsion – a kind of ethnic cleansing – that you see in areas where communal massacres have unfolded, in which Muslim minority residents are told that they are not welcome to return. In cities like Ahmedabad that have seen a series of bloody communal massacres over the decades, people actually use the word ‘border’ in common everyday parlance to describe the division between the Hindu and Muslim parts of the city.


Do you think this is a more recent phenomenon? Are we seeing more intolerance now than previously? 

Harsh: There are some landmark events – Partition, the Babri Masjid movement and demolition, the Shah Bano agitation, the Gujarat massacre, Muzaffarnagar riots, in which hostility between religious communities have tended to peak and relations break down to a lower ‘normal’ each time. In more recent times, the election of Mr Modi has had an enormous impact on majoritarian sentiment and minority insecurity. You see the triumphalism around his alternate vision of India, where minorities are tolerated on subordinate terms. One consequence of the massive and unprecedented levels of human rights activism after the Gujarat 2002 massacre, has been that large communal massacres have become politically costly. So now instead of large massacres, we see low intensity hate mobilisation. People are attacked for what they eat, or not welcome in mixed living arrangements. It has the same consequence, of minority groups feeling more insecure. Even this recent discussion on nationalism, it’s on another level altogether. Not only are minorities subordinate peoples, but persons who speak of another vision of unity or harmony are themselves cast as suspect in their love for the nation.


Are there alternative ideas out there about what living together, or tolerance, or harmony could mean in practice? From your work in violence-hit areas, does something strike you along these lines?

Harsh: I think I may be a bit romantic in this, but I’m convinced that ordinary Indians know and practice a kind of shared co-living which is on terms much higher than tolerance, based instead on genuine respect. I think that’s why the idea of a man being killed for allegedly eating beef caused outrage at a national level. The strongest evidence I’ve seen is in Gujarat, where the number of Hindus who killed Muslims were outnumbered many times over by those that had saved lives. In these difficult moments you recognise that despite the assaults, a spirit of shared co-living endures in our country. I’ve talked of riots being caused first by manufacturing hatred, like a chemical reaction, using ideas of false history, things like love jihad, etc. Some friends who say that I am romantic in my conviction that majority of Indians – Hindu and Muslim – are secular by instinct and practice. I don’t agree. But my current worry is that perhaps it’s true people are not inherently communal, but why are they so communalisable? I don’t have an answer for this. In Muzaffarnagar, for instance, the absurd notion of love jihad – that Muslim boys set out to trap Hindu girls into romance and marriage to expand Muslim populations – has settled into people’s consciousness, it’s irreversible. After what happened at JNU, the nationalism discourse has penetrated into people’s discourse in an unprecedented way. Even people who are usually secular are taking positions against the students. We do have an old civilisational history of tolerance too, even from Partition there are stories of an extraordinary number of people who saved lives, from both communities. This is something special, arguably unique to our civilisation, and we need to preserve it.


What should the state’s response be, to increasing intolerance? What about when it is complicit itself in acts of intolerance?

Harsh: What you see today in India, it is very much part of the ideology of the state. The current government is officially following RSS ideology, which very publicly states that India should be a Hindu nation. This is fundamentally in contradiction to the ideas of the freedom struggle, and the Constitution. You see a legitimisation of the ideologies of hatred and division, and much greater insecurity among minorities.


If we can’t turn to the state, is there something ordinary people can do, to foster more of an atmosphere of tolerance?

Harsh: I think each of us need to be intensely involved in this struggle to preserve the pluralism, humane, inclusive soul of India. It’s almost like we’re waging the same battles we waged during the freedom struggle. We’re being pushed out by voices that are in the minority, but sound dominant. The battlefields are different now. Today it’s also a battle of minds and hearts. We have to fight it in intimate, personal spaces. That the personal is political has become very profoundly true. We have to resist prejudice everywhere, in our homes, with family, friends, publicly, continuously. It’s important to demonstrate that the majority of people want to live together with goodwill, friendship, trust and peace.

(Interviewed by Saba Sharma)

Remembering Sabeen Mahmud

Today is the first anniversary of Pakistani social activist Sabeen Mahmud’s tragic death, and a reminder of the embattled front lines of the project of building a more united, tolerant society in South Asia. In Sabeen’s memory, there has been outpouring of love across the world on social media and in gatherings of friends from Karachi to London. This weekend, a two-day event in her hometown Karachi celebrates her life as it brings together Karachi’s creative communities that she worked hard to support and advance. The Pakistani band Laal just released a rendition of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s “Intesaab”, “dedicated to her courage and to the resilience of the ordinary working people of Pakistan whom she fought for.”

To learn about Sabeen’s life and legacy see The Life and Death of Sabeen Mahmud, Karachi’s Wild Child, Silenced – the day my daughter was shot in front of me. More here on the Sabeen Mahmud Foundation and the different projects that she started, carried on by her family and friends.

( Written by Nida Rehman)

International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

On 21 March 1960, 69 protesters were killed in an act of police brutality in Sharpeville, South Africa, when they stood against apartheid. To honor the legacy of the dead, in 1966 the United Nations declared 21 March the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Given the conventional understandings of racial categories that persist in the world today, with their focus on supposedly genetic groupings, it may difficult to see how 21 March would, or should, be marked in South Asian calendars. Is there a concept of ‘race’ in South Asian societies, and, if so, do phenomena exist that we can call ‘racial discrimination’? One of our goals at Intolerance Tracker is to draw out the intersectionality of oppressions in the subcontinent and reveal the linkages between motives for and forms of exclusion and violence across not only national boundaries, but ideational ones as well. How does a globalized concept like racism help us describe and critique intolerance in the South Asian context?

Members of marginalized groups in India certainly thought themselves that the descriptor of racism being applied to forms of discrimination in the region had a significant power and importance, and in 2001 ushered this debate into the national mainstream. That year, the UN hosted the World Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa. At the conference, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) raised the issue of caste-discrimination, much to the chagrin of the Indian government. To the government, casteism was an ‘internal’ matter, dirty laundry not to be aired in international forums, and definitely not at forums that would allow a linking up of local experiences and understandings of bigotry with global solidarities. However, to the NHRC and others invested in the conference’s outcome, chiefly Dalit activist groups, caste-based discrimination had clear similarities with race-based discrimination, even if some groups stopped short of equating caste with race. While the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action produced in 2001 did not address caste-based discrimination, it did include provisions censuring discrimination based on ‘descent’– a term that Dalit activists believed was capacious enough to encompass casteism. Despite continued efforts to get the UN to recognize casteism as on par with racism, the 2009 Durban Review conference again failed to specifically address caste in its recommendations and report.

Nevertheless, the struggle of Dalit groups to integrate caste and casteism into global frameworks of race and racism over the decades, even as they were branded as anti-national for doing so (sound familiar?) is compelling. For one, it throws up interesting questions for those of us committed to naming and combatting intolerance across South Asia– how can we situate intolerance in South Asia in broader, global currents of exclusionary ideologies and practices? What other oppressions ‘look like’ racism in South Asia– for instance, could one link the essentialization and demonization of Pakhtuns in Pakistan to processes of racialization? What about the ongoing legacies of prejudice and violence against social groups that were designated as ‘Criminal Tribes’ under colonial rule? And if we begin to find race and racism, as it were, in South Asia, what implications does that have for the battle against intolerance? Intolerance Tracker’s drive to map stories of caste and ethnicity based discrimination in the run-up to 21 March was a first gesture towards what we hope will be a deeper engagement with these questions in the future.



( Written by Nooreen Reza)

Some readings on Toleration

One of the reasons why toleration seems to be, as a collection of essays puts it, an ‘elusive virtue’, is because the borderline between toleration and indifference is a continuously shifting one, so that while, for instance, a hundred years ago it may have been meaningful to speak of Anglicans ‘tolerating’ Roman Catholics, in present-day England people are sometimes indifferent to their neighbour’s religious affiliation. Notwithstanding the open-ended nature of toleration, some scholars have argued that it involves minimally an individual’s exercising restraint from intervening, obstructing, or regulating a view or activity that is believed to be incorrect or immoral, by appealing to second-order reasons such as the value of autonomy, respect for persons, the overall value of the world-view which has the belief or action, and so on.
More precisely, an individual is said to tolerate X by exercising self-restraint towards X which is otherwise believed to be deviant, by providing higher-order justifications for this restraint of power. It might seem that there is a contradiction between believing an idea to be false and accepting it, in the minimal sense of not seeking to root it out. The air of contradiction can be removed, however, by noting that the virtue of tolerance should be located within a system of ranked priorities: though we may object to X because we believe it to be false, we may nevertheless accept it on the grounds that we have a yet greater objection to eradicating X. For instance, one might strongly dislike a child’s choice of music, and yet accept the harsh sounds that emanate from her room, because one has a stronger opposition to the imposition of one’s personal musical preferences on other people. That is, a ‘tolerant’ person does not indiscriminately accept all opinions, views, or actions as correct but is willing to accept some of the above when she believes that this acceptance can be justified in terms of her ‘higher order’ ethical, religious or political ideals.

Nicholson, Peter P., ‘Toleration as a moral ideal’, in John Horton and Susan Mendus (eds), Aspects of Toleration: Philosophical Studies (London and New York: Methuen, 1985).

Raphael, D.D., ‘The Intolerable’, in Susan Mendus (ed.), Justifying Toleration: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).




Declaration of Principles of Tolerance

“Alarmed by the current rise in acts of intolerance, violence, terrorism, xenophobia, aggressive nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, exclusion, marginalization and discrimination directed against national, ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities, refugees, migrant workers, immigrants and vulnerable groups within soci- eties, as well as acts of violence and intimidation committed against individuals exercising their freedom of opinion and expression – all of which threaten the consolidation of peace and democracy, both nationally and internationally, and are obstacles to development,

Emphasizing the responsibilities of Member States to develop and encourage respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, gender, language, national origin, religion or disability, and to combat intolerance,

Resolving to take all positive measures necessary to promote tolerance in our societies, because tolerance is not only a cherished principle, but also a necessity for peace and for the economic and social advancement of all people”

Reference to the whole document is below:


Thoughts about Intolerance

What is intolerance?

We come together to write, question and think about how the words we engage with and are encountering in our varied social, political and virtual lives have the power to create, affect and polarize discourses on nationhood, secularism, and political ideology.

The word ‘intolerance’ instantaneously signifies the presence of two opposing interests: it is the absence of ‘tolerance’, and therefore, creates a situation where there is a victim, and an oppressor; an us and them; an ‘other’. It can be said that the word ‘intolerance’ itself creates and circulates a feeling of insecurity and uneasiness.

The term ‘intolerance’ is rooted in the production and maintenance of the politics of fear.

But what does the word ‘intolerance’ do to the word ‘tolerance’? As the debates around ‘intolerance’ intensify, anything that is ‘tolerant’ becomes an ideal, but debating or questioning its meaning (why ‘tolerance’ instead of ‘mutual respect and acceptance’?) is removed from popular discourse. Instead the words acquire some normative meaning; and debates and discussions are polarised between concepts less than ideal for the maintenance of a healthy, functioning, critical, diverse society.

This platform envisions to create a means by which we can ‘track’ intolerance in its varied forms across South Asia. But beyond a mere collection of stories or reports; it calls for criticism, for questions, and ruminations on the relationship between what we have seen (and don’t see) in the news, and politics, religion, colonialism, neo-liberalism, history, memory, words, and power.

In a world where technology helps us live and relive acts of ‘intolerance’ on Facebook, Twitter (real and fake accounts), and a plethora of left- and right- and whatever-else-they-call-themselves news channels and websites, our virtual lives and the spaces they inhabit have become battlegrounds which extend into our lived realities. Verbal warfare and trolling reinforce the already growing atmosphere of fear, and in the midst of processing the endless flows of real-time information with opinions and articles, perceptions are skewed and the sense of anger, frustration, and helplessness intensifies. We would like to invite dialogue, discussion and critique — not simply negative for negation’s sake — but to question the guiding idea of ‘intolerance’, and create a new form of collective reflection, interrogation and action that can help us negotiate the current terrain of dominant politics.

Through this blog ” Thoughts” we also  seek to share interesting articles, stories, visuals, music and art connected with inter-related themes of tolerance, diversity and harmony.

We welcome ideas and suggestions for content from our readers.

Please email: volunteer.intolerancetracker@gmail.com


 ( Written by Akshyeta Suryanarayan, Meghna Nag Chowdhuri and Varun Khanna)