Non-acceptance of diversity is the real intolerance – Banuchandar Nagarajan

Women devotees in Kerala protest against the Supreme Court's Sabarimala temple-entry ruling.

Banuchandar Nagarajan“God knows, God knows I want to break free.” – Queen

Evolutionary psychology teaches us that humans have a tendency to see patterns. We are wired to prefer order and not break free. We are uneasy with chaos. It is part of the survival instinct nurtured to reduce uncertainty and danger. Predictability gave a sense of ease about the environment early humans operated in. By “controlling the controllable”, the other vagaries could be tackled. Formation of stereotypes and matching patterns, snap judgements etc, flow from this instinct.

This has been so ingrained in us that over the years, we started designing our societies to make them more and more orderly. Our residences, our art, our schools – all have a sense of regularity and discipline. But at some point it must have led to diminishing returns. The opportunity cost of the unexplored path and inherent diversity in human nature would have come to the fore.

The society then would have started “tolerating” diversity. They might have sniggered at it as crazy, but the society as a whole would have received the benefits of the deviation in thought. Lateral thinking would have made the deviants seem closer to god. The artists and scientists, who did not conform to order, would only have been subjected to such limitations that posed an existential threat to the order and hence put the well-being of the group itself in jeopardy.

Our society would probably have evolved like that over centuries. At every era there would have been deviants. The poets, philosophers and scientists were all deviant geniuses of some kind or the other. For example, among the 63 Tamil Nayanars is a lady called Karaikkal Ammaiyar. She was called “Karaikkal Pei”, the devil of Karaikkal, for her extraordinary passion towards Lord Shiva. Same is the case with Andal among the 12 Alwars. But predominantly there was a greater freedom to experiment with ideas.

The Supreme Court majority verdict in the Sabarimala case was based on the idea of equality and conformity with the current thought. Not for once did the court look at it as an eccentric outlier, an exception and not a rule. Women were allowed in all but a miniscule number of temples in the world. Similar restrictions exist for men as well. Group rights, instead of being applied at a holistic level, were poked with and inserted at a specific instance.

Are women allowed to become priests in churches? Are women allowed in mosques in general? These are macro violations of fundamental rights of women. The equality of opportunity is absent. There is real discrimination; in the language of the judges, there is “untouchability”. It does not even call for guts to address it. It just calls for plain old honesty.

In engineering colleges, you are taught about errors and biases. “Errors” are how far the observation is from the expected value. “Biases” are observations that are bunched together and as a group are away from the expected value. The former calls for adding rigour to the experiment and the latter calls for recalibration of the machine.

Sabarimala can be categorised as an “error” in scientific terminology. It has been known for centuries and accepted. Error is so minor that the experiment continued. Widely prevalent practice of not allowing women in many mosques is a bias. Practitioners are still not seeing the need to recalibrate the machine, even if it is programmed based on an algorithm of seventh century Arabia.

Indu MalhotraIn another case, the learned judges declared with grandiosity that “dissent is the safety valve of democracy”. It would call for high-level of cognitive dissonance to call for accepting dissent and not allow for diversity of practice. The judges arrogated to themselves more than the collective wisdom of the Hindus over centuries. The ones that delivered the majority verdict have interpreted the Constitution to mean the dominance of equality over freedom of religion, as the sagacious dissenting judge has claimed.

Why would the judges do that? Aren’t they part of the community? Or are they deviants themselves? Are these the geniuses who we are not able to see? These would have been reasonable questions had they arisen from the cauldron of our society. But the process of judicial appointments is made in smoke-filled rooms. There is no democratic check on the selection. Had the judges gone through conformation, their judgement would have carried the trust it lacks now. It feels as if the deracinated, liberal intellectual elite have thrown something on the faces of the masses from which they have psychologically withdrawn.

This idea of “conformation” forced on the society is past its sell-by date. Genetics have proved that the variations in the alleles are the reason we have thrived as a species. Consanguineous marriages lead only to destruction of groups. If the perspicacity to decipher the benefits of diversity is absent, at least a utilitarian approach can be taken on “how much crazy” can it be allowed to get. Greatest good to the greatest number.

The society has mostly benefited from its outliers—people or ideas or practices. Even in the “land of the free”, the Securities and Exchange Commission imposed sanctions on Elon Musk for a random tweet. How regressive! (It is even dumber for the media to refer to his “smoking pot on live TV” charge. The two-and-a-half hour video was an education on the future of the world).

Europe wants Britain to conform. China wants Uighurs and Tibetans to conform. Campus liberals in American universities want students to conform lest they face ostracism. Communists want similarity and conformation of absurd ideologies that run counter to the human spirit. In our own policy-making, we want schools to conform to the same syllabus.

What these conformists are killing is the richness of diversity. Non-acceptance of diversity is the actual intolerance. The society does not move forward. It just becomes more familiar and comfortable. Not in the spirit of Mao but, “let a thousand flowers bloom!” – Swaraya, 1 November 2018

» Banuchandar Nagarajan is a political and public policy advisor for the Government of India.


2 Responses

  1. Read the full history of Lord Ayyappan and the Sabatimala Temple here: Of Ayyappa And His Devotees: All About The Sabarimala Issue by Aravind Subramanyam


  2. Sabarimala Pilgrimage

    Sabarimala Verdict: Final, not infallible – Ashok Kumar Bal – The New Indian Express – Chennai – 5 November 2018

    The fallout of the Supreme Court decision in the Sabarimala case is profoundly concerning. On the ground, there is strong resentment and a rejection of the court’s verdict by devotees and by Hindus in general. Women are at the forefront of the protests. There have been attempts by activists and a few women to enter the temple after the apex court order, but those have been met with resistance.

    The Kerala government has hardened its stance over implementing the court’s order and for that purpose, has resorted to targeting devotees and demonstrators. This is viewed and also projected as anti-devotee/anti-Hindu. The situation has led to the politicisation of the issue. Kerala, considered a model state with one of the highest literacy rates, is witnessing an unfortunate and unprecedented situation of growing polarisation potentially disturbing its secular ethos. The situation may spill over to the rest of the country. There is a disconnect between the court’s order and the feelings of the people whose deep-rooted religious sentiments have been hurt. This is not a law and order issue alone. The challenge is how to bridge the disconnect between the law and the living reality.

    This avoidable situation is a consequence of the apex court order. Was it warranted for the court to get into this sensitive and avoidable issue when no devotee had approached the court with a grievance over discrimination? The decision has raised an important issue of admission of a public interest litigation (PIL) involving a sensitive religious matter. The PIL, as a tool to enforce fundamental rights, has immense significance in a country where access and entitlement to justice is highly skewed and unequal. However, it is prone to misuse.

    A spate of petitions have now been filed before the Supreme Court for the review of its order in the Sabarimala issue. The outcome holds immense significance. The occasion provides an opportunity to resolve the matter and help bring sanity on the ground. The court has relied upon numerous previous judgments and on the interpretation of the same, two divergent views have emerged leading to the majority prevailing over the dissenting judgment. The fact is that the interpretation of precedents is liable to render opposite conclusions. It is also important to understand that the state government has changed its stance on the issue more than once before the apex court.

    The centuries-old customs and religious practices having the sanction and acceptance of devotees and believers including women have been analysed from the constitutional compass of fundamental rights and equality under the Constitution. A proposition that there is an inherent conflict between the centuries-old practice and fundamental rights, and further that the constitutional protection under Articles 25 and 26 being inconsistent with the religious practice is an extremely difficult and delicate issue.

    The doctrine of ‘constitutional morality’ prevailing upon the ‘forbidden domain’ is the root cause of the problem. The Supreme Court in 2015 refused to entertain a PIL which wanted a ban on the practice of killing of animals in the name of religion and held that “it cannot close its eyes to centuries-old tradition”. This view is contrary to its own decision of initially refusing to stay an order of the Himachal Pradesh High Court banning animal sacrifice during Kullu Dussehra in 2014. So, the court, on similar issues of religious practices, has taken conflicting stands.

    Under such circumstances the dissent of the lone woman judge assumes greater significance. This reminds one of Justice H R Khanna, the lone dissenting voice in the notorious Habeas Corpus case quoting the great American judge Charles Evan Hughes, “A dissent in the court of last resort is an appeal to the brooding spirit of the law, to the intelligence of a future day when a later decision may possibly correct the error into which the dissenting judge believes the court to have been betrayed.” Years later, a nine-judge apex court Bench held that privacy is a fundamental right under the Constitution and accordingly held that the Habeas Corpus case was wrongly decided. The court found Justice Khanna to be correct. The judicial history of dissent in India and abroad is replete with cases where the dissent in a judgment has given rise to situations where the error in judgment has been corrected either by the court or otherwise.

    The outcome of the review petition is awaited with great anticipation. The apex court, being the court of last resort, is looked upon with utmost reverence. Since the orders are judge-centric and interpretation is variable, the finality of a verdict being infallible is a matter of concern. The American Supreme Court Justice Robert H Jackson wrote in Brown v. Allen (1953): “There is no doubt that if there were a super-Supreme Court, a substantial proportion of our reversals of state courts would also be reversed. We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.” This judicial essence has been reflected in the collection of essays published in 2000, to mark 50 years of the apex court: Supreme But Not Infallible, in which Justice B N Kirpal, wrote, “We would like to believe that the Supreme Court has gone about its task less conscious of its supremacy and more warily with the intuition that the court, though final, is fallible. These essays are a reminder of what the Court is and does.”

    In matters of religious faith, belief, customs and rituals that have been practised for centuries without any pernicious effects on society and have the widest acceptance of the people, law or logic may not necessarily resolve a dispute. The courts cannot assume the role of a theological guide or adjudicator on such issues. The court may not be the appropriate forum to resolve such sensitive issues or disputes. The Supreme Court, while hearing the review petitions, will hopefully give due consideration to the essence that it is neither final nor infallible in order to strike a balance between the essential religious practices and the constitutional protection of the right to practice such religious practices without being violative of fundamental rights.

    ~ Ashok Kumar Bal is a retired civil servant.


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