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Mainstream, VOL LII No 50, December 6, 2014

Value of Toleration in these Intolerant Times

Sunday 7 December 2014

by Shruti Sharma

The recent controversy of Shankracharya versus Shirdi Sai Baba has led to various actions and reactions. The controversy has been that the Dwarka Shankaracharya, Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati, claimed that Sai Baba of Shirdi is not a Hindu God. He is not mentioned in the shastras and Vedas and Hindus must not worship him. He described the Sai Baba as a Muslim ascetic. This led to protests by the Sai Baba believers. There has been the burning of the effigy of Shankara-charya, ‘ganga snans’ conducted and political statements on this. The courts in various places like Varanasi, Indore, Jaipur and Bihar summoned the Shankaracharya.

I am not here saying who is correct and who is wrong. I am proposing that amdist all this what is very important is toleration. Toleration can be viewed as a virtue, vice, necessity and practice. But before putting forward arguments to consolidate my case for toleration, it is mandatory to specify that English terminology poses three words, that is toleration, tolerance and tolerationism. For the sake of praxis I will use toleration and tolerance interchangeably.

Toleration is a complex concept and its complexity becomes greater when it is seen as an ethical ideal, a social principle and a normative value. Toleration is often equated with neutrality, indifference, apathy and even permissiveness. But there is a difference between toleration and these concepts. Neutrality involves some form of apathy and one can never be said to be tolerant if one is apathetic. Indifference is also not toleration because indifferent people do not cultivate humility when faced with the clash of values. Permissiveness and toleration are also different.1 Tolerance is a form of forbearance, it exists when there is a clear capacity to impose one’s views on another but a deliberate refusal to do so.2 Toleration should also not mean simply an attitude of non-interference. When we do not interfere, we do not make a moral judgement. Thus, toleration for sure involves morality and normativeness. It cannot be value-neutral.

According to Peter P. Nicholson following are the constituents of toleration.3

Deviance: What is tolerated deviates from what the tolerator thinks or does, or believes should be done.

Importance: The subject of deviation is not trivial.

Disapproval: The tolerator disapproves morally of the deviation.

Power: The tolerator has the power to try to suppress or prevent what is tolerated.

Non-rejection: Nonetheless, the tolerator does not exercise his power, thereby allowing the deviation to continue.

Goodness: Toleration is right and tolerator is good.

Thus, toleration can be constructed narrowly or widely. Narrowly, it means that people allow others to practice what they like even after disapproving their actions and widely understood, it means that people have strong moral disagreements, still they try to live together peacefully, without major violent clashes. The wider construction of toleration is much better as it provides for peace and harmony.

Why Tolerate Toleration?

Toleration must be tolerated or ideally it must become a habit is an option open for reviewing but I believe that it must become a habit in itself for individuals because of the base it provides to some universally accepted values/norms.

Autonomy and Toleration

Liberals have mostly argued their case for toleration by linking it to autonomy. Toleration is useful because it provides for freedom. For example, Mill almost equated toleration with individual liberty. For Mill, individuals are free agents, they have sovereignty based on individuality. Liberty is required for moral development. Therefore, Mill was against the ‘despotism of custom’.4 This is not to say that he was against formal rules. What Mill was against was that majorities at times overshadow minorities. Majoritarianism suppresses an individual’s rational faculties. So there is a need for toleration. The voice of one person is also important and there is need to acknowledge this. Mill subscribed to the empiricist theory of knowledge which suggested that ‘truth’ can only emerge out of dialogue and debate. Mill was all for cultural and political diversity. So there was need for critical enquiry as well as education, along with toleration so that the moral health of society remains good.

Will Kymlicka’s views are different from that of Mill. He links autonomy with good life, that is, for leading a good life, liberty is required. Kymlicka does not see a linkage between morality and autonomy to the extent that Mill does. For Kymlicka, autonomy has more practical value. Kymlicka also introduces the concept of culture in his analysis of autonomy.5 Culture is seen to play a crucial role in the development of the individual. Therefore a culture that encourages autonomy is better than the one which curtails it.

Kymlicka addresses the question of toleration in his analysis of minority groups, which for him need special rights.6 This brings us back to the fundamental question of debate between individual rights and group rights, leading to the debate on individual toleration versus group toleration morally.

The answer Kymlicka has is endorsement of the traditional liberal belief in personal autonomy and rejection of the idea of communitarians that people’s end are fixed and beyond rational revision.7

Equality and Toleration

There is a close linkage between equality and toleration. To a large extent when we tolerate others, we do so because we recognise them to be equal to us. The kind of equality I mean here is not political, economic, cultural or ethical equality but the equality of being human, what can be termed as ‘humanitarian equality’. This equality has roots in our commonality of being individual being. Thus, toleration involves ‘accepting as equals’ those who differ from us.

Kant in his formulation of Moral Law defends equality of human beings. This moral law Kant presents in three different ways,8

1. ‘So act as if the law of thine action were to become law universal.’9 This law refers to the universality of law that is moral law. One cannot have exceptions in moral laws. If one person demands respect from others on the ground of being a human being, then one has to give respect to others on a similar ground.

2. ‘Regard humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of anyone else, always as an end and never as a means only.’10— We should not use others to fulfil our ends, rather if we see everybody as our ‘ends’, we will give them as much respect as we give ourselves.

3. ‘Act as a member of a Kingdom of ends.’11 This principle is related to the second principle. It means that since we have an intrinsic value, others have the same. So the good of all must be kept in mind while acting in socially because of equal intrinsic value.

Thus, according to the above-mentioned laws, we are obliged to acknowledge the dignity of humanity in every other person and, therefore, if we follow the Kantian moral laws we are bound to embrace the value of toleration.

Justice and Toleration

The meaning of justice has been changing with time. From fairness to guarantees, justice has become one of the most complicated phenomena of the present time. From Plato to Marx, justice has been understood differently. But what has been common over centuries is the common understanding of the need for it.

In modern times, one of the best works on bondage between justice and toleration is that of John Rawls. He treats toleration as part of justice. Everyone has an equal right to toleration, no one can claim it for his own opinions and actions, and in fairness deny its extension to everybody else.12

Toleration is important because it brings stability in society which implies peace. As Melisa S. Williams puts it, ‘For John Rawls, the toleration that begins as a peace treaty is soon reconceived as a remarkable discovery, that stability can actually be better served through tolerating than through suppressing one’s religious opponents.’13

Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ needs no introduction. When people will be behind ‘veil of ignorance’ they will not know what position they will be into after the contract. Because of the ‘principle of difference’ they will agree to minimum equality. And because of these two things, he comes up with his principle of justice that social and economic inequalities should be so arranged as to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged consistent with the just savings principle. He argues that once people do not know their position in society, they would accept this principle for self-interest. And having accepted this principle, one would be committed to follow it. Implied in this view is the fact that people will have to be tolerant of differences because they know that this tolerance has their self-interest attached to it.

Thus, for an equitable and just society toleration is a must. And as Green says, without toleration society will be ‘a mosaic of tyrannies, colourful perhaps but hardly free’.

Toleration in India—History, Constitution and Judiciary


‘Marx and Freud saw religion as a childish issue.’14 But religion has always been of great importance in India. In fact, religion is as much a part of Indian life as is democracy. The Indian civilisation claims to be one of the most tolerant of all civilisations. Of course the validity of this claim is open to scrutiny.

The Orientalist readings of Indian religion in the nineteenth century characterise the Indian civilisation as a tolerant spirituality. But there are also Indologists like Paul Hacker, who observe that ‘tolerance’ is a weak term, what he refers to as Hindu ‘inclusiveness’.15 He believes that Indian spirituality is often equated with Hinduism.

However, there are examples in Indian history to show that toleration was preached and practised in India.

Ashoka said: ‘A person must not do reverence to his own sect or disparage the belief of another without reason.’ He further says that ‘depreciation should be for specific reasons only, because the sects of other people deserve reverence for one reason or another’. For he who does reverence to his own sect while disparaging the sects of others wholly from attachment of his own sect, in reality inflicts, by such conduct, the severest injury of his own sect.16

Romila Thapar points out that Ashoka’s understanding of dharma makes very clear that it was a concept intended for secular teaching.17

Like Ashoka, Akbar is known for his tolerant attitude. Akbar not only made unequivocal pronouncements on the priority of tolerance, but also laid the formal foundations of a secular legal structure and of religious neutrality of the state, which included the duty to ensure that ‘no man should be interfered with an account of religion and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him’.18

Akbar’s attempt to come up with a new religion, ‘Din-illahi’, is well known to all. Not only Emperors or Kings emphasised on toleration but even poets and writers did the same. Whether it is Sudraka’s Maicchakatiham or Kalidasa’s Meghadutam, all have something to offer on toleration. Also there is enough evidence available for toleration in the writings of Amir Khusrau, Kabir and even Meera Bai.


The manner in which a polity constitutes religion is arguably its most revealing regime-defining choice.19 I would like to add that this is also true for rights, including religious rights. The notion of rights is somewhat ambiguous; so often it is the Constitution and the ‘operating public’ values contained in it that are used to draw the boundaries of ‘permissible diversity’.20 The Constitution is seen as a reliable indicator of the values that are collectively cherished by the political community as a whole.21 It is assumed that the Constitution expresses shared political values and is therefore not ‘external’. Interestingly, even people who want to change the values of the Constitution have to work within the parameters defined by it, both for compulsion of legality and legitimacy.

D.E. Smith observed that the emphasis on religious toleration can be disputed by minority communities.

He said:

While the social attitude of tolerance is an unmixed asset, the proposition that all religions are equally true and ultimately the same has significant limitations as a theoretical foundation for the secular state. The theory will not be acceptable to those Muslims, Christians, and others who believe that there are elements of ultimate uniqueness in their respective faiths. Any theory which cannot be broadly shared by the members of the minority community is of limited usefulness.22

Our Constitution-makers were well aware of what Smith argued. The value of toleration is imbibed in the spirit of the Constitution. The Indian Constitution, by guarantying its citizens various forms of rights, along with declaring India as a secular state has made toleration as its ‘principled policy’. By providing the right to freedom and right to equality it has laid its base for toleration.

Further, with specific group rights and single citizenship, it leaves no room for doubt.

Part 3—Fundamental Rights have been guaranteed under six broad categories.23

Group-Specific Rights24

Keeping in mind the heterogeneity of India, the Constitution provides for group-specific rights. Special provisions have been laid down for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Also, there are specific features pertaining to backward classes. Article 388 provides for the setting up of a National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Article 340 empowers the President to appoint a Backward Classes Commission to investigate the conditions of the “socially and educationally backward classes” and to recommend removal of their difficulties and improvement in their condition.

Further, Articles 371 to 371 I contain special provisions in respect of the States of Nagaland, Assam, Manipur, Andhra Pradesh, Sikkim, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Goa.


The Constitution can make a State more tolerant for it can lay the ground for tolerant principles but it is the judiciary which teaches society the lessons of toleration. And it is only when a society is tolerant, the guarantee of rights provided by the state can be given.

In recent times, the Indian society seems to be becoming more and more intolerant and the justifications given for such an attitude are in the name of religion. Examples of intolerance are present each day in the newspaper, one such being the recent flames of communal hatred in Trilokpuri, a colony in Delhi, where Hindus and Muslims clashed with each other over the issue of a loudspeaker (which was put by Hindus in a pandal that hosted mata ki chowki) that disturbed Muslims.

The judiciary has emphasised on toleration. In the S.R. Boomai versus Union of India 1994 (AIR S.C. December 1994) case, Justice Ahmadi stated that secularism is ‘based on the principles of accommodation and tolerance’.25 Justice Sawant emphasised that ‘The state is enjoined to accord equal treatment to all religions and religious sects and denominations.’26 Justice Reddy declared that ‘Secularism is more than the attitude of religious tolerance. It is a positive concept of equal treatment to all religions.’27

Moreover, toleration must not be seen as a compromise or something which is second best. If democracy provides choice to a state, the practice of tolerance must be seen as a functional necessity of the state. The judiciary must not give judgements which are made to be ‘tolerated’ but which are welcomed by all. The judiciary must link toleration to the values of peace, rights, equality and democratic set-up.

Is There a Political Obligation to Tolerate?

Putting it simply, political obligation means obligation of a citizen to obey the laws of the country to which he/she belongs. That government is considered to be legitimate the citizens of which agree that they have a duty to obey its laws. Historically, the idea of a social contract—a formal agreement either among individuals or between individuals and the state provided in the seventeenth and eighteenth century political thought gave the classic explanation of political obligation. This underlying notion was in turn rooted in the belief that there were clear moral grounds for respecting the political and legal authority of the state. The individual’s obligation to recognise political authority has implied that some other person or body has the right to require that citizens act in such as manner.

I strongly believe that all forms of political obligation have an inbuilt value of toleration. Although there are various problems related to political obligation:28

1. How has it come about that I as an individual citizen have an obligation to respect the state? In short, what are sources of political obligation?

2. What are the extents and limits of political obligation? When am I as an individual justified in disobeying the state?

3. What or who is the main focus of political authority—to what political body or to which individuals ruler do I owe political obligation.?

4. What is the proper relationship between the individual citizen and the wider political community to which he or she belongs?

However, before the sixteenth century, political authority had been widely depicted on an inevitable fact of either natural or divine will and hence as a reality that individuals either inherited or passively accepted.

The theories propounded by the social contractualists— Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau—of political obligation were intertwined with variants of toleration be it moral, social or political or even individualistic and sometimes, communitarian.

The theories, most notably those of Hobbes and Locke, provided coherent expressions of the case for conditional political authority. By employing the legal term ‘contract’ to justify political authority, they were thereby based on the notion that political obligation could be compared to the legal obligation of a party to a contract. Such theories thus provided explanatory accounts of political obligation that were both voluntaristic, insofar as they stressed the importance of human will, and individualistic, since they involved the acceptance by the individual of political authority over them on agreed terms.

For Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau it was ‘state of nature’ that led to the formation of social contract. Hobbes in his ‘Leviathan’ offers a number of reasons as to why the sovereign should be obeyed by the people. He puts forward the prudential, moral, political and religious consideration for the same purpose. For Locke, the government was to be tolerated because it protected the natural rights to life and property of the individual which could not be done properly in the state of nature.

Rousseau is generally considered to be a mixture of Hobbes and Locke. And for him the government was to be tolerated because it was an expression of the general will which was the real will of all individuals. Rousseau also shows how through obeying the social contract civil and moral freedoms are derived.

In contemporary times, we have a political obligation to toleration because we are no longer in a singular, uni-cultural homogenised society. With changing times, the entire world has recognised the plurality of cultures and diversities of all kinds. And it is only through this belief, rather duty, of rooting toleration in not just moral conception but political conception, can we be proud of placing overselves out of the ‘state of nature’ as stated by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.

It is only when we will understand the need of political obligation to tolerate that we will be able to abide by the Constitution, as well as the values enshrined in the spirit of the same. I strongly believe that the religious funda-mentalists in India have failed to do so. The parties can contest the notion of equality but justice cannot be contested. The reasons for it do not demand justification.

After independence, whether it was in the form of the anti-Sikh riots or recent communal clashes, India has witnessed what is called political extremism. As B. Attremeyer puts it, ‘The political extremism is in many ways expressed by the cluster known as Right Wing authoritarianism.’29 Therefore the need for toleration in the political sphere increases. In today’s emerging order, religions are not a declining factor. So the chances of growing religious fundamentalism is simultaneously not declining. There is an immediate need to stop hegemonisation, specially in terms of religion, and this can only be done when the burden of this task is taken collectively by the state and civil society.

Notes and References

1. Andrew Heywood, Political Ideas and Concepts: An Introduction, Macmillan Press, 1994, pp. 207-9.

2. Ibid.

3. Peter P. Nicholson in John Horton and Susan Mendus (ed.), Aspects of Toleration: Philosophical Studies, Melhuen and Co., U.S.A, 1975, pp. 138-73.

4. I have read this in Andrew Heywood, Political Ideas and Concepts: An Introduction, Macmillan Press, 1994, pp. 211-13. For an original work, read J.S. Mill, On Liberty (1859).

5. Kymlicka uses culture as synonymous with ‘a nation’ or ‘a people’, that is, an intergenerational community, more or less institutionally complete, occupying a given territory or homeland, sharing a distinct language and history. For details, See Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights, Oxford University Press, 1995, pp 10-18.

6. He is in favour of group-specific rights, which he terms as ‘polyethnic rights’. These rights are intended to help ethnic groups and religious minorities to express their cultural particularity and pride without it hampering their success in the economic and political institutions of a dominant society, ibid., p. 31.

7. Ibid., chapter 8, Toleration and Its Limits, pp. 152-72.

8. P.C. Chatterji, Secular Values for Secular India, Manohar, 1995, pp. 244-55 For more on Kant’s moral law see T.K. Abbott, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Ethics, Longman, 1953.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid

12. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Oxford, 1972, p. 34.

13. Melissa S. Williams in Avigail Eisenberg and Jeff Spinner Halev (ed.), Minorities within Minorities— Equality, Rights and Diversity, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 28.

14. For details see S. Freud, A Religious Experience-Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, London, Hagarth Press, 1961.

15. Harnik Deol, Religion and Nationalism in India—The Case of the Punjab, Routledge, 2000, pp. 40-1.

16. Edict XII of Ashoka (it’s on toleration).

17. Romila Thapar, Asoka and Decline of the Mauryas, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 163.

18. As cited in Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian, Penguin, England, 2005, p.18.

19. G.J. Jacobson, The Wheel of Law: India’s Secularism in Comparative Constitutional Context, Princeton University Press, 2003, p. 23.

20. Gurpreet Mahajan in Avigail Eisenberg and Jeff Spinner Halev (ed.), op. cit., p. 17.

21. Ibid, p. 97-9.

22. D.E. Smith, India as a Secular State, Oxford University Press, 1964, p. 150.

23. For details on Fundamental Rights, read D.D. Basu, Introduction to the Constitution of India, Wadhwa, Nagpur, 2003.

24. The idea of group-specific rights can challenge single citizenship but this must be seen as an arrangement of the Constitution to deal with heterogeneity in India.

25. G.J. Jacobson, op. cit., p. 147.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid.

28. B. Attremeyer in the Authoritarian Spectre, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1996, p. 35.

29. Ibid.

The author belongs to the faculty of Department of Political Science, Miranda House, Delhi University.

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