'Why do we talk about tolerance? Because you feel the need to tolerate something which may not entirely be to your scheme of things.'
'But this has been my point... Tolerance is a good virtue, but it is not a sufficient virtue. You have to take the next step and go from tolerance to acceptance.'
Hamid Ansari, whose term as vice president of India ended on August 10, faced brickbats during his tenure that he would never have faced had his name not been Hamid Ansari.
In Part II of his conversation with Karan Thapar, Ansari takes on one of the most sensitive issues of our time.
Today, as we speak, there are many who believe we are becoming an intolerant country.
You have read about these articles in papers, you have seen these debates in television.
Do you fear that yourself?
Yes, because I interact with fellow citizens, and there are great many people from different walks of life who come and talk about it.
So, you share the concern that intolerance is growing in India?
Yes, and I spoke about it in my last speech in Bengaluru a few days back.
You did, and I want to quote you on that in a moment's time. But have you ever shared your concerns, your apprehensions with the prime minister or with the government?
Yes. Yes. But what passes between the vice president and the prime minister in the nature of things must remain in the domain of privileged conversation.
Understandably, but the important point is that as vice president you felt a need, a moral need to raise this issue with the prime minister, and you did do so.
With the ministers also and with the prime minister also.
I want to ask you about their response, were you satisfied?
Well, there is always an explanation and there is always a reason.
Now it is a matter of judgement, whether you accept the explanation, you accept the reasoning and its rationale.
Once again that's a very important answer and the wise will certainly be able to understand what you are saying.
Let me put it like this, something else has also happened.
In the last few months the Supreme Court has ruled that Jana Gana Mana must be played before every single film screening.
In more recent times the Madras high court has ruled that Vande Mataram must be sung at least once a week in Tamil Nadu schools and colleges and at least once a month in government offices and private establishments.
Once again, these two rulings have divided public opinion.
How do you view them? Do you see them as any example of judicial overreach or is it essential for us to pay this exaggerated obeisance to the national anthem and national song because our nationalism requires it?
The courts are a part of society. So, what the courts tend to say sometimes is reflective of what the prevailing atmosphere in society is. I call that a sense of insecurity.
A sense of insecurity reflected by the judges in what should be their considered opinion?
Not of the judges. No. I am talking of the public sense. This propensity to be able to assert your nationalism day in and day out is unnecessary.
I am an Indian and that is it.
And it should be taken for granted that every Indian is loyal to the country? You don't have to prove it.
Oh Absolutely. Oh Absolutely.
In which case when the judges require this through their rulings they are reflecting something that they should, hopefully, have risen above rather than become creatures of.
Well again it is accepted practice not to comment on judges, and I shall not.
Let me then come to a speech you made in Bangalore, because I think it is one of the most important speeches made by a vice president while still in office.
I want to quote from that speech. You said the version of nationalism that places cultural commitments at its core is usually perceived as the most conservative and illiberal form of nationalism. It promotes intolerance and arrogant patriotism.
To me and to many others like me there was that distinct feeling that you were actually commenting on what's happening today.
Am I right?
So, you were talking with specific reference to the mood of the country in 2017?
Can you give the audience a sense of why you felt this was an important thing to say... because vice presidents normally don't speak out in this way. Why did you deliberately choose to do so?
No, vice presidents do speak out, and I have in the last 10 years spoken out again and again on matters that I think needed to be aired in public.
So, it was not unusual, at least not for me, to speak about certain issues about which I think needed to be discussed.
There is to each individual a manner of speaking; I stuck to my manner of speaking.
And you deliberately chose a moment to point out, that this exaggerated concept of nationalism, this unnecessary requirement of having to keep proving you are patriotic and nationalist is unhealthy. It makes for intolerance and arrogance that is a point you felt a personal need to make?
Yes. And I am not the only one in the country; a great many people feel the same way.
Your speech went one step further, in that speech you also quoted Swami Vivekananda who is widely believed to be the favourite of the present government, and this was the quotation: 'We must not only tolerate other religions, but positively embrace them as truth is the basis of all religions'.
Are you beginning to feel that there are some religions that are deliberately being distanced, perhaps even discriminated against?
You see, why do we talk about tolerance? Because you feel the need to tolerate something which may not entirely be to your scheme of things.
But this has been my point and this is not the only occasion in which I have spoken about.
Tolerance is a good virtue, but it is not a sufficient virtue, and therefore you have to take the next step and go from tolerance to acceptance.
And that acceptance is not happening today..
It's not happening by and large.
I will tell you from my mind why that Swami Vivekananda quotation is so important.
It's because in recent years, and I mean in recent years, not just weeks and months, the string of comments made by BJP men, members, ministers as well as leading figures of the Sangh Parivar seem to target the Muslim community in particular.
I won't name people, but there was a minister who talked about Haramzade and Ramzade...
There was a chief minister who said Muslims are welcome in India, but they must give up eating beef.
There was the head of the RSS who said that all Indians are Hindus and immediately a senior minister added and Hindutva is the identity of India.
And there was an MP who went on to become a chief minister who said that for every Hindu girl converted to Islam, he would personally convert a hundred Muslim girls to Hinduism.
You are not just vice president, you are also a Muslim sitting and hearing this, and how did you as an individual feel on these comments were being made and made by people in power and positions of responsibility.
I will not talk about political people or political parties, but to me every time such a comment appeared or came to my knowledge, my first reaction was that
A: The person is ignorant,
B: That he is prejudiced, and
C: He does not fit into the framework that India has always prided to itself on, which is to be an accommodative society.
When these comments were made, at the time, did you as vice president take them up with the government?
No, I don't think it was necessary for me to take individual complaints with the government. There was enough being said.
This is an open society, and enough has been said in criticism of these viewpoints publicly..
In other words, there was no need for you to take it up, because if they had read in the papers, kept their ears open they knew how the country felt about such comments.
Oh I am sure they did.
What about the speech you made on Sunday, which I said is a seminal speech, on which you spoken about the nationalism being practiced as intolerance and arrogance.
Have you had any response from the government or the ministers about that speech?
I don't think it is necessary to have a response, I didn't expect any, I mean there have been public reactions to it, there have been media reactions to it, editorial comments to it, and by and large, I think, the themes I touched on have resonated with the prevailing views.
Many people say that as a result of such comments, as a result of the mood they have created, the Muslim community is apprehensive, it is feeling insecure.
Is that a correct assessment of how Indians Muslims feel or it is an exaggerated one?
Yes, it is a correct assessment, from all I hear from different quarters, the country. I heard the same thing in Bangalore I have heard from other parts of the country.
I hear more about in north India, there is a feeling of unease, a sense of insecurity is creeping in.
Are they beginning to feel they are not wanted?
I would not go that far; there is a sense of insecurity.
Recommended for You
Now, in 2015, when you were addressing the golden jubilee celebrations of the All India Majlis-e-Mashawarat, you said something very important, it was a message in a sense, to Indian Muslims from a fellow Muslim.
I want to quote bits of that, 'Significant sections of the Muslim society is trapped in a vicious circle, between tradition, which is sacrosanct, and modernity, which has become a tainted expression.'
I want to ask you in simple words, to explain what was the message you were giving.
The message was that you have to move with the times; you have to live with the requirements of the occasion. Do not create for one self or one's fellow beings an imaginary situation which is centuries back, when things were very different.
I mean the whole idea was, that what are the challenges today? The challenges today are challenges of development.
What are the requirements for development? You keep up with the times, educate yourself, and compete...
... don't cut yourself from contemporary India, immerse yourself more fully...
And that is the message I have been giving wherever I have had an opportunity -- that you have to change with times.
In that same speech, you also said something else that struck me as important -- the official objective of Sab Ka Saath Sab Ka Vikaas is commendable, a pre requisite for this is affirmative action, to ensure a common starting point.
Would you be in favour of some form of reservation for Muslims?
In Indian vocabulary, social and official vocabulary, reservation has come to acquire a certain connotation, which is not necessarily positive.
Affirmative action is a much better expression; you take action wherever it is necessary for whoever it is necessary.
And that is required for Muslims today. And governments must address themselves to that.
Oh absolutely. Not just the Muslims, any segment of society.
If the requirement is to have comprehensive development. If the requirement is that everybody shall move, take one step forward and keep taking steps forward then all have to be at the same starting point.
And if you are at the same starting point and there are some who are not at the starting point you have to bring them up to the starting point.
Now an issue that has dominated the news in recent months concerning the Muslim community is this debate about triple talaq, and I want to ask you where do you, as a Muslim, stand on it?
Do you believe that this is an issue for the courts to sort out because it is a matter to do with gender rights and gender justice or is it an issue best left for the Muslim community to resolve internally themselves.
Firstly, it is a social aberration; it is not a religious requirement.
The religious requirement is crystal clear, emphatic; there are no two views about it, but patriarchy, social customs has all crept into it to create a situation which is highly undesirable.
So, should the court step in?
You don't have to, the reform has to come from within the community.
Would it be wrong for the courts to step in?
The courts can say that we don't recognise it. That's all.
I mean a marriage has to be recognised on certain occasions by the system of the State.
And if a State functionary at a particular point of time refuses to recognise a happening, which may be the product of a triple talaq, that's it.
So, the courts will simply formally decree we don't recognise triple talaq, but the reform has to happen internally from within the community?
Exactly. It has to.
You see, the people have to understand the basics of the faith.
What has happened is that the tradition has overtaken the essentials of faith.
Therefore, the modernity has to be caught up with, without letting go of tradition, but you address modernity with tradition and tradition with modernity.
You can't separate the two artificially.
You can't separate the two, and you know it is quite impossible to do that.
Again, you answered very clearly and the intelligent will immediately discern what you are saying.
Given the fact that Muslims are feeling insecure, apprehensive, uncertain; given the sort of political rhetoric that keeps resonating, are you worried that the number of Indian Muslims get attracted to ideologies like Al Qaeda or ISIS could start increasing sharply?
There are already some who have been attracted and have joined up.
Could that number grow sizeably, or is that an exaggerated fear?
No I don't think. The official figure estimates are that if there are numbers they are miniscule.
I think the Muslim in India is sui generis. Mind you, every seventh citizen of India is a Muslim just as every fifth citizen belongs to a religious minority. These are facts on the ground.
There is no evidence that any process of extremist indoctrination is underway in India, an individual can always go off the track.
Once again that is a very clear answer: Do not exaggerate the fear that is sometimes voiced in papers and television that Indian Muslims could start embracing Al Qaeda or ISIS?
Oh absolutely. You know those are products of local situations in certain contingencies that situation does not prevail here, and I hope it never does prevail.
- Part 3: 'The chair is a referee in a match, whether this side is playing better or that side is playing worse is no concern of the chair'