In the raging debate over the right to class hijab in Karnataka, what is often overlooked is the idea of tolerance. For a multi-ethnic regime like India, tolerance is the fundamental canon, the negation of which renders the democratic ideal meaningless. At a minimum, tolerance would involve putting up with an object or practice no matter how awful it may engender.
The “no harm test” is generally the guiding principle. The principle states that “social disapproval or aversion” to the actions of an individual (or group of individuals) does not constitute sufficient grounds for state intervention, unless they actually cause harm or are potentially harmful to someone.
A truly broad idea of tolerance would imply that the concept of harm be defined in the narrowest way.
Very often, States limit the tolerance of practices and beliefs on the pretext of a speculative attack on “public order”. But even a basic doctrine of tolerance presupposes that the breakdown of law and order is explained in terms of the concrete damage caused by the belief system or customary practice – not by hearsay or conjecture hinting at it.
For a tolerant society and regime, it is both prudent and desirable that before outlawing a practice, it undertakes a cost-benefit analysis and assesses whether the objections raised against the given practice are genuine and scrupulous. These caveats are necessary for the fair resolution of concurrent disputes.
It is important to distinguish the ancient idea of tolerance from the modern concept of tolerance – the former could be misinterpreted as an act of benevolence or patronage, while the latter falls within the realm of rights and privileges.
The Parsee qissa that the local king of Sanjan in Gujarat, Jadi Rana, granted asylum to Zoarastrians seeking refuge while conditionally granting them permission to observe their faith in private could be characterized as an act of tolerance or magnanimity by the leader.
Similarly, in the much-celebrated millet system of the Ottoman Turks, religious freedom and cultural autonomy in the form of personal laws were assured to dhimmies or religious minorities. But this did not extend to the right to hold political office.
King Maurya Ashoka’s edict introduced the principle of harm as well as the idea of religious freedom – that praise from one’s own sect and criticism from others should be moderate.
The idea of tolerance was also prevalent in the past, but was inherently limited, restricted mainly to matters of faith and belief. Moreover, the equality of individuals, whatever their religion, in temporal or secular matters was still a long way off.
But the modern Indian Constitution goes beyond the limited nature of tolerance and comes to uphold the principle of tolerance. It enshrines freedom of conscience and the right to “profess and propagate” the religions of one’s choice. It is the individual who holds these inviolable rights, not communities or groups.
This would imply that individuals also have the right to step out of a particular religious form or seek reforms and modifications within it. Public order, morality and health are the limiting conditions that constrain the untimely invocation of religious freedom.
In a complex political system like ours, the interpretation of freedom and restrictive conditions requires extreme caution, otherwise it could invite two mutually opposing charges – majority imposition or minority appeasement.
There are several objections to the hijab or headscarf. The loudest and therefore the most visible is that expressed by Hindutva militants. The crux of the argument rests on uniformity – from similarity in dress and costumes to uniform civil code, the range is wide.
Universality merges here with uniformity. The cultural artefacts of this uniformity are invariably drawn from the supposed norms, beliefs and practices of the dominant culture. In India, although Islam and Muslims have been the object of hatred, the argument is also used to warn of Valentine’s Day celebrations, women wearing western clothes, removing parts of school books in protest against dress codes in Catholic schools.
A manifestly supremacist position, it is incompatible with the most elementary principle of tolerance.
“Blind approach to differences”
The second type of objection is advanced by a section of secular modernists for whom traditional customs and practices are per se repugnant and their public visibility incompatible with liberal values and tastes. Feminists subscribing to this “difference-blind approach” have supported banning the hijab or refused to support anti-ban protests on the grounds that the hijab is a symbol of subjugation and clearly not an emblem of liberation.
The doctrine of choice that liberal feminists often brandish in matters of dress, profession, choice of partners or sexual orientation to counter hegemonic discourses on gender is abandoned in this case. The hijab is socially conditioned, runs the argument. Underlying this position is the idea that the path to modernity and freedom is singular and pre-established. This free will is only free insofar as it pursues established means and ends.
There is another set of arguments which relies on educational practices arguing that how uniforms are the prerogative of schools and the purpose behind is to avoid income group distinctions among students attending the same school.
However, the internal logic of this argument is difficult to sustain when class distinctions emerge today from the structurally imposed choice of schools themselves, rather than from the type of clothing the student wears. The education system that has been able to thrive in the country structurally reproduces inequalities instead of mitigating them. A superficial exercise such as costume similarity is of little help in this case.
Moreover, the supporters of the hijab or the turban do not plead against the uniform as such, but against an adjustment with it. A broader argument would go deeper into decisions to mandate a particular form of dress as a uniform – how is the decision made, what considerations prevail, are local preferences and the diversity of the student population taken into account? before taking the decision to impose a uniform.
Then there are the exegetical struggles over religion, texts, and the ethics and codes prescribed by faith. While one group – the so-called progressives – argue that the hijab is not an Islamic practice at all and that the textual injunction is only for modest dress, hijab supporters argue that their religion binds them to it. .
The problem is that these are not simply internal interpretative contestations of the faithful on their religion but that the modern courts are invariably mobilized. And what the courts have done, from the Shirur Mutt to the Anand Margi case, is to extend legal protection only to practices they or they considered as essential to this religion.
Therefore, legally, the hijab can only be saved if it is framed squarely within the essential practice paradigm – a move that can render a very monochromatic view of religion itself. Religion as it is practiced is much closer to the everyday world of people than court-enforced scriptural versions.
The hijab issue raised by Muslim girls in Karnataka is obviously complicated. This sparks a wider debate about uniformity versus universality, women’s liberation and their right to choose versus their enslavement, secularism – whether blind to differences or multicultural, etc. This is a question that the “homogeneous” “nation states” of Western Europe have struggled with for a long time.
On the other hand, the identity question in India appeared much more clear-cut despite occasional outbreaks. The doctrine of tolerance offers a guide to a lasting resolution. The “no harm test” is key here. This requires separating “abstract damage” from “concrete damage”.
The first stems from conjectures, speculations, prevailing assumptions or utopian ideas of emancipation. On the other hand, the latter is obviously detrimental to the individual or the group. Wearing the hijab or the habit, sporting a beard, having a turban or a skullcap offers no concrete harm. On the contrary, denial could be deleterious and negatively affect a believing individual’s chances of exercising a profession, seeking an education or public office.
What we are witnessing is the establishment of an equivalence between those who wish to articulate their cherished consciences on their bodies and their persons, and those who wish to violently erase this badge from the public domain – in the name of maintaining the public order, the restoration of normality and the Suite.
In diverse and deeply divided societies, integration is a challenge. Tolerance underlies integration.
Tanweer Fazal is a professor of sociology at the University of Hyderabad. His email address is [email protected]