Wanted: A ‘museum of tolerance’ to remember intolerance in India

In 1993, a multimedia institution called the Museum of Tolerance opened in Los Angeles. In the quarter century of its existence, it has displayed to half a million people annually, the history of hate around the world — the Jewish Holocaust, atrocities in Cambodia, the civil rights movement, among others. At the core of the museum’s conception lay the idea of human rights and equality. Its central premise was, and still is, to inform as graphically as possible, injustices in recent history and remind new generations of the experience of intolerance.

How then does India fare in such lessons? Is there a case to be made for a public display of human rights? It is hard not to see the value of such a therapeutic idea for our own time. In India, where human rights have recently been divided along ethnic and religious lines, the importance of a national institution that gives vent to private prejudices and disputed public correctives, growing religious suspicions and racist intolerance is a much-needed facility. Given the current fear of the other, and the corrosive atmosphere that exists in the country, the value of such a place cannot be overstated. A dispirited and agitated population needs to be drawn into a framework that builds on the memory of the country’s half-forgotten ideals and stated beliefs.

Throughout the world many such museums perform precisely that function. Holocaust museums reveal the extent of Nazi atrocities in ways that resonate with Jewish and non-Jewish visitors. This often includes testimonies of Holocaust survivors; sometimes live volunteers tell their stories. Picture galleries of prisoners, and postcards of children murdered in concentration camps are displayed, even giving details of how the child was killed. In Atlanta, a memorial to African Americans lynched in the southern US describes the gruesome murders on individual plaques. Such graphic presentations — however morbid — are done to educate younger generations and promote a larger understanding of equality and human rights.

How does the Indian present measure up to the country’s glorious — and often inglorious — past? Merely a recall of India’s great ancient civilisation is not enough to assuage the guilt of difficult current and recent events — the Partition, Emergency, Sikh riots, Mandal Commission, Babri Masjid demolition, citizenship law, etc. Political and social events of such magnitude have shaped today’s society and require to be played over and over in the subconscious. Without their reminder the county’s institutions can never be fully tested; without their constant recall, democracy becomes a work in regress, not progress.

The culture of intolerance, communal unrest and other significant actions can be used to enlarge on available histories to enlighten and caution the public. An Indian museum of tolerance will doubtless present facts, but also provoke and engage citizens with the all-important question: what has happened to the country’s inclusiveness? Without evidence it would be hard to explain to future generations born into a Hindu India that at one time, the country had a Sikh Prime Minister and Muslim presidents. Believe it or not, Muslim music celebrated Hindu weddings; lead roles in the Ramayan serial were even played by Muslim actors. It may sound outlandish to future visitors to the museum, but a strange history of cultural co-existence had once made India an enviable example of religious brotherhood. Punjabi Hindu families even raised one of their sons as a Sikh. My own Hindu family has a Muslim uncle, a Sikh aunt, cousins married to Jewish Americans and Catholic Brazilians, with several mixed offsprings. On the rare reunion dinner, such diversity looks like a private UN gathering.

At a time when ideas of human rights are undergoing transformation, the visibility of their history is an all-important public affair. So far, as a result of not knowing, the wider public sentiment has oscillated between rumour, resentment and quick offence. When information is perverted into private social media, and public engagement takes the form of sporadic street protest and campus politics, little else can be expected. The new museum can act as an important intermediary, a permanent door to living ideals.
As the government pushes to create all too new architectural symbols at India Gate, preparing to present a different face to the country before the next election, it hardly needs stating that the value of such a monumental public space is being wasted on a shameless nationalism. Were it made to serve functions of cultural and social value over the mere bureaucratic officialdom currently proposed, the place would become worthy of its open magnificence. A museum that raises fundamental questions about our own public life should be at the centre of our public life.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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