New Delhi: Home Minister Rajnath Singh on Tuesday said the government won't allow intolerance at any cost and urged intellectuals who have returned their awards to take them back, as Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of silence over remarks justifying intolerance by some of his colleagues.
Rajnath Singh, who wound up a two-day debate in the Lok Sabha, reached out to the opposition and promised that mistakes if any would be rectified by the government.
The debate saw furious Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) members repeatedly refer to the 1975-77 Emergency, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Kashmir Valley to take digs at the Congress. These were dubbed the three biggest instances of intolerance.
Speaking in the Rajya Sabha to mark the 125th birth anniversary of B.R. Ambedkar, one of the prime architects of the constitution, Modi said: "The mantra of unity should be in focus... There are many excuses to be divided but we must look for opportunities to be united."
"We wanted a united India," he said, referring to the partition of the country in 1947. But Modi steered away from the topic of intolerance.
Rajnath Singh did not. He rejected charges of intolerance hurled at the government, and said the BJP and Modi were the worst victim of intolerance in politics.
Gandhi asked Modi not to learn wrong lessons from Pakistan, which "has failed because they did not allow the voice of people to be heard".
"Our greatest strength is our tolerance," he said during a speech that saw repeated interruptions by BJP MPs. At one time, Gandhi was taunted as he took a sip of water. "At least let me drink water," he exclaimed.
Gandhi asked: "Will the prime minister start listening to the voice of our people? Or will he stand by and watch as his colleagues trample on people's voice?
"Does he (Modi) think he can condemn our nation into silence?"
The Congress leader cited instances to back his charge of intolerance, including the lynching of a Muslim man in Uttar Pradesh on charges of eating beef. He sought the resignation of union minister V.K. Singh for allegedly comparing Dalit children with dogs.
Rajnath Singh said: "The country will decide who is intolerant. As far as the government is concerned, we will not allow intolerance in any circumstances."
He said he was prepared to meet the intellectuals who have returned the awards. "Let's talk." The government was willing to take any step towards harmony and correct mistakes if any.
Rajnath Singh said an attempt had been made to defame the Modi government by returning literary and other awards.
As he referred to tensions in some Muslim countries, opposition members asked him to reply to allegations concerning the Modi government.
NCP leader Supriya Sule said: "Rajnath ji, you had asked for suggestions. I am giving you one: please ask your ministers to think before they speak."
BJP's Kirron Kher said intellectuals and writers did not think of returning their awards when thousands of Kashmiri Pandits fled the Kashmir Valley and after the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 that left thousands dead.
Congress leader and former minister Shashi Tharoor said there should not only be respect for differences but acceptance of differences. "You cannot (sell) 'Make in India' abroad while condoning 'Hate in India' at home."
Akali Dal's Prem Singh Chandumajra also targeted the Congress, saying it displayed "maximum tolerance" during the 1975-77 Emergency rule when thousands of political prisoners were jailed.
At the end of the debate, however, opposition members from the Congress, RJD, JD-U, Trinamool Congress and Left trooped out of the house.