Not only is India home to all the major faiths, it is also host to virtually every type of religious fanatic. But what drives these “holy warriors” of various faiths? Their actions sometimes have tragic consequences. In this a fascinating, disturbing, brave and at times funny book, British Indian journalist Edna Fernandes explores the world of Indian fundamentalism. By travelling to areas of past conflicts and interviewing a number of key figures, she reveals an interesting picture of a country where the forces of fundamentalism are very much alive as in the past.
In Jammu and Kashmir, the only Muslim majority state in India, Fernandes finds a region still suffering from the wounds of a violent insurgency that broke out in 1989. Between 40,000 and 100,000 people are thought to have been killed here. Both local Muslims and outside agitators supported by Pakistan have been involved in the militancy. Kashmir is the unfinished business of partition: for the militants and Pakistan it is a question of territory in the name of Islam, while for India it is a question of territory in the name of secularism. A fall out of the insurgency is that hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri Brahmins have had to flee their ancestral homeland due to threats from militants, and their tragic plight is borne out in the book.
In the small, rural town of Deoband in the Hindu heartland of Uttar Pradesh, Fernandes visits a madrassa known as Darul-Uloom, the House of Knowldge. This is no ordinary school; it is the second most important Islamic academic institution in the world. Here the gates of ‘ijtihad’ (independent thinking) are firmly closed and a rigid, puritanical version of Islam is taught. Darul-Uloom was established soon after the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and since then thousands of Deoband-affiliated madrassas have been established worldwide, particularly in the tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Although Muslim leaders in Darul-Uloom stress on the peaceful message of Islam, some of its sister schools teach a more radicalised version of it.
Fernandes is from a Goan Catholic background and there are some delightful reminisces about her childhood throughout the book. It was in Goa in the sixteenth century that St Francis Xavier, outraged by the licentiousness of the Portuguese colonialists as well as how Indian converts to Christianity continued their earlier religious practices, requested the Inquisition. The Inquisition only ended in 1812. Fernandes finds a Goa today that is changing fast. On the one hand, there’s a rising Hindu conscientiousness with the BJP party trying to rake up old history and undermine the church; and on the other, there’s a lot of external influences from Delhiites, foreigners and people from Mumbai. While old churches are razed to make way for new apartment blocks and hotels, criminal gangs from Russia bring prostitution and drugs.
The Protestant powers that came to India were initially slower than their Catholic counterparts to see the opportunity for missionary work, but eventually they too encouraged it. Despite their obvious contributions to education and healthcare, Christian missionaries in India remain controversial. They have been accused by Hindu hardliners of using forceful and fraudulent means to convert Hindus to Christianity. In recent years there have been attacks on Christians including priests, nuns and missionaries.
One area where Christian missionaries did have a big impact was the north-east. Here the overwhelming majority of the population is Christian. In the restive state of Nagaland, Fernandes encounters a people who have been fighting for a separate homeland. The Nagas are not Aryan or Dravidian but of Mongoloid stock. They were one-time tribal headhunters before they were converted by American Baptists in the nineteenth century. In terms of culture, language, race and religion they see little in common with other Indians. “Nagaland for Christ” is the call of the Naga nationalists, but Fernandes is sceptical of their chances of success as they have little support from powerful external allies.
In Punjab, Fernandes finds the situation is a lot calmer today than at the height of Sikh militancy in the eighties. The storming of the Golden Temple by the Indian Army to flush out armed militants, and the gunfight that ensued at Sikhism’s holiest shrine, led to the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in October 1984. In retaliation many Sikhs were openly butchered in Delhi and other parts of northern India, which only made calls for a separate Sikh nation, Khalistan, even louder. The man who led the crackdown on the Khalistan movement was K. P. S. Gill, former Director General of Police (DGP) Punjab, and there’s a fascinating interview with him in the book. By the mid-nineties there was little support left for Khalistan as the activities of the militants didn’t endear them well with the community. However, a sense of grievance felt by Sikhs remains because grave human rights abuses were committed and the guilty were not punished.
The final part of the book deals with Hindu nationalists. There’s a vivid account of the Gujarat riots in 2002 in which Muslim owned businesses, homes, apartments, vehicles and places of worship were systematically targeted and destroyed by Hindu fanatics. The violence left at least 2,000 people dead and up to 140,000 Muslims in refugee camps. Fernandes was able to get a good picture of what actually happened because she visited the area just a few weeks after the riots began. There was evidence that Narendra Modi’s hard-line BJP government was complicit in the violence, yet it was retuned to power in the state elections later that year. The irony was that this all happened in the same state where Mahatma Gandhi was born.
There are interviews with two firebrand Hindu nationalist leaders - Bal Thackeray and Praveen Togadia. Thackeray formed Shiv Sena in 1966 to stop south Indians coming to Bombay and taking the jobs of Marathis; but as the city became a melting pot of people from all over India he transformed the prejudices of his party to be more explicitly anti-Muslim. To Thackeray the Muslims in India are the enemy within and they should always know their place. Togadia, leader of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), is arguably more extreme. He has publicly defended the Gujarat riots and called Sonia Gandhi “that Italian bitch”. He believes India should drop a nuclear bomb on Pakistan to be rid of terrorism forever. There’s also an interview with Yukta Mookhey, former Miss India and Miss World, who campaigned for the BJP in 2004 general elections. Yukta is passionate about her country; she wants to help the common man and be remembered for more than beauty, but she naively thinks the BJP will help her fulfil all this.
There’s a glimpse into the world of the RSS, the mother of all Hindu nationalist organisations. At a RSS shakha in Delhi Fernandes finds men dressed in khaki shorts doing marches and exercises. They may look like boy scouts but their ideology is far from comical. Based on 1930s European fascist movements, RSS wants to create a theocratic Hindu state in which the minorities, particularly Muslims and Christians, are reduced to being second-class citizens. Central to the RSS ideology is the belief that Hindu submissiveness is to blame for India’s turbulent past in which the Hindu has been the constant victim. First, the Hindu was the victim of the Muslim invaders, and then the British imperialists. Today, he is the victim of the minorities and Pakistan.
This is an interesting book which I enjoyed reading just like the author’s other book “The Last Jews of Kerala”. It is well written and quite objective. Fernandes is a good observer, has an eye for detail and brings her characters to life. She is not shy to express some of her her own views. Where the book does fall short is seeing the bigger picture. How strong are the secular forces in India? To what extent do class and caste play in sectarian violence? How has bad governance played a role? What about expatriate Indians and their influence on fundamentalist groups? The book is not an extensive study, but it does give a valuable overview of the various sectarian fault lines in the country today.
Since the book was published in 2007 there have been more instances of terrorism and sectarian violence in India. This shows, as highlighted in the book, there are clearly some leaders who are willing to exploit and fan the flames of bigotry. Communalism is very rarely spontaneous and nearly always manufactured. One only hopes that with time things will improve. That of course remains to be seen.