JHoly Warriors jacket

Holy Warriors: A Journey Into the Heart of Indian Fundamentalism by Edna Fernandes (Portobello Books)

If you ever needed proof that no religion is immune from taking a fundamentalist turn, look at India. Home to all the major religions of the world, India is also home to fundamentalists of every stripe. The country well-known for its “spiritualism” is also a country tormented by bitter religious hatreds.

In Holy Warriors Edna Fernandes, a British-Indian reporter for the Financial Times, sets about exploring all these fundamentalisms. She brings us face to face with the spokesmen (and they are all men, with the sole exception of a beauty queen campaigning for Hindu fundamentalists) for Islamic, Christian, Sikh and Hindu fundamentalism. By the end of the book, one realises that there is no “Indian Fundamentalism”, as the book’s subtitle would have us believe, but only so many different fundamentalisms, each nursing its own historical grievances and each holding on to its own glorious past as a source of identity. One also realises how fragile the idea of secularism is in India: no religious group has any trust that it will be treated fairly by the state, and the state, in turn, shows no regard for the niceties of protecting human rights as it clamps down on religious extremism, especially when the extremists it pursues come from minority religions like Islam and Sikhism.

Fernandes takes the reader on a long journey criss-crossing India to listen to the voices of the advocates as well as the victims. We meet the Imam of Delhi’s venerable old Jama Masjid and the Islamic scholars of Darul-Uloom in Deoband, the second most important Islamic academic institution after Al-Azhar in Egypt. We hear the tormented voices of Hindu Pandits and ordinary Muslim citizens victimised by terrorism and counter-terrorism in Kashmir. She takes us to Goa, her ancestral land, where we meet Catholic priests and laity trying to right the wrongs of the Catholic Church, followed by a trip to Nagaland where we are introduced to Protestant separatists. Back again in the heartland of Punjab, she talks to Sikh preachers, policemen and the anguished family members of those who “disappeared” in the state crackdown on Sikh separatism through the ‘80s and ‘90s.

The final part of the book introduces the reader to some of the most notorious proponents of Hindu nationalism, including the hate-spewing Bal Thackeray of Shiv Sena, Praveen Togadia of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the lumpen members of Bajrang Dal, the violently anti-Muslim and anti-Christian branch of the VHP. We also witness the martial-arts-cum-prayer sessions run by the radical Hindu outfit Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS), where young men are inducted into the extreme Hindu nationalism of Hindutva.

Deploying her skills as a reporter, Fernandes offers a very readable, at times funny but always very informative, account of her travels and meetings with the “fundies” of all creeds. She does a good job of capturing the texture of radical religious outfits. What is especially valuable is how she picks up the thread of forgotten news stories. She travels to Amritsar to find out what has happened to the movement for Sikh separatism since it was supposedly wiped out by heavy-handed police intervention in the ‘90s. In Ayodhya she discovers what is happening to the disputed Ram temple now that it is no longer news. And she reports from Ahemdabad on how Muslim victims of the Godhara riots are faring. In each case, a quick recounting of history is followed by a series of meetings and interviews with key players.

But while the book tells a good story, it fails to answer the vital “why” question: readers who are not already familiar with India’s history and political system may feel at a loss as to the reasons why Indian religions are getting radicalised and what can be done about the situation.

This is a great pity because, underneath the many vignettes, there are at least three themes that cut across all four fundamentalisms under consideration. They deserve more prominence, especially if we want to do something about them.

First, all religious groups without exception feel “besieged” and “victimised”. India is one vast smorgasbord of hostile, back-to-back religious communities, each with a chip on their shoulder. The Sikhs fear being assimilated by Hindus, while Christians fear physical attacks by Hindus who accuse them of proselytisation. The most bizarre is the Hindu nationalists’ attempt to cast the majority Hindus (85 per cent of the population) as “eternal victims” who have suffered a “holocaust” at the hands of invading Muslims, Catholic Christians in Portuguese occupied Goa, and the British colonists. Even though Hindus enjoy obvious dominance in government, economy and cultural educational institutions, they are being indoctrinated by radical Hindu parties to see themselves as under attack by aggressive, monotheistic religions, especially Islam, which is invariably framed as a “terrorist” religion “pampered” by the secular state in order to garner Muslim votes.

That Muslims constitute a “pampered” minority is a most pernicious myth that has been swallowed whole by many educated Hindus who should know better. The evidence, in fact, points to the exact opposite. Muslims in India, Fernandes writes, “are at the bottom of the heap according to many key indicators of wealth and literacy, and their population growth is actually slowing, not accelerating.”

Second, all fundamentalist movements in India share a fear of westernisation and modernity. Due to historical circumstances stemming from the partition and the out-migration of the educated Muslim elites to Pakistan, Indian Muslims have gone the farthest in embracing the old ways prescribed by Sharia law. This is not uncontested, of course. Fernandes’ interview with a strong-willed daughter of a professor at Deoband, the very heart of orthodox Islam, suggests a lively contemporary struggle for the soul of Islam. However, tradition is still a powerful rallying cry, and hardly unique to Islam. The rise of Sikh fundamentalist Sant Bhindranwale in Punjab in the 80s was a response to the perceived encroachment of modern western ways on the purity of khalsa.

The third feature is the suspicion of the secular state. Minority religions – Islam, Christianity and Sikhism – do not see the Indian state as respecting their legitimate religious demands. Muslims are smarting under the destruction of the mosque in Ayodhya and the state’s complicity in violence. Sikhs still carry deep wounds that years of harsh anti-terrorism measures have left behind. Hindus in turn accuse the Indian state of not being Hindu enough and pampering the minorities for political purposes.

Though Fernandes tells a good tale, without a thoroughgoing grasp of Indian political and cultural history these larger themes would be lost to the reader. Which is a pity, because the issues she is dealing with are of such vital importance to the future of the world’s largest democracy.

Meera Nanda is a John Templeton Foundation Fellow in Religion and Science. Holy Warriors is published by Portobello Books.