2007-07-01 02:27:34 UTC
State of disunion
Naseem Khan on Edna Fernandes's Holy Warriors, a sharp-witted dissection
of the issue India can't resolve
Saturday June 30, 2007
Holy Warriors: A Journey Into the Heart of Indian Fundamentalism
by Edna Fernandes
336pp, Portobello, ?15.99
What a cast of characters make their way through this sharp-witted and
straight-talking book: the fatuous and the venal, the self-important and
the deluded, the exploitative and the corrupt. This is hardly
surprising, as Edna Fernandes has undertaken to track down figures who
epitomise the most depressing facet of Indian life - its holy warriors -
as well as some of their victims.
Sixty years ago, India was divided on religious grounds and became
independent. Fernandes sets out to ask what accommodation has been
reached between its main religions, and comes back with the answer:
precious little. Her odyssey takes her far and wide - from Nagaland and
Kashmir in the north down via Punjab and on to Goa. It regularly
deposits her in daunting situations.
She watches as 60 khaki-clad quasi-military RSS men go through their
gymnastic manoeuvres at dawn, singing, "Break Pakistan so all India is
reunited". She debates with the "butcher of Punjab", responsible for
savagely suppressing the Khalistan movement ("If 1,800 policemen die,"
he declares, "I tell you, 5,000 terrorists will die!"). She gains
dispensation (rare for a woman) to stay overnight in Darul-Uloom in
Uttar Pradesh, the important madrasa where the Taliban trained, and
manages to get licence to argue with its ancient hardline teachers.
The butchery that went on around partition proved neither the start nor
the end of India's violence: Christians and Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims
have all done their bit.
In Goa, Fernandes is forcibly reminded of the Portuguese inquisition
started by Francis Xavier in 1560 - justice is still being demanded for
15 village elders killed by the Portuguese in 1583 in retaliation for
five murdered priests. In the Punjab, she is approached by anguished
families desperate to know what happened to 25,000 people who
disappeared during the separatist conflict. And then there were the
dreadful tit-for-tat murders between Hindus and Muslims - with
compelling evidence of state collusion when 2,000 Muslims were cut down
by Hindu mobs in Gujarat in 2002.
However, Fernandes's aim is not simply to recite a litany of horrors.
She sets out with serious questions in mind. What is the state of
religious division and what are the factors that could turn a true
believer into a holy warrior? Her book comes to no formal conclusion,
and she quite rightly avoids a glib condemnation of religion, but a
number of clear observations emerge from its mosaic of research and
The problem, in her view, is not caused by religious interests per se
but rather by the grinding of sectarian and communal interests between
the tectonic plates of national necessity. The Nagas, in the north-west,
are passionate in their belief that - like Jews, they say - they deserve
a homeland. But there is no way, Fernandes acknowledges, that they would
ever be granted it, as that would just embolden other secessionist
movements in the all-too-fragile state.
Bhindranwale's militant movement for Sikh independence in the Punjab had
to be stopped. "Do you not know the modern state?" KPS Gill, the
"Butcher" and former director general of police in the Punjab, inquired
in exasperation, when faced with a secessionist. But few of Fernandes's
holy warriors do know, and even fewer care, about the modern
nation-state; their concerns are far more immediate.
Fernandes believes that economics is crucial. Address poverty, she
argues, and you will undercut militancy. Recognise Muslims' economic
deprivation - and see that Sikhs are suffering from the after-effects of
the army's incursion into their sacred Golden Temple - and then the body
politic will start to heal.
This is not rocket science, but the reportage is even-handed and
responsible, and even at times delightfully witty. Fernandes's asides,
as she is lectured to by pundits of all descriptions, or her accounts of
meeting such characters as the beauty-queen-turned-ambassador for Hindu
fundamentalism, are precise and wicked. Above all, she offers a valuable
reminder of the dark side of the economic miracle that is modern India.
? Naseem Khan's Asians in Britain is published by Dewi Lewis