May 13, 2006

Holy Warriors

My review of Holy Warriors: A Journey into the Heart of Indian Fundamentalism, by Edna Fernandes. In Tehelka. Comments welcome.


In Ronan Bennett's intense novel "The Catastrophist", the narrator, a writer, often grapples with the meaning of journalism and writing. He has to, because his journalist girlfriend is passionate about her work, passionately partisan in ways that seem almost foreign to him. At one point, he writes this about her:
    She hates government palaces and ministerial offices ... She is never interested in interviewing the big people -- the ambassadors, the ministers and generals. ... What she covets is not contacts with the high-placed and the respect of her colleagues ("more interested in their careers than in what is going on around them"), but the friendship of ordinary people; she will hang around the stall of a market vendor for hours, listening to talk of everyday things.
Some of this comes to mind while reading Edna Fernandes's book. She does meet plenty of ordinary people. But she believes she also has to meet the big fry, the men who make their seductive siren-calls for the small fry to feast on. And as I progressed through the book, I wished she hadn't met them. Not that there isn't a value to learning what those men say. But after years watching what they have done to my country, I wonder if our attention to them itself skews the picture. I wonder if a book that tells us only about the little guys would not be more valuable, if it would not give us a clearer snapshot of where we are, fundamentalism-wise.

For example, an aging tiger tells her: "Call it intuition: civil war will be there between Hindus and Muslims". And later: "My country is in danger and one cannot live as a Gujarati, one cannot live as a Bengali, one cannot live as a Maharashtrian. We alone cannot fight the ISLAM." Does this rhetoric help us understand this country today? Is it a reflection of the way much of this country thinks? Should a journey into the heart of Indian fundamentalism tell us this stuff? (Is this fundamentalism anyway, or just fulmination?) Or should it tell us what to expect from more clear-headed, if less-exalted, people at that heart?

But of course, I must write here about the book this is, not the one I might have liked it to be.

Fernandes has an admirable goal, the desire to explore fundamentalism in India. She thinks that this is best accomplished through encounters with the fundamentalists from every religion. Or the four major ones, at any rate: Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam and Christianity. Because going about it this way, she cannot be accused of targeting any one in particular, or favouring some other one in particular. Fair and objective, as good journalists must be: naturally, her book must be important and substantial.

She meets various people who are concerned with fundamentalism in various ways, and tells us about these meetings. KPS Gill and Bal Thackeray, Pravin Togadia and Kaka Iralu, Imam Bukhari and Paramjit Kaur Khalra, and an assortment of taxi-drivers and sycophant businessmen and refugee families and others, including a tall beauty queen: these are the characters in her pages. Her conversations with them are usually free-wheeling -- Fernandes is not easily fobbed off by rhetoric and pronouncements -- sometimes laughable, often revealing.

So KPS Gill dismisses talk of atrocities and coverups in Punjab with: "Fake names, fake villages, fake fathers ... how's your glass?" (They're drinking whisky together). Compared to him, Fernandes observes, "the American Neo-Cons seem like limp-wristed liberals"; and in his eyes, "today's terror-stricken world cannot always afford the luxury of human rights."

So Togadia tells her: "India is facing onslaught of [a] barbaric, jihadi, fundamentalist ideology for one millennium. ... We have war in India." And therefore: "By single nuclear attack by India, Pakistan will nowhere in the world remain. ... People are becoming impatient and are ready to tolerate anything. Nuclear attack they are ready to suffer."

So Irula says: "God indeed might have a plan for Nagas. We're surrounded by Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, so God may have in mind for us to be a missionary centre. ... We could be like the Israel of India."

So Bukhari explains: "Since Independence [Muslims have] been oppressed in every nook and corner of the country. If ever we are able to show you our hearts, you will see the wounds -- wounds inflicted in this country where religious freedom is enshrined in our Constitution."

You see, just as Fernandes has material from each religion, I've dug out quotes from her book from each religion. Does that make me fair and objective?

In other words, is it the mere equality of attention to each religion that best describes fundamentalism, best makes the case against fundamentalism?

More important question: what has this taught us about fundamentalism anyway? After reading Fernandes, I'm no clearer on what fundamentalism really means. Are these people -- well, Gill excepted -- really fundamentalists? Even more important, does it really matter? We have seen, in this country, a series of great crimes that have completely evaded justice. We should work hard towards punishing the guilty, period. That's my concern, whatever their religion or state of fundamentalism might be.

And that, to my mind, is true fairness and objectivity. Because when you focus on the crimes, the religion is immaterial, as it should be unless you want to swallow the rhetoric too. The answer to one kind of fundamentalism is not another kind, but the firm and fair determination of, the dogged prosecution of, crimes.

And this is why I wish Fernandes had stayed with the little guys, on how these Indian events have changed their Indian lives. Because while the Togadias speak of war, while the Bukharis speak of oppression, we've really heard it all before. It's the little guys who are and will remain its victims, though also the warriors. (Though those may amount to the same thing). This is why Indian fundamentalism takes form and meaning, if at all, among ordinary Indians. Down in those cliched trenches. That is where we learn the most about it, find the lessons to take home.

"Holy Warriors" gives us the Thackerays, sure. I'm not sure it gives us enough of the lessons.


Anonymous said...

"when you focus on the crimes, the religion is immaterial..."

I agree.


Anonymous said...

Until today I had never heard of Edna Fernades. I'm from the West, living in India. I saw her being interviewed on TV and was interested to know who she was and what she had written so I went on the internet to find out about Holy Warriors and found your blogspot. Thank you for giving me an insight into the book.

Anonymous said...

Well, the lady in question hates big people because if they meet her once, they wouldn't want to meet her again. She is intolerant of anyone else's point of view on any subject matter. Such a tremendous irony that she is writing a book about fundamentalism!! She has such a filthy mouth that the tolerant British institution,Reuters, apparently sacked her!

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't bother with a BBCD book on fundamentalism in India. Hey Lady, live through some of what we have been through and you will see how hollow your understanding is.