When Old Demons Come Marching In : 
May 01, 2006

When Old Demons Come Marching In Long on cliche, short on political
judgement, we are left none the wiser on religious fundamentalism


by Edna Fernandes
Pages: 336; Rs: 450

One of the less consequential but irritating fallouts of the increasing
presence of religion in political life is that everyone thinks it is
easy to understand the phenomenon. Following V.S. Naipaul's example, all
you have to do is track down a few fundamentalists, interview them and watch
gleefully as they hoist themselves with their own petard. In Naipaul
this technique works, because the questions are penetrating, the
psychological insights acute, and a sense of history, even when
mistaken, lends rare depth to the narrative. Sadly, Holy Warriors, which
follows much the same technique of interviewing a bunch of supposedly
interesting characters, combined with a smattering of history and pop
psychological observation, is an example of what can go wrong with the
genre. While Fernandes' heart is in the right place, the result is a
rather superficial book that perplexes more than it illuminates. 

Fernandes embarks on her journey into the heart of Indian fundamentalism
with a peculiarly shallow version of liberal sympathies. Show that you
are even-handed by exposing fundamentalists of all religions: assorted
Muslims ranging from Deobandis to the Imam of Jama Masjid; Christians in
Goa clinging on to a Goan identity, to Baptists in Nagaland trying to
create new ones, assorted survivors amongst Kashmiri Pandits and victims
of anti-Sikh riots. Add a few second-hand remarks on the violence in
Gujarat and a rather hysterical account of Indo-Pak relations, and the
heart of Indian fundamentalism stands exposed. The narrative that
emerges from these ragtag interviews is profoundly confused. In one
instant, Deoband becomes the harbinger of Taliban, in another it is just
a bunch of defenceless youth, confused and discriminated against by
Indian society. In one moment India is paranoid about terrorism yet it
seems far more restrained in its response than the level of paranoia
would suggest. Sometimes Indian society seems to overflow with religious
zealotry, at other times we can retreat into the comfortable illusion
that religion is an epiphenomenon; it is really all about employment and

This claim is comforting to both fundamentalists and liberals: it is a
way some fundamentalists can deny they really are so; and liberals can
assert that they really understand what is going on. If the
jobs-and-employment argument doesn't work, add in a few sentences about
how profoundly confusing modernity is, how fundamentalism provides a
stable anchoring in an uncertain world. When all fails, toss in the
oppression of the modern Indian state and the discrimination of
majoritarian politics. All these are plausible background conditions
under which fundamentalism flourishes, but they raise more questions
than they answer. Why is there such variation in response to these
challenges? And why is the quest for jobs and dignity expressed via
religion? The very phenomenon the book sets out to study is not
explained, but dissolved. Of course, reality is contradictory and
confusing, but what could be more cliched than this claim? 

This book suffers from an acute lack of historical depth and
psychological sophistication. The potted history of Deoband borders on
the simple-minded, the discussion of Hindutva is long on cliche, short
on political judgement and the analysis of particular episodes misses
the woods for the trees. And there is the methodological fallacy of
thinking we can understand fundamentalists by studying fundamentalists
alone. This leaves the relationship between fundamentalism and the wider
context unclear; and it is premised on binaries like secular and
religious, fanatical and moderate that do not adequately map reality.
Most of the interviews are unrevealing. But the narrative does have
occasional moments. The Imam of Jama Masjid rather disingenuously
portrays himself and Muslims around the world as being framed; there is
a curious externalisation of the challenges Muslims face, not a moment
of self-reflection.There is a rather poignant interview with Mario
Miranda, lamenting the loss of Goan identity under the influx of
outsiders; there is K.P.S. Gill wrestling with the dilemmas he faced in
Punjab.  Still, the book might be worth a quick read. If nothing else,
it can help dissipate the fog of complacency that marks our current
attitudes towards minorities. The insurgency in Punjab may be dead, but
the scars of the violence there and the riots in Delhi still run deep.
Muslims are sandwiched between the hostility of their enemies,
indifference and the patronising attitude of their friends. As Fernandes
says, "it is India's duty to recognise that tolerating Muslim
disengagement is like witlessly listening to a ticking bomb and not
expecting to hear a big bang". A sombre warning.

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