Tangles of conflict
Himmat Singh Gill

Holy Warriors
by Edna Fernandes.
Penguin/Viking. Pages 332. Rs 450.

Holy WarriorsOften it takes an outsider to tell us Indians a simple home truth. Journalist Edna Fernandes, of Indian origin and brought up in London, journeys into the heart of Indian fundamentalism, as she terms it, and comes out with a long list of intolerance and radicalism that has gripped large segments of the Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Sikh population. Winding her way through this vast land, she ends her book with a finding, that "the new India is looking for a leadership which understands the formidable challenges of economic and social change ahead, not one purely seeking to avenge the religious wrongs of the past". The question she leaves unanswered, however, is that will our religious leaders come forward with a will and purpose to steer their flock away from bigotry and revenge; if and when there are fair and sane political leaders around who will not pander to electoral vote banks and play populist politics for their own and party gains.

In the Kashmir valley, where claims and counter claims continue to be made depending on whom the author speaks to, elicits a typical Kashmiri inhabitant’s reply, "Azadi (we want)—Freedom from Indian security forces. Freedom from terrorists". A senior police officer says, "Infiltration has improved over the last year", by which he really means that infiltration has declined. A political issue has raised its head, and the growing currency is the intelligence funds that buy informers and sources. Elsewhere in Delhi, the Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, opines in an interview with Edna, "You know, we have been framed. The international community has placed the Muslim inside the frame of terrorism. This has to end." Adil Saddiqui, head of public relations at Deoband in early 2005, is not against education for women as the Taliban were, "We’re not against education of women. Education of women is encouraged. But not alongside men, it has its...evil effects". Mufti Habibur Rehman at Deoband when asked whether violence in the name of self-defence was un-Islamic, says, "It is not un-Islamic. It is necessary. Every moral law allows for self-defence. They are fully authorised". There are so many different voices that speak for the Muslim generation and mind, and Fernandes seeks all shades of opinion for her book.

Covering Punjab the "land of the pure", the "militant messiah" and "this turbulent priest" (Bhindranwale), Operation Bluestar, and the killings of Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, Edna traces a troubled mosaic of the times. She says, "Brar (Maj-Gen K. S. Brar who conducted Operation Bluestar) denied that tanks were used inside the Golden Temple, but other observers reported that tanks were indeed deployed". Brar, of course, needs to recheck his statement, because hundreds who know the details of the operation would vouchsafe otherwise.

In an interview with K.P.S. Gill "over whisky" at his Talkatora Road house in the autumn of 2004, Edna quotes Gill speaking of Indira Gandhi that "she didn’t want an Army operation" in the Golden Temple. However, after the BSF and the CRPF expressed their inability to carry out the task, the "Army was called in and they said it would be a question of two hours". Gill continued his interview, "If 1,800 policemen die, I tell you, 5,000 terrorists will die", and utterances, as Fernandes narrates, " ‘I doncare about the Sikhs who call me Butcher of Punjab,’ he said, lifting the tumbler to his lips and polishing off the last of its contents. ‘They tried to destroy me. They tried to build up a case against me. It collapsed around them’."

Edna writes that the "anti-Sikh atrocities ignited a new wave of Sikh fundamentalism that raged for another decade" (this is after Indira Gandhi’s assassination), but leaves unanswered the question as to who were more to blame for the troubled 1990s in Punjab, the rulers with their grand strategies and their law enforcers who worked with a vengeance, or some who let power get to them and never quite comprehended the armed might of the state.

Fernandes is direct and blunt on Gujarat and blames squarely " the Vajpayee’s government that failed to act in February, 2002, when Gujarat was engulfed by communal riots and the state administration was clearly complicit". For Nehru, "the cult-like Association of National Volunteers or RSS was nothing less than an ‘an Indian form of fascism’," she writes. About Hindutva, she writes, "I hope, India will force Hindutva to recognise its own limitations and to adapt itself".

Awarding a plus to country’s religious diversity, Edna hopes that "India will not be straitjacketed into one religious identity, whether that is a Hindu Raj or anything else". The country’s 24 million Christians are also put under the microscope. In Nagaland, such is the "locals’ zeal for Baptist Christianity" that it forms the thrust of their quest "to secede from India and establish a ‘Nagaland for Christ’". In Goa, "a nascent movement among the Catholic community is calling for the Church to admit to the atrocities committed in the name of faith and for Goan Christians to view their history in context," Edna writes about the early era of the Inquisition.

Is Edna’s book a travelogue or an unbiased history of contemporary India, and its principal religions and flag-bearers? Possibly both, but whatever it be, her fresh and languid style of telling a story for the modern generation can capture any reader’s interest.