It is not difficult to understand how the fundamentalists gained power; they have always been around, like their masters the Gods of destruction, and again just like their masters they have had to bide their time before coming to power. When we – men and women of different faiths, classes and castes, gained independence and dreamed of a new India, we would not be swayed by the religious ideologues and mischief makers who threatened our tolerance, pluralism and stability – that way lay the road to another country, a country bedevilled by obscurantism, hate and religion gone mad. This, despite the violence of partition and the assassination of Gandhi.
For what the great men who brought us our freedom did not forget was that India had always been the most plural of countries, a country that contained the world. Our people had come from everywhere; they were descended from central Asian tribes, Mongol warlords, Portuguese adventurers, Arabian seamen, Chinese travellers, Buddhist princes, Jewish wanderers, British traders, Christian apostles, Macedonian soldiers, and although it hadn’t always been easy to adjust, we had managed to do so. I am reminded here of a story that was told about my own people. When we first landed on the shores of Gujarat, the local ruler didn’t want to let us in – his kingdom was already full, and he didn’t want his own people to lose their livelihood or have to put up with strange rituals and customs. Our leader asked for a tumbler of milk and a handful of sugar. He dissolved the sugar in the milk and said to the ruler, this is what we will be like. You will notice, your Highness, that not a drop of the milk has spilled, but that it is now sweeter and even tastier to drink. We will merge with your society and our advent will make it better. If that was true of the Parsis, it is also true of those who came from elsewhere, every community has added its colour and flavour and is essential to this ancient land. Our art, our music, our architecture, our wealth, our philosophy, all this and more has been created by Indians belonging to every faith, every caste and every creed. When you contemplate a great painting, or listen to a great musician, or read a great book, or send your child to a great educational institution, or even buy a bag of cement to build your house, you don’t pause to think about whether its creator is Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Parsi, Sikh or Jain; you merely enjoy it for what it is and at some level are thankful that all these great Indians have given generously of their talent for the benefit of us all. That is why when the fundamentalists seek to portray one Indian as somehow being more Indian than another their lies need to be flung back at them, and it is they who should be asked to leave this country, before their nefarious designs spell the end of India.
So why are we facing this time of darkness especially when the country’s prospects have never looked so good? It would take a book several times the length of this one to adequately explain all the reasons that have brought us to this place but I will try and provide an overview.
There are several proximate causes of course – incompetent, corrupt politicians who have made appalling decisions, local rivalries, ancient feuds that have never been properly resolved – but none of these are enough in themselves to explain the emergence of fundamentalism on a national scale.
Historians and economists tell us that nations are ripe for ethnic and sectarian war when a combination of things happens at once – the blurring of ethnic boundaries which arouses the ire of puritans, the absence of enlightened government, but most of all the advent of sweeping economic change. It is at times like these that we are at our most vulnerable, and therefore liable to fall under the spell of false demagogues and prophets. This was true of Hitler’s Germany and it is true of India today.
There is a popular misconception that it is only when a country is on the ropes that citizen turns on citizen and a nation devours its own but history does not bear this out.
Rather, it is in periods of great volatility brought about by an upsurge in economic activity when millions of people are severed from their moorings, when the great divide between the haves and have-nots deepens, when large sections of the population begin to feel powerless and confused as the gap between their expectations and reality increases, as the machinery of the state begins to break down. It is then that the rabble-rousers and politicians who promise security in the name of religion come into their own.
Clearing our heads
When you are alone and far from home, frustrated by life at every turn, denied the comfort of your caste fellows and the minutely ordered web of village life, it is comforting to think that things will be better if only those pestilential adherents to a different faith could be shown their place. You don’t pause to think how exactly your life would be better if someone else’s place of worship were destroyed (does that put food in your stomach, make your own place of worship more sacred?) or an innocent or two from another religion raped (does that make your wife or mistress any sexier?) or killed (will that give you the office job that you have always coveted but aren’t qualified for?) or how your religion alone will sort out all your problems because these politicians are clever, they are convincing, and they tell you exactly how to think.
But they don’t want you to think too much because you might, then wonder how almost 800 million Hindus could possibly be threatened by a little over 100 million Muslims, who are often poorer and more wretched than any other community in the subcontinent, or by 20 million Christians whose number are actually dwindling, although the fundamentalists would have you think that they are doubling their population every five years through conversion.