I must tell you the story of the time when I went to meet the first Hindu suicide squad. But why are you laughing already?
There is nothing much to say but for the fact that it was over 12 years ago, and that a handler lined up the boys, most of whom were malnourished, and that they giggled when they were described as a suicide squad that would take on Islamic terrorism. It was not even a story.
The Congress politician, Pramod Tiwari, who once said that Bal Thackeray’s “senility” was caused by the women in his family, is not a politician whose intellect is taken seriously. Yet, recently he made an intriguing comparison that the wise took note of because it was convenient to do so. He found parallels between Hafiz Saeed, a terrorist in Pakistan, and Hindu fanatics. It is an atrocious comparison.
There is no doubt that Hindu fundamentalism is dangerous and has in the recent past committed brutal crimes against humanity, but there is a reason why it is benign in comparison to Islamic fundamentalism. And the reason has nothing to do with the alleged potency of Islam, a measure of which, some people may point out, is the large supply of young people who are willing to self-destruct for a cause. That this is a poor understanding of Islam is a pointless line of thought. It is a poor understanding of self-destruction.
From the pedestal of an atheist, which has become taller after the massacre of children in Pakistan, it would appear that all believers have blood on their hands. For, the reasoning goes, is it not true that believers, however innocuous they might seem to be, promote and corroborate a powerful hallucination that grants the demented an honourable cause to perform their slaughters? It is in response to this unspoken allegation that we often hear a sentence, which would reveal itself as obtuse if we only stare at it long enough: “This is not Islam”. In other times, in other places, people have said: “This is not Christianity”, “This is not Hinduism”. To say “this is not religion” implies that religion is something else, but then faith, according to its undeniable definition, is what a person believes it is.
Yet, a growing body of evidence suggests that if it were not for religion the psychopaths and the miserable would have found other causes to kill or to kill themselves. It does appear that radicalisation is not a process of assembling devouts, but collecting the criminal and the suicidal. Often it is a process of criminals enlisting the suicidal, the strong using the weak. Various studies over the last decade indicate that a high proportion of suicide bombers were, very simply, suicidal. They showed signs of various forms of depression. Their handlers were seldom suicidal. They usually had criminal histories.
A study of young Tibetan men who immolated themselves without harming anyone else, too, points to fatal depression that sought exalted purpose in martyrdom. So did the ‘human bombs’ among the Sri Lankan Tamil militants. The exaggeration of purpose was then transmitted by mourners and the opportunistic, further infecting the vulnerable. And where there was a system to exploit them they were used.
Hindu extremism is benign not because criminals find it hard to misinterpret its sacred text, not because it is so self-assured that it does not even mention the ‘others’, the ‘infidels’, but because Hindu extremism does not have a reason to be more potent than it already is. It is not the struggle of the underdogs, it was always the assertion of a majority religion diffused by the suspicions that the lower castes harboured of the higher.
Also, there is the matter of electoral politics.
For all its faults, electoral politics in India has been a precious vent for the people. Urbane Indians have contempt for the sheer number of political parties, their long abbreviations, and how messy a list of Indian election results looks in comparison with the brief elegance of American or British poll results. But the fact is that there are hundreds of political parties because they all have a market. There are that many serious local grievances and issues and biases and hopes. In such an irreversible environment, which has been nurtured over decades, any social movement that wishes to be taken seriously has no choice but to enter electoral politics. The reason why the anti-corruption movement became a political party. The reason why the Hindu nationalist movement too is a political party. The reason why even billionaires have a political party.
Most politicians rise as specialist anarchists, but to grow they realise they must become reasonable generalists. That is why many of them do not remain unreasonable for long. That is why Narendra Modi, who used to speak a very different language a decade ago, now ducks when asked his opinion about his saffron friends trying to convert Muslims and Christians to Hinduism. Modi is unable to even speak his mind on the subject. That is how powerful electoral politics is. It reminds powerful men at all times there is much at stake, there is much to lose. Once upon a time Hindu extremism lifted Modi from oblivion, but now he has no reason for it. He is with the bigger thug, democracy.
We must consider it our fortune that we live in a land where the Right wing is largely, if not entirely, restricted to saying that Russians were all Hindus once. We must not grudge our Right wing its deserved release.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People
The views expressed by the author are personal