India: The commonality of 'fundamentalisms'

South Asia Citizen's Wire
How respective ideologies contribute towards a culture that condones and engages in violence, by Beena Sarwar.
When US-based Indian filmmaker Lalit Vachani set out in 1992 to make a documentary about the 'shakhas' (branches) where RSS volunteers train boys in the martial arts and ideology, he "expected to see pure evil".
He was surprised to find normal, even likeable individuals. The sequel to 'The boy in the branch' a decade later is 'the men in the tree', also a critique of ideology, rather than individuals.

The relevance of these films to Pakistan in other societies traumatised by Ideologically-motivated violence, stems from the insight they offer into the mindset and thinking of those involved in an organisation that claims to be 'cultural' rather than 'political' - and yet which is basically the 'mother organisation' of right-wing groups that commit violence.

As Vachani explained at a well-attended screening in New Delhi recently, he has found that many leaders of the Hindu right "want a mirror image of Islam" - they want to manufacture, "a religion where a (spiritual) leader will give fatwas that the faithful will follow blindly."

His words bring to mind an Australian PhD candidate who was working on a comparison of Hindu and Muslim right-wing organisations some years ago, mainly in Bombay and Lahore. She found that the Hindu organisation actually studied the tactics of the Islamic organisation, including pamphlets, literature, and video recordings of their rallies. (She received various threats from their representatives when she returned to Australia, and prefers not to be named at this point).

All this also echoes an observation by Indian television journalist Rajdeep Sardesai during a live talk show on Geo TV during the Saarc summit in Islamabad in January. Seated next to the Jamat-e-Islami's Qazi Hussain Ahmed, he and fellow journalist Seema Mustafa of The Asian Age were engaged in a heated debate on Kashmir and religious extremism; one could almost see the sparks flying as the argument went back and forth. At one point, Sardesai burst out, "Qazi sahib, mujhe lagta hai ke aap aur bal thakarey aik hi sikkey ki do sides hain" - it seems to me that you and Bal Thakarey are just two sides of the same coin. It took a few seconds for Qazi sahib to recover from this charge, but he had no answer.

Sardesai's brief remark pinpoints a fundamental and universal truth: the commonality of 'fundamentalisms', no matter how much at odds they appear to be. Unfortunately, they tend not to stick to the actual 'fundamentals' that are common to all religions - truth, justice, and compassion. As a result, another commonality is how their respective ideologies contribute towards a culture that condones and engages in violence - a point underscored decisively in Vachani's film.

Many like Vachani believe that the right-wing's attempts to homogenise its constituency by developing concept of 'oneness' - one god, one nation bound by one creed, obedient to one leader - is difficult to engineer in India. Some argue that Hinduism is not a religion, but a philosophy, which encompasses within it much diversity of opinion and belief. However, an all-encompassing, all-embracing diversity has a different power than that provided by the concept of 'one' with its dynamics of a unifying force, impetus and rallying cry. Hence the efforts of the Hindu right to strategise towards developing or manufacturing this 'oneness'.

In general though, there is little acceptance in India for such homogenisation, that many oppose because it leads to violence that in turn will isolate the country. Vachani's 'The Men in the Tree', in fact, makes the case that this homogenisation also prepares the ground for incidents like the Babri masjid demolition, and beyond, to the horrors of Gujarat. This brings up another commonality between extremist groups: their attempts to construct and strengthen their own identity by demonising 'the other' even if this means distorting history.

The film follows five main characters (including two who were once part of the RSS and now oppose its tactics and ideology). Flashback-like references from the earlier film show us where these men are today. In the process, the film militates disconcertingly against stereotypes. "But Sandeep is so good-looking," came one surprised comment at the end of the viewing, as if right-wing bigots have no right to be charismatic.

Another surprise is how Kali, about ten years old in the earlier film, has developed as a young man. Vachani expected to find him an integral part of the RSS structure in his village by now. Instead, Kali shuns their politics and is more concerned with running a shop, and with his girlfriend. He believes that the demolition of the Babri Masjid was wrong - it happened shortly after Vachani completed the first film (the Gujarat carnage took place shortly after the sequel was filmed).

"It is ordinary, innocent people who get killed in such incidents," says Kali soberly. That is certainly true, any way you look at it.

Originally published in The News International - October 10, 2004