Religious Fundamentalism in India and Beyond

By Kumar, Krishna | Parameters, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

Religious Fundamentalism in India and Beyond


Kumar, Krishna, Parameters


We live in turbulent times. Our epoch is characterized by startling advances W on the one hand and conditions of extreme socioeconomic retrogression and distress on the other. Social development is severely uneven and yet deeply intertwined. This has created unexpected convulsions which are exploding across the planet.

Both a consequence and a cause of this turbulence is a resurgence of religion. Religious fundamentalism has appeared at the turn of the century as a prominent tendency, a habit of mind found within religious communities and paradigmatically embodied in certain representative individuals and movements. It manifests itself as a strategy by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive group identity. Feeling this identity to be at risk in the contemporary era, the believers fortify it by selective retrieval of doctrines, beliefs, and practices from a sacred past. This selection is carefully done so that it is not only appealing to the audience but also readily acceptable. While selective retrieval claims only to be restoring the ancient ways, in fact fundamentalist movements pick and choose carefully among inherited doctrines and practices, as well as cloaking innovations in the garments of antiquity. These retrieved fundamentals are refined, modified, and sanctioned in a spirit of pragmatis m: they are to serve as a bulwark against the encroachment of outsiders who threaten to draw the believers into a syncretistic religious or irreligious cultural milieu.

The problem of fundamentalism knows no borders, and it is a common enemy of humanity. For many, "fundamentalism conjures up images of mobs shouting 'death to America,' embassies in flames, assassins and hijackers threatening innocent lives, hands chopped off, and women oppressed."(2) The inquisitive observer must ask not only "how effective have fundamentalist movements been in influencing their own adherents," but also "how much impact have they exercised in the lives of non-fundamentalists. In cases in which the state is fundamentalist (Iran, Sudan) or has been influenced by fundamentalist sociopolitical agendas (Egypt, Israel), the fundamentalism of the enclave is encouraged or even empowered to spill over its natural boundaries and permeate the larger society. The impact in these instances is of a different order than in a society that successfully marginalizes fundamentalists within it, as does the scientific establishment in the United States or the political establishment in Japan. (4)

Among the many dreams of both the British masters who quit the Indian subcontinent in 1947, and Mahatma Gandhi and his followers who forced the colonial power out, none was perhaps dearer to their hearts than the desire for the foundation of secular democracies in South Asia that were free from the turmoil of caste and religious violence. But from the very dawn of independence, sectarian rivalries have undermined that aspiration. Partition was followed by the two-way exodus of Hindus and Muslims and the communal carnage that took the lives of thousands of innocent victims. Since then, most nations of South Asia have constantly been plagued by increasingly violent political turmoil due to a growing intolerance toward their minorities. Regional experts now fear that religious fundamentalism and militancy are not only destroying South Asia's ethnic diversity, but also are putting the region's political secularism in danger of collapse. Hindu extremists in India, Tamil militants in Sri Lanka, and Islamic fundamen talists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh pose a threat to the region's secular fabric.

Indian experience with fundamentalism has been bloody and traumatic. Mahatma Gandhi, before he could fully savor the fresh air of independent India, fell victim to a Hindu fundamentalist's bullets. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her own Sikh bodyguard in the aftermath of the Sikh fundamentalist movement that swept through the vibrant state of Punjab in the early 1980s. …

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