Politics of faith

By Jamal Kidwai

Jamal Kidwai

Review of Saba Naqvi book In Good Faith, Telegraph, Feb 2013

Liminal or shared religious traditions in India are often celebrated as those cultural practices that have been subversive of religious orthodoxy and politics. Senior political journalist Saba Naqvi, in her book, In Good Faith, reinforces this argument by extensively documenting more than thirty such syncretic religious spaces across the country.

It deals philosophical questions of spirituality, religion and faith and relates them to contemporary politics, in simple, accessible language.The brilliant biographical introduction to the book sets the tone for the following chapters. It is obvious that this book is inspired by Naqvi’s own mixed family background and the deep despair encountered during the spate of communal violence in the 1980s and the tragic demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. She writes “the experiences shaped the way I thought and reacted”. After the Babri Masjid incident, she quit her job as the sub-editor of a news magazine and “set off on a journey across India to locate individuals, shrines and communities” that represent unity.

The first four chapters describe the shrines, communities and individuals she encounters in West Bengal. She finds a curious community of patachitra artistes in Nyaya village, Midnapore who finalize marriages according to the Hindu calender, the nikaah is performed by a qazi and women wear vermilion. In the Sunderbans she finds that their popular gods are “inextricably woven together” and have been shaped by the fears and anxieties related to the the man-eating tiger and the unique ecology of the place. There is an interesting chapter on the sufi-bakti fusion traditions of the Bauls. She then describes the concept of ‘Pirs’— applied to both real and mythical holy people in Bengal — by highlighting the example of a Brahmin priest at the famous Kalighat temple who was a devotee of Manikpir, an Islamic saint.

The next few chapters document sites in Maharashtra. Naqvi shows that the communal mobilization by various right wing organizations have destroyed the harmonious spirit of the state. The famous Haji Malang shrine in Thane and the religious spot of Sai Baba in Shirdi have been forcibly taken over by the Shiv Sena.

In Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, Naqvi is somewhat surprised to find that the most orthodox Hindu gods like Lord Jagannath having kinship with Salebeg, a Muslim saint-poet who was a devout follower.

In Tamil Nadu and Kerala, there are instances of the intermingling of Hindu, Islamic and Christian traditions. Naqvi talks about Nathar Vali, believed to be the first Muslim missionary to have settled in India. The Nadar community is believed to practise both Christianity and Hinduism. She travels extensively in Rajasthan and writes about the Meo Muslims of Mewat, the Maganiyars, Langa singers and the Bhattiani Sati Rani.

Naqvi seems most moved and yet somewhat troubled by the contradictions posed by Sufi traditions in Uttar Pradesh. This is a state which has experienced the most brutal communal violence like that of Meerut in 1987. Incidentally, Meerut hosts the Nauchandi Mela which commemorates the Hindu Navratri celebrations and Urs festivities.

Ayodhya, where the famous Babri Masjid stood, is also home to many individuals like Ansar Hussain, the Muslim care taker of Sundar Bhawan and the maverick Laljibhai Satyanesha, a Gandhian who set up a temple housing many religious idols. She ends the book by describing Bombay cinema as one of the popular examples of the shared traditions of India.

Naqvi sometimes falls short of the rigour and methodology required to conduct research on religion. But the book seeks to understand the role of religion in politics.