The Trouble with Secularism

Husband of a Fanatic: A Personal Journey through India, Pakistan, Love and Hate. By Amitava Kumar. (New York: The New Press, 2005). 320 pp. Hardcover: US$24.95

There's a box in a closet in my parents home in suburban Connecticut. It's the kind of box that gathers dust and is usually forgotten about until someone moves or dies.

One day, my sister opened up the box and was surprised to find dozens of black and white photos that we'd never seen before. She called me over to see them.

One of the pictures particularly startled me. It's from the 1930s, I learned, and it's shot in Abbottabad, my father's ancestral hometown in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province. Abbotabad was named after Major James Abbot, who was sent to the region to establish an administrative base for the British. I'd never seen an image of the town before, let alone visited it.

In the picture, town officials and elders sit at scattered tables in the courtyard of a colonial tennis club. The courtyard overlooks the nearby foothills. My father points out his own father and puts names to some of the faces he remembers. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs share tables with one another. Hindus and Muslims are wearing the same pagaris, my father points out. A turban is a symbol of community for them, not an indicator of difference.

None of the men betray any emotion before the camera. They appear almost frozen, as people did when photographic technology was either primitive or disconcerting. I can't help but imagine that when not under the camera's gaze, my ancestors in the picture probably ate together as friends and members of the same community. In this photo, there is no evidence of the scathing religious violence and hatred that would define the subcontinent's Partition nearly a decade later, leaving permanent scars on the children of partition, as well as the generations to come.

In his forthcoming book Husband of a Fanatic, Amitava Kumar laments the absence of the inter-religious sense of community and tolerance in South Asia that is evidenced in my family photo. He calls for the resurrection of a "syncretic" and "fluid" South Asian identity that speaks of the region's unequivocally multi-ethnic and multi-cultural past. The denial of such an identity undoubtedly enabled the slaughtering of hundreds of thousands of South Asians of all faiths during Partition, as well as the resurgence of religious violence that continues to afflict India decades later.


Kumar's writing calls attention to the often-ironic cruelties that define the contemporary world. Kumar possesses a rare self-awareness that allows him to question his own politics, intellectualism and idealism. His first book, Passport Photos, is an academic but nonetheless iconoclastic examination of post-colonial and South Asian identity politics that "aligns scholarship and activism". In Passport Photos, he develops a theoretical basis that he more profoundly articulates in his two subsequent books, calling for new ways of conceiving community which transgress rather than reinforce the physical and figurative boundaries of culture and nationality. In Passport Photos as well as Bombay London New York, Kumar's second book, he supplements his theoretical prose with evocative photographs and poetry, enhancing his arguments and cultural critiques and blurring the boundaries that divide different genres of literature.

Husband of a Fanatic is a heterogeneous and complex memoir that is an amalgamation of journalism, criticism and theory. Kumar uses his marriage to a Pakistani Muslim woman—the so-called "enemy"—as an opportunity to reflect on the social, psychological and economic realities associated with the religious violence that has afflicted South Asia for the past 60 years. Husband of a Fanatic is an incisive indictment of religious fundamentalism and hatred in India, and to a lesser extent, Pakistan, which suggests new ways of thinking and writing about culture and violence. The book is not only intimate and personal, but it is imbued with the artistry of a practiced storyteller.

For Kumar, barriers to economic and social mobility have also fomented violent religious nationalism throughout the rest of India. In his hometown of Patna, Kumar observes and speaks with an RSS youth group meeting in a park in which he used to play cricket as a boy. He discerns that the boys are from high castes but are not affluent. They are from a part of "Bihari society that has felt marginalized by the rise of the so-called backward castes... These young men, with little economic potential and decreasing political clout, had reached out for a right-wing nationalist ideology that granted them morality and masculinity—at the expense of the minorities and the other who, till yesterday, they had been able to dismiss as inferior." Like in Kashmir—and even in Europe and North America—these Bihari boys had aligned themselves with a divisive and xenophobic nationalist ideology because their society has provided them with limited opportunities. Widespread fundamentalism takes root when those in search of power capitalize on such frustration and fan the flames of young people's fear, resentment and desperation. Not because of a mythical "clash of civilizations" as articulated by the likes of Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington.

While economic inequities along religious lines procure communal hatred and a virulent form of nationalism, Kumar also gives examples of the divisive and manipulative propaganda that disseminates fear and hatred and creates conditions in which large-scale religious violence can take place. For example, textbooks are nationalized and Islamicized in schools on both sides of the India-Pakistan border to demonize the other's religion and culture, instilling hatred in the youngest members of the population. Furthermore, a former member of the RSS admits in a video that he and his fellow "volunteers" would "fabricate letters and posters ostensibly written by Muslims. The texts would suggest that Muslims were planning an attack on Hindus. The RSS would produce such posters in order to incite riots."


Although Kumar understands South Asia's upsurge in violent religiosity in terms of its economic, social and governmental roots, the proliferation of religious violence also forces him to scrutinize the efficacy of India's secular leadership, as well as his own secular intellectual beliefs and idealism. Throughout Husband of a Fanatic, Kumar gets progressively more skeptical of secularism's ability to combat religious fundamentalism and begins to see it as an elitist force that is unable to remedy the problems that affront India. "... perhaps where the Indian brand of secularism had failed was that it was essentially a provision of the state, and spoke the language of the law. It did not, in other words, speak the language of the people, and, as a result, remained elitist and therefore profoundly undemocratic."

To effectively combat fundamentalism, Kumar suggests, people from a religious middle ground would have to condemn violence in the name of a religion. This would be "an invaluable supplement to the powerful voices that had been raised from the dry land of secularism."

Kumar goes on to emphasize that his syncretic notion of South Asian identity in which people should "boldly stake claims to many identities, many communities" would have to be inclusive not only of South Asia's different cultures, but of religion itself. Kumar looks to Gandhi as a person who possessed an archetypal conception of the religiously and culturally fluid South Asian identity that Kumar yearns for himself and the subcontinent. While the devout secularist as well as Gandhi skeptics who are not advocates of Hindutva might find this hard to swallow, it is here that Kumar is most provocative and innovative.

Instead of being forced into a secular identity, Kumar wants to be truthful to a more personal identity—that of being the son of Hindu parents who married a Muslim woman and converted to her religion, albeit just on paper. He "must not speak in the language of rational certainties but in the faltering vernacular of doubt and half-faith. I am a Hindu, and I am not."

"Particularly as a writer, it appears to me that in a world where belief is being taken hostage by fundamentalists and where secular or worldly reason is the weapon of the powerful, the exploration of doubt or what I would call the benefits of half-faiths holds a promise that one cannot possibly ignore."


To this effect, Husband of a Fanatic's most humane and optimistic contribution arises out of Kumar taking his discussion of religious hatred and nationalism to the classroom. He visits schools in both India and Pakistan and asks students to write letters to their respective "enemies" across the border. Some letters speak of the hate and ignorance inherent to the national discourses of both countries. However, a few of them reveal an open-mindedness and honesty that is unique to children.

"I have never been to India but have always imagined how it would be to meet the people living over there. I think that there are lots of things which are common in both of us. Like we speak almost the same language only their names are different. We also look like as if we are of the same country. If we make one man from India and the other man from Pakistan stand together and ask a foreigner to tell who belongs to India and Pakistan, he will not be able to give the answer."

Perhaps we can turn to diasporic spaces as places where we can come to terms with an identity that is inclusive of a broader and less divisive notion of South Asia. In an interview that I once conducted with the Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid, he spoke of a more inclusive South Asian identity that only exists in New York. "I would say that New York to me feels like the capital of the South Asian diaspora, and in a certain sense, the capital of South Asia, just because, given that South Asians have been so hostile to each other, so much of our mixing has had to happen outside of South Asia." But Hamid is a successful and privileged writer, and writers by nature are idealistic. What about everyone else—the other immigrants who come from South Asia to refurbish brownstones or sell fruit and magazines?

I turn to my own pedagogical experiences to answer this question. Every summer I teach remedial English at the New York City College of Technology in downtown Brooklyn, which boasts that it has the most diverse campus on the eastern seaboard.

Most of my students are lower-middle class immigrants who migrated to New York in their teens. I had three South Asian students there one summer, who met for the first time in my classroom. Jagvinder, a Punjabi Sardar, Majid, a Punjabi Pakistani, and Ishtiaq, a Kashmiri. A few weeks into the class, during a break one day, I saw the three boys laughing together in a corner and speaking Punjabi. Unable to understand their words in my parents' language, I asked them to tell me what was so funny. They told the story of their weekend spent playing cricket together in a park in Queens.

Comments, Muslims and Sikhs allotment tables with one another. Hindus and Muslims are cutting the aforementioned pagaris, my ancestor credibility out. A turban is a attribute of association for them, not an indicator of difference.

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