Myth of India's non-violent culture

Updated: Feb 10, 2020, 07:47 IST | Ajaz Ashraf | Mumbai

Aparna Vaidik's historical work, My Son's Inheritance: A Secret History of Lynching and Blood Justice in India, examines how violence of the righteous has given India a bloody past and present

A 2017 silent protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi following a spate of anti-Muslim killings. Pic/AFP FIle
A 2017 silent protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi following a spate of anti-Muslim killings. Pic/AFP FIle

Ajaz AshrafIndia's definition of its culture as non-violent seemed a fiction at every lynching undertaken in the name of the cow over the last six years. The fiction resembled a charade as those barbaric killings failed to spark a popular outrage. The charade turned into a cruel joke as Bharatiya Janata Party leaders resorted to the rhetoric of violence in their campaign for the Delhi Assembly elections, a testament to the party's belief that Indians do not necessarily recoil from hate and gore.

This puzzle of violence seducing a people who claim their culture to be non-violent is probed by Aparna Vaidik in her recently released book, My Son's Inheritance: A Secret History of Lynching and Blood Justice in India. It has the depth of an academic tome, traversing centuries to fathom the construction of the modern Hindu identity, yet it is as gripping as the best of fiction.

This effect is because Vaidik harnesses history to solve the mystery shrouding the ideological predilection of her grandfather, a bania by caste, who embraced the Arya Samaj, joined the Hindu Mahasabha, fulminated against Mahatma Gandhi, wrote pamphlets to warn Hindus that Muslim would soon outnumber them, denounced Mother Teresa as a prophet of hell, and extolled cow-protection.

Born in 1924, Vaidik's grandfather shifted from Khatu Shyamji, Rajasthan, to Indore, Madhya Pradesh, where he remained captivated by the memory of one of his ancestors, Bharmall, whose tale of bravery he often narrated to his granddaughter. An influential zamindar, Bharmall one day came across a Muslim butcher taking away some cows for slaughter. He swore that if the butcher were not to release the cows, he would immolate himself. Bharmall did so, at the butcher's refusal. A shrine was erected at the spot where he had immolated himself. Thus was born a "historical victim", from whom the writer's grandfather drew inspiration. Why?

This question has Vaidik investigate how the cow was sacralised in 17th century Rajasthan, and its emergence as the defining element of the sanatan dharma, or eternal religion. Taking their cue from the Orientalists, India's 19th-century social reformers identified the eternal religion to have been embodied in its purest form in the Vedic corpus of the so-called Aryans race, looked upon as builders of the Indian civilisation. "In their understanding, the glorious Aryan tradition was synonymous with Hindu," Vaidik writes. They believed that their pure religion became degraded because of their contact with the barbarian Others — the Dravidians, the adivasis, the Muslims and the Christians.

The reformers sought to recover the Aryan Utopia by purging the pure Vedic religion of all false accretions, in the process spawning a few myths about Indian civilisation. Among these were Vivekananda's claims that the Aryans did not settle in India by annihilating the previous inhabitants, but by absorbing them; that the Aryan civilisation's defining features of tolerance, spirituality and philosophy of non-violence enabled it to survive over centuries.

To the three attributes of the Aryan identity, Dayanand Saraswati, the founder of the Arya Samaj, added the fourth one — cow protection. His movement to protect cows sparked riots between Hindus and Muslims. Violence forged a Hindu identity, which was nationalistic and modern. "This identity situated anyone consuming beef as not only outside the Hindu fold but also antagonistic to it (as anti-Hindu)," Vaidik writes.

The grandfather's name is not disclosed until the mystery of his captivation with Bharmall is resolved. It was through the story of Bharmall that the "Arya Samaj, cow-protection, the nation and his self" came together for Jagdish, the author's grandfather, who had replaced his caste surname with Vaidik to become "a Vedic – the Aryan."

"He saw Bharmall not just as his ancestor but himself in Bharmall. Jagdish was Bharmall. Bharmall was a link in the chain that tied Jagdish to the Aryans. They were all warriors… who had devoted their lives to protect the eternal tradition," Vaidik concludes. It was about retrieving, and reliving, the imagined pristine life of the Aryan, in the same manner as Donna Tartt's characters wish to experience the Bacchanalia of ancient Greece in her novel, The Secret History, with devastating consequences.

Jagdish's ideology has turned lynching into the violence of the righteous. Their violence has been invisibilised and, therefore, normalised by religious myths, which portray it as just and necessary for maintaining the eternal tradition and its unequal social order, as Vaidik shows through the examples of Eklavya, Karna and Barbareek. None of the three was pure Aryan. Their redemption lay in their subordination, their sacrifice. These myths show India's past was bloody, as is its present.

My Son's Inheritance follows Upendra Singh's Political Violence in Ancient India and Giovanni Verardi's Hardships and Downfall of Buddhism in India. Vaidik, like the other two, interrogates the myth of India's non-violent culture, with a style rarely adopted to write history in India. And yes, I have not disclosed a twist in the story of Vaidik's grandfather.

The writer is a senior journalist

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