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Monday, June 14, 2021

‘The book is an outcome of my disquiet… my book of mourning’

Historian Aparna Vaidik on examining the history and culture of violence in Indian society, apathy of the middle class, and cow lynchings in My Son's Inheritance.

Written by Surbhi Gupta | New Delhi |
November 11, 2020 5:21:52 pm
Her forthcoming book is titled Waiting for Swaraj: Inner Lives of Indian Revolutionaries.

A provocative examination of the history of lynching in India, in My Son’s Inheritance: A Secret and History of Lynching and Blood Justice in India (Rs 499, Aleph Book Company) historian Aparna Vaidik offers powerful insights into the phenomenon by demonstrating how violence is secretly embedded in the myths, folklore, poetry, literature and language of the country, therefore invisiblising it. By delving deep into her family history, she illustrates how widespread violence is in Indian society, and disabuses the myth that non-violence and tolerance are the essence of Indian culture.

Vaidik, Associate Professor of history at Ashoka University, previously taught at Georgetown University in Washington DC, and Delhi University. An alumni of St Stephen’s College and the University of Cambridge, she received a PhD from the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU. Her forthcoming book is titled Waiting for Swaraj: Inner Lives of Indian Revolutionaries. Excerpts from an interview:

You had thought of this book about two decades ago and we’re reading it in 2020. Could you tell us about the initial idea and what made you finally write it?

I visited a Krishna temple in the town of Khatu Shyamji in Rajasthan around 20 years back with my grandfather. The temple’s idol was in the form of a severed bodyless head that was worshipped as Krishna (or Shyamji) but was actually of a demon called Barbareek. This got me thinking about religiously-sanctified violence. Ever since the two stories associated with the town, one of the bodyless diety inside the Shyamji temple and, the other, of a gaurakshak ancestor named Bharmall, who had immolated himself to protect a cow from a Muslim butcher, had stayed with me. At that time I only had questions which got layered over with even more complex questions as the years went by. But slowly I began to find answers, as I journeyed from being a student to a research scholar, teacher and a householder. The book is an outcome of my disquiet that started with the Dadri lynching in 2015, the ensuing estrangement from several family members who supported the lynchings and the indifference of liberal friends who sat around talking about non-violence over expensive cocktails.

You call the book your coming of age text, where you’ve investigated the political through your personal and familial history. You talk about your grandfather’s beliefs, your ancestral town Khatu, the Indore riots in 1989. How did you decide what approach to take for this book?

While the book does not read like one, it is also my book of mourning, a marsiya. Think about this, how does one write about something like lynching – a barbarous human act that is akin to cannibalism and gang rape but one that is carried out in the name of collective retributive justice? How does one write about friends and family who justify it, condone it or are at best indifferent to it? Could the dry academic prose capture this chilling story? I decided to write the book from my own vantage point, in my own voice and tell the story that came from my experience. That seemed to be the most authentic and honest approach to take.

Who have you written this for?

I had long felt that if we wanted to challenge the growing anti-intellectualism in the public sphere, we needed to tell historical narratives differently, ones that were more accessible to the public. This convinced me to experiment with writing a creative non-fiction, or what I call public history — which aims at public dissemination of historical knowledge and is therefore written in a form accessible to the lay reader. The narrative of the book instead of focusing on big leaders and national events, narrates the history of India through the life history of an ordinary person and thereby provides a point of identification for the readers. This helps the readers imagine themselves as historical agents and not just as recipients of historical knowledge generated by historians. It also forces them to reckon with history and its ‘facts’. The book has the word ‘son’ in its title, which is a metaphor for the presumed reader of the book – a young person, a student and the current generation is growing up in this ‘Incredible India’.

By delving deep into her family history, she illustrates how widespread violence is in Indian society, and disabuses the myth that non-violence and tolerance are the essence of Indian culture.

Why do you think the upper caste and middle-class are not empathetic towards the minorities and oppressed in India?

To answer this question one will have to upack the myth of the ‘Poor Brahmin’. The word Brahmin here is a metaphor for a savarna whose social capital is offset by insufficient economic capital and who, therefore, runs the risk of sinking below the line of survival. He encounters an uneven playing field by virtue of his birth which he is called on to level with hard work, honesty and his innate merit – all without inflicting violence on anyone. His life was made worse in Independent India with provision of caste-based reservation and minority appeasement which left him out of the much needed state-support. He had to work hard to acquire social respectability while others raced ahead aided by caste-based reservation. The fact, however, is that even the poorest of the Poor Brahmin never had to carry the nightsoil on his head, clean the sewages, clear the cattle carcasses or live on the fringes of the village. He was never prevented from drawing water from the village well nor from entering the place of worship. His shadow never soiled another human being. This myth invisibilises Poor Brahmin’s caste privilege and perpetuates the feelings of him being the historical victim. This myth as the collective unconscious of India’s majority community makes them unsee oppression.

In the chapter about lynchings, you take us back to the US in the Jim Crow era, and how there was a fear of being raped by Black men among white women. In India, we have the conspiracy theory of love jihad. What do you make of this fear?

The hanging and burning of the Black man also often involved mutilation of his private parts. This was done to destroy the organ with which he could defile the white woman. This belief stemmed from the fear of miscegenation or inter-racial unions that threatened to dilute the blood purity of the white people. In the Indian context, this fear of miscegenation finds expression in the elaborate rules of endogamy (marrying within one’s caste) on which the entire edifice of caste system rests. Here the person who can threaten the blood purity is the virile and the morally degraded Muslim or a Dalit man. This fear of defilement fuels the imagination of love jihad – a conspiracy by the Muslims to abduct and rape the Hindu woman under the pretence of love. Lynching is a way of avenging Hindu honour and punishing the Muslim man’s transgression. I believe this fear or phobia defines the Hindu majoritarian identity. The interesting thing will be to see if the Hindu is able to recognise himself outside of this fear? What would he be without it?

You’ve written in detail about the history of the cow protection movement in the 20th century. But what is it about the issue that catches people’s imagination in 2020?

Is cow protection really about protecting the animal? No. It never was. If people really cared about cows, you wouldn’t find them eating out of garbage dumps and roaming around on busy roads. The cow is a historical symbol for a Hindu woman who needs to be protected from the Muslims (the one who eats the cow). It embodies a Hindu’s hate towards the Muslims. As my book shows, these imageries have been around since the late nineteenth century and they surface from time to time when the majoritarian community starts feeling ‘threatened’. What has made the soil fertile for its mobilisation is neo-liberalism and majoritarianism.

Mass mobilisation in the last century was aided through print media and cultural events in the rural landscape, which has now been replaced by the deep penetration of social media. Can one draw parallels between the two?

Yes, technology is very much implicated in mass mobilisation. ‘WhatsApp vigilantism’ has played a significant role in fuelling mob violence. It enabled a circulation of spectacular and sensational videos and messages at a very high speed that invited pornographic voyeurism. The messages asking people to ‘protect their community’, ‘save their children’, ‘Hindus are under threat’, ‘the nation is under attack’, and ‘apprehend the perpetrators’ created a sense of urgency and a feeling of being under threat. This made people come out of their homes in mobs and the collective action came to be justified as a ‘civic duty’.

What made you connect the history of violence to the life story of Jotiba Phule?

We were reading about Jotiba Phule and his Satyashodhak Sabha since our school days but we knew nothing about him beyond that. Somehow his Ghulamgiri or Ambedkar’s Riddles of Hinduism or even his Annihilation of Caste never made an appearance in my postgraduate studies despite having done a PhD from JNU. The entire epistemic framework – of the way we research and write about the past – that was passed down in our academic training was a Brahmanical one. When we are taught the ‘theory of Aryan invasion’ or the origins of caste system, there is never a discussion on Phule’s or Periyar’s views, while we know all what German philologists, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Sri Aurobindo, Swami Dayanand, Vivekananda and Gandhi wrote. The non-Aryan (Dalit-Bahujan) imaginations, utopias and lives rarely ever figure in the academic or literary world. Aren’t these absences and erasures a form of epistemic violence? The life story of Phule thus has a profound and a direct connection to history of violence.

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