A few hundred years ago, there lived a native in the Rajasthani mofussil town of Khatu-Shyamji by the name of Bharmall. He was said to be an influential zamindar. They say, one day, the local Muslim butcher was forcibly walking away with some cows to the town for slaughter. Bharmall passionately swore that if the butcher were to take away the cows, he would immolate himself in protest. The butcher paid no heed and mercilessly dragged away the cows. Bharmall, a brave warrior, true to his honour, immolated himself. A stone tablet that narrated this heroic story was erected at the place where Bharmall immolated himself.
About 55 years ago, some people unearthed the stone tablet by chance, while digging to build a house. A small shrine was built there that came to be known as Bharmall ka Satta. Since then, supernatural and healing powers have come to be associated with it. It has become a tradition in the area for newly-weds to visit the shrine for a blissful conjugal life. It is also said that an offering at the shrine of a brinjal and a broom is a cure for facial moles.
Bharmall is my ancestor from my father’s side. He is supposed to have served as an official at the court of the local raja. I travelled to Khatu-Shyamji over a decade ago with my grandfather to see the shrine. I wish I had asked what this story meant to him. He is no longer alive to answer this question, but as a historian, I continue to wonder. How am I to understand this story? Is this yet another tale that captures the cruelty and insensitivity of the beef-eating Muslim and the heroism of the Hindu who rescues gaumata? Or is there another reading of this story?
The fount of Bharmall’s tale is the history of medieval Rajasthan, where cow protection against diseases and raids was a definitive aspect of the lives of pastoral communities. As outlined in the forthcoming book by historian Tanuja Kothiyal, cow protection also differentiated the culture of pastoral communities from that of trading communities.
The region of Khatu-Shyamji is littered with tablets commemorating “saint-warriors” (jujhars) who protected cattle from other Hindu adversaries. Bharmall was also one such warrior. However, in Bharmall’s tale, it is the Muslim butcher and not just another Rajput cattle-raiding group that is the abductor. When does this shift in the narrative occur? When was it that the Muslim butcher was inserted into the story, and why?
This interpolation of the Muslim butcher in commemorative tales and the reasons for it are to be found in the history of colonial and nationalist politics of the late 19th century. The cow, during this period, as historian Charu Gupta demonstrates, became an icon for the Hindu nation. Crucial in the popularisation of the idea of the cow as mother for Hindus was the mass production and consumption of certain visual images, in which the body of the cow was presented as a repository of all things Hindu.
The thriving print culture in north India facilitated the circulation of these ideas and imageries in pamphlets, handbills, posters and newspapers. They were available at newsstands, railway bookstalls, road intersections, schools and colleges, outside temples and hospitals, and also as images that people could carry in their pockets or stick on the walls of their homes or frame and keep in the family altar. It wasn’t difficult for this idea to take firm root in the people’s psyche, because assisting the mass consumption of these images were stories to go with them. These stories appeared in the form of poems, bhajans, and the speeches of Arya Samaj, Sanatan Dharma and Gaurakshini Sabha publicists.
The cow and her body came to epitomise motherhood, and her milk became the fount of nationhood. In all these images and stories, the villainous wrongdoer or the aggressor was the Muslim butcher who, in order to satiate his lust for cow-meat, would recklessly annihilate this sacred symbol of Hindus, unless thwarted by the devout Hindu. The mother cow (gaumata), the giver of milk that nourished the Hindu body, was presented as a suffering mother who beseeched her son (the Hindu nation) and invoked his manliness and sense of pride to save her life and honour.
Bharmall’s tale is uncannily similar to ones circulating in the late 19th century. The slight difference is that instead of attacking or lynching the butcher, Bharmall immolates himself. Notwithstanding this difference, all the tales mark the boundary between the Hindu self and the Muslim other. Hindu selfhood came to be closely tied to protecting the cow against the rogue Muslim who insisted on eating beef. This notion of self then became a sanatan identity — the unchanging identity that had come down from the ancient past to the present, wiping out any instance of beef-eating in the Indian subcontinent’s history, except when done by the Muslim other.
This was also a Hindu identity as defined by upper castes, as it denied the fact that several lower caste jatis ate beef — and still do. This identity also valorised the north Indian context and overlooked the socio-historical context of south India, where Hinduism was in dialogue not only with Islam but also with Christianity and Judaism, and there existed less squeamishness on cow-meat.
This definition of the Hindu self found its way into everyday life, literature, cinema, the arts and the hearts and minds of the Hindu nation. And the violation of this identity by the wily Muslim became a possibility that the Hindus had to be vigilant about. Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas captures this construction of the Hindu self. In the story, Muslims find a pig carcass at the footsteps of a mosque and retaliate by killing a cow, eventually leading to bloodshed between the Hindu and Muslim communities. Sahni further shows how the riot was linked to and made use of by politicians to get tickets to fight the upcoming elections. The identities of Hindus and Muslims forged in the crucible of conflict became easy tools in electoral politics.
The above analysis also helps us understand the recent lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri on the suspicion that he was keeping beef in his refrigerator. Invocations of emotionally charged notions of self — Hindus as protectors of the cow and Muslims as conniving beef-eaters — continue to be the easiest way to set off rumours and mobilise mobs, especially right before elections. How many tickets will Akhlaq’s cadaver win for the instigators of the mob?
So what is the moral of Bharmall’s story? For me, this tale is important in understanding how our identities and family histories get constituted. These tales harbour notions of selves and also constitute those selves. Locating these tales in their historical context reveals that the identities we live with today are historically constituted and are not sanatan. It also shows that these identities are embedded in histories of conflict. Now the choice is mine — either to perpetuate the conflictual identity and valorise the righteous Bharmall or renounce his legacy, unshackle my selfhood from his ghost and let myself mourn Akhlaq’s death. I think my grandfather would have liked me to choose the latter — or at least I wish he would have.
The writer is associate professor of history, Ashoka University, Kundli