Privilege keeps many from seeing the violence in India: Historian Aparna Vaidik

Courtesy Aparna Vaidik
04 October, 2020

Aparna Vaidik is an author and a historian, currently teaching at the Ashoka University in Haryana. She comes from a family deeply influenced by strictures of Hindu orthodoxy and Hindu nationalism. Partly as a result of her life in cosmopolitan Delhi and her academic career, she identified and explored the violence that undergirds Hindu nationalism, and more broadly Indian history and mythology.

Her latest book, My Son’s Inheritance: A Secret History of Blood Justice and Lynchings in India, was published in the wake of the lynchings of Muslims and Dalits by Hindu majoritarian outfits in recent years, in the name of cow protection, and protests against them. In the book, Vaidik visits Khatu Shyamji, a small town in Rajasthan to which her family traces its ancestry in part. She explores upper-caste Hindus’ long history of violence in the name of gau raksha—cow protection. Vaidik critiques the indifference of many Indians, including of liberals, to the violence that, she argues, is replete in Indian history and Hindu mythology. She also points to how upper-caste privilege plays a major role in people’s inability to recognise this violence.

As Indian politics places itself firmly on the right of the ideological spectrum, some individuals who were previously members of right-wing organisations, have moved towards the Left—or at least, away from the Right. Yet, others, who hail from a notably right-wing milieu, never embraced it and have become the political right’s fiercest critics. What makes such individuals go against the stream? What events, situations and considerations shape their decisions? Abhimanyu Chandra, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, seeks to explore these transitions in a series of interviews, titled Converse Lens, published by The Caravan. Chandra spoke to Vaidik over e-mail about why and how she did not take the baton of Hindu nationalism passed on to her by her grandfather, and her study on the violence inherent, as she argues, in India’s past. 

Abhimanyu Chandra: In your book My Son’s Inheritance, you argue that evocations of India’s tolerant past do not hold up, and that Indian history and mythology, in fact, are ridden with violence. You say that such evocations are dangerous—they give those with privilege a free pass for the violence they have been complicit in. You also mention that this book was brewing in you for 20 years. Could you explain why?
Aparna Vaidik: I had made the first trip to Khatu Shyamji, a small town in Rajasthan central to my book’s narrative, about twenty years ago with my grandfather. Ever since, the two stories associated with Khatu Shyamji, one of a gau rakshak—cow-protector—ancestor named Bharmall who had immolated himself to protect a cow from a Muslim butcher, and the other, of a bodyless deity inside the Shyamji temple, have stayed with me. Thereafter, my intimate encounters with casteism in India and the racial politics in the United Kingdom and the United States provided me the experiential and intellectual resources to understand the historical meaning of these stories and other social-religious myths. We had already witnessed the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the rising fortunes of the economic and cultural right-wing and the riots, lynchings, killing of artists, anti-intellectualism and the muzzling of dissent that accompanied them.

My disquiet finally reached a crescendo with the spate of lynchings in 2017 and 2018. As a historian, I had lost my belief in the persuasive power of the historical mode of narration. For a while, I had felt that we needed to tell historical narratives differently; ones that were more accessible to the public. We, as social scientists and humanists, are accountable to not only our peers and the institutions we serve but also to the society and the times we live in. This convinced me to experiment with writing creative non-fiction, or, one can say, public history.

AC: You write that your grandfather, as a young man, “responded to Savarkar’s clarion call of the ‘Hindu rashtriya chetna’”—Hindu national consciousness—and that your grandfather’s “path to the Hindu Mahasabha was paved through the Arya Samaj.” Could you speak to the ideological influence he had on your father and on you?
AV: To speak of ideological influence alone presumes that somehow the ideas we have are separate from the lives and worlds that we inhabit. Our lives do not come to us as an ideology. It comes as a “habitus,” or ways of being and doing that are socially ingrained. Habitus works as pre-given reality in the form of daily rituals, our family habits, the language one speaks, the clothes one chooses to wear, the food one eats and the way one eats—a framework that often remains invisible.

My grandfather’s influence came in the form of a habitus—a Hindi and Marwari-speaking Arya Samaji mercantile household; performing havan, a Vedic fire ritual, every Sunday morning; irreverence towards rituals and sanatan, traditional or orthodox Hindu, practices; traditional, gendered labour divisions but no practice of purdah, women wearing veils; and a love of history. Although the book focusses only on my relationship with my grandfather, I was also influenced by other adults; and my growing up years constituted of journeying between the different regional cultures.

My parents’ household was much more eclectic. The force of my grandfather’s ideas was tempered by my father’s education at the School of International Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Columbia University, the Moscow State University and by his association with Rammanohar Lohia and Jaiprakash Narayan—two prominent left-wing figures. He learnt Pashto and Russian for his research. Our life in Delhi included people from varied walks of life and divergent ideologies, from Hindi litterateurs and journalists, Agyeya, Dharamveer Bharti, Prabhash Joshi and Balkavi Bairagi, to right-wing leaders such as Atal Bihari Vajpeyee and Balraj Madhok, to socialists and grassroots leaders like Madhu Limaye, George Fernandes, Swami Agnivesh, VP Singh, and Chandrashekhar. It also included Congress leaders such as Indira Gandhi and Narasimha Rao. Bhagwat Jha Azad—the Congress leader who was a former chief minister of Bihar—was my father’s local guardian when he first moved to Delhi. He also used to take Hindi lessons for HD Deve Gowda—the Janata Dal leader and former prime minister.

My father being an expert of foreign affairs, particularly Afghanistan, meant that we had a steady stream of visitors and friends from Afghanistan, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, China and Pakistan, besides family members from across India. My mother, a scholar of the Upanishads—Sanskrit treatises—was a quiet but a strong countervailing force against the excesses of the male family members.

AC: You write that your grandfather gave you books by PN Oak, an ardent Hindu nationalist. You add that you read them but “didn’t know what to make of them.” Could you speak more to this experience—given the content of these books, for instance their unfounded assertions that various structures around India (and beyond) are Hindu structures, which Muslims desecrated?
AV: PN Oak’s books befuddled me not simply because of their content but because they were loving gifts from an authority figure. I assumed he gave me the books because I was the only grandchild who loved to read, but a part of me also knew that they towed an ideology. We had a lovely history teacher in school who did her best to make history come alive for us. Nothing in her teaching corroborated the information in Oak’s books. So, while Oak’s content never rang true, I didn’t have the academic wherewithal at that time to refute Oak’s arguments. I remember many years later, after I had embarked on graduate studies in History, I was able to give my grandfather the reasons why Oak’s work was erroneous. It was deeply satisfying to see my grandfather quietly pause for several minutes as he contemplated my arguments against Oak. Our relationship turned a corner thereafter.

AC: You write that your grandfather was opposed to your studying in England—but nonetheless you went to the University of Cambridge where you studied history. You write that his view was that education in England would “corrupt” you. Could you explain what, specifically, he may have meant by this? And how did you contend with his view?
AV: Corruption is a term with moral overtones. English-medium education in convent schools, in his view, “corrupted” children, that is, it alienated them from their culture. This view was a mix of anti-British and anti-conversion sentiments. The Christian schools offering education in English were seen as sly instruments of conversion and of acculturation. My cousins who lived with him in Indore throughout studied at Hindi-medium schools. Here I was desiring to not only study in English but at a British institution, the seat of empire.

In this instance, his perspective was also oddly gendered. He sent a long fax from Indore forbidding my parents who lived in Delhi from sending me abroad, and among the reasons he enumerated was that this education will give me airs. He prophesised, “Yeh apni saas-sasur ko paani ka ek glass bhi nahi pilayegi”—She will not offer her in-laws even a glass of water.

This was surprising because he otherwise championed female education and empowerment. All my aunts had completed their MA and one was a pathologist, and years later, when my grandmother died, he asked my eldest bua, my father’s sister (and not my father who is the eldest son) to give the mukhagni—the ceremony of lighting the funeral pyre, traditionally done by men—setting several tongues wagging in the wider family circle. So, he was a man full of contradictions. His fax filled me with rancour as I sought his validation and appreciation for having done well in my studies. My parents, however, held steadfast and made sure that I went.

AC: You write that in telling you of the perceived family ancestor Bharmall—whose story is wrapped up in Hindu nationalist tropes of cow protection, of the “aggressor Muslim”—your grandfather “had passed on the parampara’s baton”—the baton of tradition—and that you “had been anointed as the next in line.” But you didn’t take the baton. So many others in your position, however, would have, and do. Could you explain why you didn’t take the baton of what broadly can be called Hindu nationalism—and what makes so many others take the ideological batons they receive from their grandparents and parents?
AV: The imagery that the phrase “taking the baton” evokes is of a relay-runner going in circles on the same track. I would like to tweak this imagery and say that I did take the baton but ran a different course. The baton I took forward was not of Hindu nationalism but of irreverence, defiance, intellectual curiosity, and an acerbic tongue. If I was reading PN Oak, I was also reading authors and activists like Sharatchandra, Mahasweta Devi, Ashapurna Devi, Tolstoy, Gorky, Turgenev, Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Guy de Maupassant, George Eliot, and Jane Austen.

After studying at Cambridge, I chose to return to India and study at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU. Despite knowing about my family background, I was unconditionally accepted by my teachers, especially Neeladri Bhattacharya and Madhavan Palat, who nurtured my person and intellect. Further, I could have reaped social gains like most of my friends did, had I chosen a life partner from within my caste or class network (what one can call in-group marriages). However, I chose to be with a person who did not fit into either network, which eventually meant, that I was shunned both by my wider family and friends’ circles. I now had chance to see what my world looked like from the perspective of an “outcaste.”

Regarding the question what makes people carry forward the ideological batons they receive from their families, I believe this has more to do with preservation of one’s socio-cultural privilege than about ideology. Remaining aligned with one’s family’s ideology, obedience to parents and loyalty to family values are seen as good sanskar—value system—but really all that they do is preserve patriarchy, consolidate caste and generational privilege and ensure transference of club memberships.

AC: Did you know from a young age that you disagreed with Hindu nationalist ideas, or was there a period when you were indifferent to them, or perhaps in agreement with them?
AV: The challenge was not whether I believed in or was indifferent to the Hindu nationalist ideas. The challenge lay in knowing that some members of my family held strong nationalist views and were aligned with right-wing politics. This knowledge filled my life with unresolved contradictions. Our life in Delhi and the friend circle of my parents was far more cosmopolitan than the world of Hindu nationalism allowed for. At one level was the alignment with anti-Muslim rhetoric and on the other were my father’s Afghan, Kashmiri and Pakistani friends.

The Hindi-medium, but “secular” and elite, school that I went to further heightened my sense of dislocation. There was the Arya Samaji anti-caste reformism on one hand, and opposition to my inter-caste marriage on the other. As a young person, I had little emotional wherewithal as I straddled my irreconcilable worlds. I responded to this quandary most often with shame, sometimes angry rebellion and at times grudging acquiescence. In this much, My Son’s Inheritance is my bildungsroman, a coming-of-age text. It’s my acceptance of and reconciliation with the different and, at times, mutually opposed dimensions of my life and an attempt to familiarise the next generation about them, because these worlds would be theirs as well.

AC: You write in the book that evidence and texts—such as the works of a Saadat Hasan Manto or an Amrita Pritam, both intensely free-minded and often contrarian authors—will not always change a person’s viewpoint. Could you elaborate on this? If not evidence and texts, what changes a person’s viewpoint?
AV: Betrayal can change a person’s viewpoint. Betrayal can take many forms—the realisation of the falseness of the professed ideals, or the betrayal of trust, friendship and bonds of love. One can see this is the writing of Bhanwar Meghwanshi. His rupture from the RSS—the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—comes when his co-workers throw away the food from his home because he was a Dalit. In that moment, he realised that the Hindu nation he was standing up for was actually a Brahmin nation. This is reminiscent of Gandhi’s realisation of being a colonial subject when he was thrown out of the first-class rail compartment in South Africa despite his fancy clothes and good English. Education based on critical thinking, although painstakingly slow, can also change a person’s viewpoint and transform society.

AC: You write that during the 2017-18 anti-lynching protests, those “who invoked non-violence as India’s essence are not much different from the ones who empathized with Godse.” Could you explain this comparison further—are the two kinds of groups equally complicit in violence?
AV: This book is talking about the complicity of the ordinary law-abiding Indian, irrespective of their political ideology, in keeping structures of violence in place. The book argues that perpetrators of this violence have not always been the state, the rulers, the police or the army but the ordinary Indian who thinks of India and Hinduism, the majoritarian religion of the subcontinent, as tolerant, spiritual and non-violent. This person is often the silent witness or a bystander to whom the violence in Indian society remains invisible unless there is an incident of rape or lynching.

In doing so, the book addresses the “banality of evil,” a phrase coined by the philosopher Hannah Arendt. Arendt argues that it was not just the big generals and the Nazi party officers who were responsible for the Jewish holocaust but also the normal, ordinary, everyday people who went about their everyday lives, did their jobs and obeyed the laws. It is easier to understand the mind of thinkers and ideologues but, as Arendt shows, it is immensely hard to fathom the mind of an ordinary person.

Carlo Ginzberg—the prominent Italian historian—has attempted this in his book The Cheese and Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller, which seeks to understand an ordinary miller’s notions of how the cosmos came into being. In a similar vein, My Son’s Inheritance examines an ordinary law-abiding Indian’s mentality that either denies the existence of violence or sees it as something that foreigners or wrongdoers indulge in. This violence is invisibilised because it comes secretly embedded in our myths, folklore, poetry, literature, and language. Moreover, what keeps us from seeing the violence, especially caste violence and the abuse of minorities, is our privilege.

AC: How would you rather that those opposed to lynchings articulate their protest?
AV: No doubt Mahatma Gandhi’s ideal of ahimsa—broadly of the principle of non-violence—Ashoka Maurya’s adoption of non-violence as a state policy, Buddhism, and the Ganga-Jamni sanskriti—the syncretic culture particularly of Hinduism and Islam in the Gangetic plain that emphasises unity and multi-communitarianism—are inspiring facets of Indian history. The Indian public intellectuals from Amartya Sen to Shashi Tharoor have invoked these elements of India’s historical past to debunk majoritarianism, to decry communal conflict and to critique right-wing political agendas.

However, quite often the invocation of India’s composite tradition and the Bhakti movement—an individualistic theistic tradition in Hinduism—conveniently helps us set aside conversation about caste oppression. As if the world of syncretic culture and the egalitarian ideology of the Bhakti saints inoculates us against casteism. It helps us “de-caste” ourselves while keeping our caste privilege intact. In a similar fashion, we presume that our self is unsullied by violence. Therefore, those protesting the lynchings need to own up to their complicity in keeping structures of violence in place.

AC: What is the way out of supremacist ideologies, such as Hindu nationalism? Recognising the violence—within Hindu nationalism, within Indian history broadly—presumably is one step. What is the next step, and how does society undertake it—the step perhaps of seeking to heal wounds, to work towards an active peace?
AV: The question presumes that the first step towards recognising the violence in Indian history has been taken. Unfortunately, it is yet to be taken. The inheritance of our historical violence, the book demonstrates, comes to us in the form of a secret, a secret that is hidden in plain sight. It is visible and yet we don’t see it. Only once the secret is unveiled the question of atonement or redemption will come up: How do we redeem ourselves? How do we atone?

According to My Son’s Inheritance, atonement lies in the Indians first owning up to their history of violence. The choice is to either hide one’s shame and generate even more violence or to own up to one’s historical shame and break the silence around violence. For it is our silence borne out of privilege that perpetuates violence. We will know we are moving towards atonement when upper-caste Indians will stop debating whether we should have reservation—affirmative action for historically marginalised groups—or not. Another antidote to hate is, according to writer Suraj Yengde, ‘Dalit love’. He argues that we rely on arranged or in-group marriages for fear of Dalit love but the latter “has the ability to inject ideals of justice, compassion and forgiveness” in orthodox minds.

This interview has been edited and condensed.