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

04 October 2020
Courtesy Aparna Vaidik
Courtesy Aparna Vaidik

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.

Abhimanyu Chandra is a PhD student in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago.

Keywords: Converse Lens upper-caste Hindus Hindutva mob lynching history