The morning chores awaited us. I made my way into the kitchen and your father got busy with loading the washing machine and soaking your school shirts in the whitener. As I was preparing breakfast, a vivid memory of a silent protest I had seen on TV a few months ago came to me. It was an event that was organised to protest and grieve the spate of lynchings in the country.
Some people in the crowd were holding candles, with wax slowly dripping on their fingers and singeing them lightly. Some held banners painted with bold slogans. Others stood in groups and chatted. Some were smoking. Night had fallen. It was a silent protest. The air simmered with anger, outrage, shock, and grief. I spotted several people I knew in that crowd, my associates, neighbours, and people I had met at different times in my life.
There were also celebrities, social activists, and political commentators. News reporters mingled in the crowd gathering sound bites. The noise of the traffic whizzing by was audible over the microphone. A woman with pepper- grey hair, a big black bindi, and kohl-lined, eyes claimed: “India’s essence is under attack. India does not stand for violence.” A man claimed in a deep baritone: “India is the land of Buddha and Gandhi watered by the calming waters of the Ganga. A land purified by the teachings of the Bhakti saints. The cradle of Ganga–Jamuni sanskriti.”
India, in his view, was an ocean formed by diverse human rivulets merging into it. He was claiming that the land of non-violence and tolerance was being overrun by violence and that Indian history was being bent out of shape. I remembered having the same uneasy feeling watching that programme as I did now.
As we settled down to eat our breakfast, your father brought up the morning’s encounter: “So, what do you make of Bhalla uncle’s assertions?” I was still processing Bhalla uncle’s monologue. Your father continued, “I empathise with Bhalla uncle. Kya pata, unke parivar ne Partition ke dauraan bahut maar-kaat dekhi hogi.” What do we know. His family must have seen some real violence during the Partition.
I said ruefully: “Such violent experiences are like an inescapable dungeon. They trap everything inside – one’s identity and perceptions.” Your father countered: “So are you saying that their experience defies reason? They can’t think outside of their experience?” I shrugged resignedly, “Perhaps not.”
He continued, “I find Bhalla uncle’s firm belief of being a victim a bit disturbing. The notion that Hindus are the only ones to have been wronged. Do you remember Manto’s story ‘Khol do’ where he describes the violence that men of the community inflicted on their women? Aur Amrita Pritam ki ‘Pinjar’ bhi to yahi darshati hai, also depicts the same thing.”
“Hmm. You think giving people evidence to contrary or holding them to ‘facts’ necessarily helps them question their point of view? I am not so sure telling Bhalla uncle about Manto and Amrita Pritam will make him change his narrative. You know, what I find even stranger than Bhalla uncle’s claims is the one of India being a land of non- violence.” Recalling the woman at the silent protest I had seen on TV, I continued between bites of food.
“Mujhe to ahimsa ka ye dawa hi mithak lagta hai. I feel this claim of non-violence is actually a myth. Isn’t it the case that the perpetrator of violence in literature or in history is always made out to be the low-life cousin such as Duryodhana and Shishupal, or the villainous wrongdoer such as Kamsa and Ravana, or rapacious foreigners such as the Greeks, Turks, Mongols, and British? The heroes never happen to indulge in violence. They only go to war as righteous upholders of dharma or as protectors of their homeland.”
I warmed up: “Didn’t they restore the moral order by killing an unarmed Karna as he changed the wheel of his chariot? Wasn’t it their courage that drove them to kill their teacher, Dronacharya, by gulling him into laying down his arms by giving him the false news of his son’s demise? Robbing Eklavya of his thumb so he did not contend with Arjuna for the title of the greatest archer was a righteous act, wasn’t it? Defeating Duryodhana by breaking his thighs, an action forbidden in the contest, was done in the name of morality. Lakshmana was right in cutting off Surpanakha’s nose for her audacious confession of love for an Aryan king.
“Kya fark padta hai agar saare Hindu devi-devta astra-shastra se lais hain. How does it matter if all Hindu gods come dressed with weapons of war – trident, chakra, bow and arrow, staves, spears, mace, axe – to be wielded against the unrighteous? For this reason their violence is never seen as violence in and of itself. Wo hinsa, hinsa hai hi nahi. And that’s why we never stopped revering the Gita, worshipping Lord Ram or celebrating Diwali or Durga puja or the Ganapati festival.”
I grew more agitated as I said, “Kyon halla karte hain ye, so why cry foul, when some young men kill Akhlaq to avenge their dharma? Perhaps their only failing was that they killed him with their bare hands and not godly weapons.”
Just then Surinder Singhji who delivers milk every morning rang the bell. He comes all the way from the Arya Samaj gaushala in Ghazipur to deliver polybags of fresh cow milk. Your father got up to collect the milk and returned to the table after depositing them in the kitchen. I quickly finished the egg on my plate and made haste to boil the milk lest it curdled: “Honestly, a part of me feels that believing in the idea of India being a land of non-violence abets violence by giving a free pass to all who perpetrate it. In some ways, it makes us accomplices in a conspiracy of wilful ignorance even as we speak up for humanity and as we decry the death penalty. I sometimes wonder if it is conscious forgetfulness or honest naiveté on our part.”
You know, babu, they say Zahid Ahmad, Noman, Mohammed Akhlaq, Mazloom Ansari, Imtiaz Khan, Mustain Abbas, Vashram Sarvaiya and his brothers, Mokati Elisa and Pehlu Khan, were all killed “at the hands of persons unknown”. By a mob, bheed ne mara. A mass of people indistinguishable from each other in their desire for collective retribution. Since everyone is guilty, in effect, no one is guilty. The distribution of guilt amongst the crowd dilutes it. Neuters it. Disembodies it.
But here is the secret. They were actually killed at the hands of persons known. We know their names. We know their faces. We grew up with them. Celebrated their joyous birth. Took morning walks with them. Shared meals with them. Attended their weddings. Hosted them in our home. We see them each morning staring back at us as we brush our teeth. They are us. Wo hum hain. The people on our side of the boundary wall.
The ones who invoked non-violence as India’s essence are not much different from the ones who empathised with Godse. Let me take a slight detour and say that quite often the invocation of India’s composite tradition and the Bhakti movement 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. You may not know this, or maybe you do, the essence of Indian civilisation is also violence. Hinsa bhi tumhari dharohar hai. Violence is also India’s heritage that has been bequeathed from generation to generation. The history of tolerance is also one of tolerance towards violence.
Should we be mourning the killing of “beef criminals”? Or is it the perversion of the souls of the “witnesses” of lynching that should be lamented? Or again is it our family, friends, and fellow Indians who treat these killings as retribution – payback time for these communities that one ought to mourn? Or the people who capitalise on these killings to strengthen and bind the majoritarian community across class, caste, generational, and regional divides? Or those who righteously ask why a death of a Hindu does not create such a furore?
The perpetrators of this violence have not always been the state, the rulers, the police or the army but also our silence. Our looking away from inconvenient truths, our blindness to our social privilege, and in our ability to pass off our unearned privilege as merit or as advantages earned by hard work. It makes us either remain silent or glorify non-violence as our essence. This is how, babu, we let our silence lynch our souls.
Excerpted with permission from My Son’s Inheritance: A Secret History Of Lynching And Blood Justice In India, Aparna Vaidik, Aleph Book Company.