We are like this only…violent

By Jyotsna Morris

As the ping pong ball of blame was tossed around between the opposition and the ruling party on news channels for the past week, the issue of lynching seems far from over.  The medieval style extrajudicial executions have sent shockwaves across the country and calls for a re-examination of India’s relationship with violence.

I am standing for peace and non-violence.

Why world is fighting fighting

Why all people of world

Are not following Mahatma Gandhi,

I am simply not understanding.

The Patriot by Nissim Ezekiel


These lines sum up our idea of ourselves vis-à-vis violence. Growing up, tales of Gandhi’s ahimsa-inspired freedom struggle and Nehru’s Non-Alignment policy and India’s defence strategy all impressed upon us that we are a very peaceful people. “Jhagda – jhagdi chodo Gandhiji ko yaad karo” (Don’t fight, remember Gandhi) was the catchphrase we chanted as children whenever we needed to put an end to rivalries while playing catch-catch. Indeed, as per the Young World section on Gandhi  by The Hindu indicates, non-violence is the term that he is most associated with and appreciated for. Prime Minister Narendra Modi shares similar views which he expressed at last year’s ASEAN summit in Philippines where he also invoked Gautama Buddha as a torchbearer of peace and in his own words, “History does not show us a single incident in which India has done bad things to anyone…For India, the land of Buddha and Gandhi, peace is not just a word, peace is in our veins. And, we certainly have never snatched anything from anybody in the past.” Considering that Mr Modi came to power with a majority and if his view is representative of the majority, one can gage the myopia that exists with regard to our self-image.

A closer look at this metanarrative of India as a peaceful nation reveals many cracks. Rather than chanting the mantras of peace, India seemed to be more attuned to the tandav – Shiva’s dance of destruction. And no, this period of violence does not fall exclusively under Mughal rule in India. That myth has been debunked multiple times, one such study is by Audrey Truschke. Even ancient India, reeled under the yoke of violence. Numerous wars were fought, cities were sacked and severe punishments were meted out. As historian Upinder Singh corroborates in her book published in 2017, Political Violence in Ancient India (Harvard University Press), India had an extremely violent past. Yes, there was King Ashok, but he was the exception and not the norm. Even he fought bloody wars and took up non-violence as a policy only after the Kalinga war.

One can imagine the intense ferocity of the violence that could move even an empire builder to give up his ambitions. The ancient texts such as the Rig Veda and Atharva Veda provide gory descriptions of war and punishments.  It is also common knowledge that the Mahabharata is about the devastating war between two factions of the same family. Even Jainism and Buddhism were born as a reaction to the intense violence of the time.

Apart from the violence of wars, there was also the violence which we shy away from to this day: caste-based violence. If Dalits are beaten up in Una, Gujarat, over rumours of killing a cow in 2017, in ancient India their treatment was significantly worse. Molten lead was to be poured into the ears of a Shudra caught listening to the Vedas. They were discriminated against almost on all fronts and were forced to be subservient. Any deviance from the norm and they would meet with extremely violent punishments including death.

If violence has been the norm and not the exception as our school textbooks would want us to believe, then it is obvious we are living a lie. The myth of India as a peaceful nation, according to Singh, was one that Gandhi and Nehru helped perpetuate and which we readily believed and gained from. It was their astute policies that helped India retain its secular democratic framework, while all around the world, post-colonial nations crumbled under the weight of violence-wielding military regimes.

Our secular democratic framework is held by many as the legacy of Nehru, who as historian Ramchandra Guha says, could have easily stoked the flames of communalism while campaigning from Ludhiana in the first general elections held after the bloody partition. That is not to say that blood and gore did not exist during the Congress regime. No one can forget the horrendous Sikh pogrom or the failure of the Narasimha Rao government to contain the carnage of 1992-93. And it’s not to say that caste and gender-based violence did not take place under Congress rule. Of course, it did.

But it is today more than ever that the blanket of peace so craftily stitched by Gandhi and Nehru is coming apart at the seams. A simple Google search for the words ‘violence in India’ throws up numerous articles citing a hike in the increase in violence since 2014 – namely from the time the BJP came to power at the centre with a more muscular rhetoric, a chappan inch ki chaathi, and a less than inclusive ideology.  According to Swaminathan Gurumurthy member of the RSS “We have Hindu values, Hindu customs, Hindu philosophy, a Hindu way of looking at all religions as acceptable… India is secular because it is Hindu.” Such an emphasis on one community makes one wonder in which way is the centre headed. Does this exclusivity tag immediately other people who do not adhere to the dominant upper caste ideology, that is the Muslims, Dalits, Christians, also makes them the first in the line of attack? Has the majoritarian self-righteousness seeped into the consciousness of people which seems indicative in the victims these majority groups choose to lynch: mostly poor, mostly outsiders, mostly from the margins of India’s Hindu narrative?

The rhetoric of non-violence has given way to the rhetoric of self-righteous violence. It makes one wonder if the myth of non-violence, which allowed for a thriving secular democracy to be established in the ravaged post-colonial nation, can ever be reinstated. Once the myth is busted what we have is the bare truth: we as Indians are inherently violent. There is no longer a need to function according to higher principles of peace and non-violence.

Frightening as it is, the earlier we accept that we are like this only, the sooner we would be able to not be like this. In this regard, it would be worthwhile to look at how Germany has addressed its violent history of the holocaust.

Jyotsna Morris is a writing analyst at Qrius 


HistoryIndialynchingmob violenceviolence