My Son’s Inheritance: India’s Invisible Violence

Aparna Vaidik is Associate Professor of History at Ashoka University, India and author of My Son’s Inheritance: A Secret History of Lynching and Blood Justice in India (Aleph, 2020). In the essay below, Vaidik discusses the book’s origins and the questions she seeks to address, as well as her decision to write it for a broad audience.


Mahatma Gandhi and the philosophy of non-violence are facets of Indian history that have inspired generations of world leaders from Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King Jr. Also perpetuating this image of India as a land of non-violence and tolerance are some other facets of India’s history such as the conversion of the ancient Emperor Ashoka Maurya to Buddhism; his adoption of non-violence as a state policy in 3rd century B.C.; and the existence of a composite culture known as the “Ganga-Jamni sanskriti” (the comingling of waters of rivers Ganga and Yamuna), a referent to the peaceful Hindu and Muslim cultural intermixing in the Subcontinent. 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 the right-wing political agendas.

Violence, if at all examined, is primarily done through the Weberian lens by studying state actions such as battles, wars, or political retribution. Other than that, it is the episodes of communitarian riots, gender violence, and subaltern resistance that are scrutinized. Seeing violence as episodic phenomenon on the one hand pathologizes it as an aberration or turns it into an exception in need of an explanation; and, on the other, reinforces the presumption that Indian society is fundamentally peaceful, non-violent, and tolerant. My Son’s Inheritance: A Secret History of Lynching and Blood Justice in India challenges this munificent image of India to show that the ubiquity of violence has rendered it banal and thereby historically invisible. It asks, how is the violence not visible? Why is it invisibilised? How does it turn into a secret? What allows the unconscious denial of the existence of violence? Who are the recipients and witnesses of this violence? Finally, what is this violence?

My Son’s Inheritance traverses several centuries and explores the history of Vaishnavism and warrior cults in northern India; the history of Arya Samaj, a nineteenth century reformist organization; the role of a violent cow-protection movement in forging the Hindu majoritarian identity; and the myths of Hinduism that invisibilised the oppression of the lower castes in the Subcontinent. It uses pamphlets, popular publications, prints, poetry, and myths, as well as my own family history, to offer a cultural reading of violence. The book demonstrates how violence is secretly embedded in our myths, folklore, poetry, literature, and language, and is therefore invisible. Framing my narrative as a message to my son, I acquaint him with his ancestors—those who abet and carry out lynching as well as those who are lynched. In this way, the “son,” a metaphor, embodies both the violator and the violated, much like the country in which he will come of age. The book lays bare the heritage of violence bequeathed from generation to generation and disabuses us of the myth that holds nonviolence and tolerance as being the essence of Indian culture.

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. In doing so, the book addresses the “banality of evil,” a phrase coined by philosopher Hannah Arendt. She argues it was not just the big generals and the Nazi party officers who were responsible for the Jewish holocaust, or Shoah, 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 has attempted this in The Cheese and the 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.

The inheritance of this violence, the book demonstrates, comes to us in a form of a secret, a secret that is hidden in plain sight. It is visible and yet we don’t see it. Once the secret is unveiled the question of atonement or redemption comes up: How do we redeem ourselves? How do we atone? According to My Son’s Inheritance, atonement lies in Indians 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.

This is a crossover book written as a creative non-fiction. A nagging worry as I embarked on this project regarded crafting the narrative. After writing years of staid academic prose, I felt unsure about transitioning into a more conversational narrative style. Surprisingly, it was much easier than I had imagined. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Nadine Gordimer’s My Son’s Story, W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, and James Baldwin’s A Letter to My Nephew served as narrative inspiration. Choosing a creative narrative strategy also required me to make “travel-style” field trips, first to my hometown, Indore in Central India and, second, to the ancestral shrine in the small town in Rajasthan. The histories of both the places are woven into the book’s narrative. I was now seeing them with the eyes of a writer.

As I started conceptualizing this project, the question for me was how do I tell stories of violence? How do I narrate stories of conflict in a non-conflictual manner? How do I not fill the hearts of the audience with hate in talking about hate? How do I persuade people to pause and examine their own complicity in perpetuating structures of violence? These questions were also arising from the loss of 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. This book is an acknowledgement of the fact that we as social scientists and humanists are accountable to not only one’s peers and the institutions we serve but also to the society and the times we live in.

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