THE MYTH OF THE HOLY COW by D.N. Jha. Verso, London and New York, 2002.
THE cow, like the snake charmer, has been engraved in essentialist notions of India for at least the last two centuries. While snake charmers have become virtually extinct, the bovine population in the subcontinent is very much alive, if not kicking, and can be encountered on any street corner, scrounging through garbage dumps. Worshipful attitudes, if any, towards these creatures are conspicuous by their absence in most situations; at best they are treated with lazy good humour, at worst, they are subjected to callous indifference. And yet, paradoxically, the cow is often resuscitated and projected as a symbol of ‘Hindu’ identity, as an animal that has been revered since time immemorial as the ‘holy cow’.
This, as D.N. Jha argues, is far from the truth. He takes the reader through a wide variety of textual evidence to document that beef was consumed and, by extension, that cattle were slaughtered on both ritual and other occasions in early India, to establish that beef eating was a part of pre-Islamic traditions in the subcontinent.
Jha starts with evidence drawn from the Vedas, generally recognized as the earliest extant textual traditions of the subcontinent, dateable to c.1500-600 BCE. He suggests, as indeed is widely accepted, that the prayers and chants contained in the earliest Veda, the Rgveda (c.1500-1000 BCE), represent the hopes and fears of a predominantly pastoral people, drawing attention to the vocabulary, where imagery and symbolism derived from cattle proliferate. This is then extended to an analysis of the sacrificial offerings to the principal deities, which include amongst other things, animals such as the goat, bull, ox and barren cow.
At another level, the author documents prescriptions and injunctions that indicate that meat, including beef, could be served and consumed to mark significant events in the life of the householder. These included visits by distinguished guests, and funerals. There is evidence suggesting that meat was eaten on less spectacular routine occasions as well. Besides, cattle were valued as draught animals and for the leather, which was worked into a range of products, including trappings for chariots, amongst the most important symbols of power in a mobile, pastoral society.
If the utility of the cow is acknowledged within the textual tradition, archaeological evidence of cattle bone, bearing cut marks, suggests that the consumption of beef, along with other animals, birds and fish, was fairly commonplace in early India. These remains have been recovered from a number of sites. The problem is in correlating the archaeological evidence with the textual traditions: the latter tend to defy specific localization, although there is a broad consensus that the early Vedic texts relate to the north west of the subcontinent, while the later Vedic texts pertain to the doab of the Ganges and the Yamuna, including the areas around present-day Delhi, and beyond. In any case, the fact that a variety of meats were eaten in early India is beyond dispute.
In fact, more than thirty years ago, in 1967, H.D. Sankalia, often regarded as the ‘father’ of Indian archaeology, suggested that: ‘The ban on cow slaughter is indeed of comparatively recent growth, mostly as a reaction against Islam rather than genuine, real love and reverence for the cow.’1
Sankalia went on to document archaeological evidence for the use of beef from virtually all parts of the subcontinent, with some findings dating back to the earliest pre- and proto-historic sites. Incidentally, sites from which cattle bone bearing cut marks have been found include Hastinapura in the Ganga valley, recognized as the centre of the political universe in the Mahabharata, the epic whose nucleus may be traced back to c.800 BCE (it received its present form c. 4th-5th centuries CE).
Such tangible evidence tapers off in subsequent historical phases not because of a shift to vegetarianism, but because excavations in most early historical cities have been extremely limited as these continue to be under occupation. This is true for cities like Patna, Varanasi, Mathura and even, to an extent, Delhi, that have been more or less continuously settled for nearly two and a half millennia. In such situations, excavations are, more often than not, confined to small vertical trenches that provide extremely narrow bands of evidence on material culture and do not permit a systematic reconstruction of dietary practices.
To return to Jha’s argument, his analysis of the Vedic evidence suggests that attitudes towards cattle, and towards the slaughter of animals, were by no means monolithic. On the one hand the cow was occasionally equated with goddesses, including the Earth and Speech. Bovine imagery is invoked to convey notions of fecundity, prosperity and by extension, power. In other words, there is an implicit and occasionally explicit divinization of cattle.
At another level, there was a strand within the tradition that explored alternatives/substitutes for the sacrificial cult in general and the victim in particular. Besides, at a more mundane level, the slaughter of cattle may have appeared counter-productive in a situation of agrarian expansion, with an increasing dependence on plough agriculture, where draught animals, in particular, acquired a new significance. Historians have regarded this as a likely scenario for the mid Gangetic valley c. 6th century BCE. Jha opens up these possibilities for scrutiny, drawing on detailed documentation provided by archaeologists, Sanskritists and historians of religion.
What is also interesting is Jha’s argument that non-injury of animals did not necessarily coincide with a reverential attitude towards them. He draws on early Buddhist traditions where the killing of animals in the sacrificial context is condemned, perhaps in order to draw sharp boundaries between Buddhism and brahmanism. At the same time, animals are viewed as inferior to human beings and incapable of attaining the ultimate Buddhist ideals of enlightenment and liberation. Besides, Buddhist narratives contain numerous allusions to the consumption of meats including, inevitably, beef.
In a sense, the Buddhist attitude towards animals was pushed to its logical conclusion within Jainism, where there was an overwhelming emphasis on ahimsa or non-violence extending to all forms of life, coupled with a belief that life as a human being was the pre- requisite for the quest for liberation (moksha). At the same time, the practice of eating meat is documented in some of the earliest Jaina canonical works.
Somewhat later (c.3rd century BCE), the Mauryan ruler Asoka, ruler of a realm that stretched from present-day Afghanistan to Karnataka in South India, attempted to regulate animal slaughter. This is evident from his inscriptions. What is noteworthy, however, is that although Asoka is occasionally projected as a pacific ruler, with obvious sympathies for Buddhism, he did not (or perhaps could not) impose a complete ban on killing animals. In fact, Buddhist attitudes towards meat eating were also complicated: certain sects, including the Mahayana, moved towards a position of abstinence and attempted to rework earlier narratives, reinterpreting references to meat eating to suggest alternative explanations to provide vegetarianism with a respectable ancestry.
Subsequently, the slaughter of animals and the consumption of meat continued, even as it was viewed with increasing disapproval within the ‘high’ tradition. In the Manusmrti (compiled between c. 200 BCE-200 CE), often regarded as the archetypal law code of early India, an attempt was made to distinguish between eating meat on ritual occasions, which was permitted, whereas the same practice was condemned in less exalted contexts. What is nonetheless interesting, as Jha observes, is that killing cows is never classified as a major sin. (Conventionally, brahmanical texts recognize five major sins: these include killing a brahmin, stealing, drinking liquor, having sexual intercourse with the wife of a guru, and associating with those who were guilty of such offences; killers of cattle are not listed in this exclusive list). All of these somewhat contradictory ideas and values find space in later texts and commentaries, some of which continued to be written till as late as the 18th century.
At another level, some of the earliest compilations of medical lore in Sanskrit, the Caraka and Susruta Samhita (compiled between c. 2nd-4th centuries CE) recognize the medicinal value of a variety of preparations made from meat and fish, amongst other things. Incidentally, beef figures amongst other therapeutic substances. Besides, the five products derived from the cow, including milk, ghee, curds, urine and dung, are frequently recognized as purificatory substances in a range of other texts.
Jha also collates references to the consumption of all kinds of birds, beasts and fish from the epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The former, in particular, is a sprawling text, running to a hundred thousand stanzas, compiled over centuries. As in the case of most composite works, it represents the practices and traditions of diverse peoples. Yet the central protagonists of the texts are the ksatriyas or warriors, generally ranked second in the conventional ordering of the caste hierarchy, after the brahmin priests. In other words, the evidence indicates that the consumption of meat was fairly routine amongst the elite. To an extent, this is corroborated by courtly literature, which represents sages and kings as consuming and offering meat as a part of hospitality on special occasions, including sacrifices.
In spite of this, Jha argues that there was a shift in attitudes towards the practice from the mid-first millennium CE. He contextualizes this in terms of a spurt in agrarian expansion. This is a connection that may not seem particularly obvious to most readers, and we would have benefited from further elucidation. What is more obvious is that condemnations of cow slaughter become more frequent with the passage of time, and beef eating is classified amongst practices that are particularly unsuited to the present degenerate age. (Degeneration, according to this world-view, has been steadily eroding our moral values since 3102 BCE!). Nevertheless, the use of beef has continued, more or less legitimately in different parts of the subcontinent.
It may be useful to look at some of the other ingredients of the notion of decay. We find an odd assortment: some, such as beef eating, are acknowledged as practices that were prevalent in earlier, less troubled times. Interestingly enough, the practice of levirate, documented in narrative traditions, especially in the Mahabharata, also figures in this list. These are portrayed as being unproblematic in their own context, when practised by sages and ‘great men’, but are not to be emulated by lesser mortals. Other practices are represented as symptoms of a degenerate world. These include the proliferation of insubordinate women, and men (and presumably women) who violate the norms of caste society. While some of these ideas can be traced back to earlier times, they acquired greater currency from the mid-first millennium CE.
There is another phenomenon that we encounter in inscriptions, from c. 2nd century CE onwards. Many of the inscriptions that survive from this period are panegyrics of kings, often composed by court poets, who understandably paint glowing portraits of their patrons. As may be expected in such genres of composition, these are usually conventionalized and fairly standardized.
For instance, the ruler is almost inevitably equated with one or more epic heroes and/or deities, his prowess is extolled, he is depicted as the epitome of beauty, master of a range of arts and traditions, and upholder of the social order. This is, more often than not, defined in terms of preserving the distinctions amongst the four castes, and it is in that context that kings are often projected as protectors of a pair of categories generally grouped together, viz. the cow and the brahmin.
How do we understand and evaluate such claims? While many of these inscriptions were taken at face value and culled for ‘information’ when they were first discovered, careful scholarship often revealed that the texts were a part of elaborate strategies of legitimation, devised by or for rulers whose claims to status were somewhat nebulous. So we find rulers of ‘foreign’ origin, such as Rudradaman, a Saka (the term used for Scythians in Sanskrit), as amongst the first to use Sanskrit in inscriptions. Such strategies may have been useful in glossing over his origins and could have been deployed to win the support of the local elite.
Claims to uphold the caste order and to protect the cow and the brahmin seem to be part of this package. We know that the first claim was particularly incongruous when voiced by rulers whose own status within the caste order was uncertain, as they were regarded as outsiders from the perspective of the brahmanical tradition. In other words, we perhaps need to view these assertions as a bit of window-dressing: it is quite unlikely that rulers paid more than lip-service to the protection of either of the two endangered species.
Given the nature of our sources we may never be able to reconstruct a cow’s eye view of the past. We are better equipped as far as the brahmins are concerned. While the brahmanical tradition is extremely diverse and complex, one strand that runs through it perhaps deserves our attention. We find a constant assertion of claims to sanctity. This takes a variety of forms: in normative literature, for instance, the brahmin’s life and possessions are represented as being far more valuable than those of other caste categories. We also have a variety of narratives, circulated in different genres of literature, which elaborate on the dire consequences of defying these norms. Kings who humiliate brahmins, for instance, are invariably shown as meeting a sticky end.
It is likely, as has been suggested by a number of scholars, that such grim reiterations were necessary in situations where brahmanical ideals were contested in day-to-day situations. It is in this context that I think we need to explore why the brahmins co-opted the cow as part of their strategies for survival as a priestly elite. This is an intriguing question that remains almost unaddressed in our preoccupation with what is, by all accounts, a burning issue in contemporary India.
The last decade has seen a resurgence of Hindu fundamentalism in India, which has taken a variety of forms. Some of the most visible manifestations have included the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992, and the more recent ongoing violence in Gujarat, where we have witnessed unprecedented attempts to wipe out populations, monuments and memories.
The campaign to erase memories has been both systematic and pernicious. We have had attempts to censor school textbooks on history, where references to beef eating, amongst other things, have been deleted. These deletions were ordered in October 2001 by the National Council of Educational Research and Training, an institution that plays a crucial role in shaping educational policies for schools. The Central Board for Secondary Examination complied by instructing school principals to ensure that the deleted passages were not taught or discussed in class, and that no questions on these subjects were asked in examinations.
Like most cases of censorship, this proved somewhat counter-productive: students, who more often than not find history a dull subject, began reading the proscribed passages more carefully, and there have been continuous protests and widespread debate on these issues organized by educationists, teachers, parents and representatives of political parties. There have also been small victories: the attempt to prevent the publication of Jha’s book, for instance, has fallen through, and a provincial High Court has allowed publication of the Indian edition of the book.
Perhaps, as in the case of the cow, our best hopes for survival lie in the coexistence of multiple, even contradictory traditions. Beyond its immediate polemical value, Jha’s work is a timely reminder of these complexities. Paradoxical as it may seem, the cow was offered in sacrifice and as food as a mark of honour because it was valued in certain contexts.
Besides, condemnations of animal slaughter by Buddhists and Jains did not stem from reverential attitudes towards either the cow in particular or animals in general. All through, the utility of the cow was recognized. And, by the mid-first millennium CE, the cow was adopted as an extension of the persona of the brahmin. Yet none of these attitudes attained universality; there were and always have been dissenting voices. We need to ensure that this heterogeneity survives, and is not flattened into a homogenized representation of the past. That would be disastrous for both our present and future.
1. H.D. Sankalia, ‘In History’, Seminar 93, (The Cow), May 1967, pp. 11-12
BEYOND NATIONALIST FRAMES: Relocating Postmodernism, Hindutva, History by Sumit Sarkar. Permanent Black, Delhi, 2002.
HABITATIONS OF MODERNITY: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies by Dipesh Chakrabarty. Permanent Black, Delhi, 2002.
THESE recent collections of essays by two distinguished and differently positioned historians of South Asia signal in their own specific ways that the debate on ‘rewriting history’ in the subcontinent has begun to graduate to a more conversational and sincerely revisionary enterprise. Working through the immediate contexts and concerns for a less pathological politics, the volumes certainly move beyond the initial reactions of threat, puzzlement and professional self-justification to address several methodo-philosophical issues foundational to the historical discipline at large.
To come to the differences that define the variously inspired trajectories of our historians, it is crucial to note that both of them share a sharpened sensitivity to the heuristic inadequacies of many of the received categories that we, disciplined by history, often consider as resolved. Historical materials and experiences, the historians insist, are a great deal less tidy than these terms would teach us to expect.
For Dipesh Chakrabarty, this is particularly evident in the way the social science discourses treat practices of faiths and beliefs: ‘We do not have analytic categories in our aggressively secular academic discourse that do justice to the real, everyday, and multiple connections that we have, to what we, in becoming modern, have come to see as nonrational.’ An unreflexive secularism, he argues, only sustains ‘hyperrationalism’, or the ‘strong spirit of hostility between the rational and the affective’ initiated by a culturally oppressive colonial rule.
Chakrabarty sees this fissure in the methodological structure developing into a full-scale epistemological crisis as he proceeds to argue that inhabiting modernity is also an act of inhibiting its definition. At one level this is simple post-colonial common sense: one must resist the reduction of differences between modernities to the gap between a good original text of European Enlightenment and a bad, belated colonial translation in order to combat the continuing violence in the name of modernization; ‘what we had, warts and all, was, indeed, our modernity.’
At another level, however, this is also about refashioning the terms and modes of disciplinary knowledge, because it is through their claims of universality that the violence of the modern operates and legitimizes itself. In its drive to render every historical difference commensurable, this violence flattens the variegated experiences of lived societies into empty, objectified knowledge, although, as Chakrabarty asserts in an admirable essay on Ashis Nandy’s politics of critical traditionalism, ‘[t]here are parts of society that remain opaque to the theoretical gaze of the modern analyst.’
These are areas ‘where we live only practically’, impervious to abstraction and, therefore, portability. Thus shut out from all epistemological accesses, in Chakrabarty’s nuanced conceptualization, the raw experience of this subaltern survival in itself constitutes the limits of modern disciplinary knowledge. If we cannot talk about it but only live it, then, one may choose to ask, how do we translate this modest and unintended role of providing critical limits to theory into one of staging an active resistance to the violence of categories in order to change the texture of knowledge?
Sumit Sarkar finds the agony rather misplaced. The problem is not with modernity, he says, but with an essentialized ‘postmodernist’ view of modernity, sanctioned by erasion of dialectics, dismissal of immanent critique and conceptualization of ‘processes and categories… as free from internal tensions.’ This in turn has resulted in bypassing what he thinks the enabling elements for a transformational politics in postmodernism and thus created the spectre of unmovable categories which is now haunting its own world. Hence, Sarkar reasons, the ironical reinforcement of binaries in late Subaltern Studies: privileging of myth to history, community to class and religious traditions to secularism.
Through a more tortured and intimate relation with different narratives of modernity, which also encourages an informed but situated conversation with ‘postmodernism’, Sarkar himself can be seen as moving towards a largely neither/nor history (particularly in the essays on early 20th century Bengali lower caste narratives, responses to colonial introduction of abstract and disciplinary time, and reading of one of Tagore’s novels, Sarkar presents the case for complicated, shifting and differentiated hybridities).
In his discussion of the intellectual beginnings of Hindutva, he brilliantly shows that myths can contribute, in equal proportion to history, to discursive closures, statism and reproduction of prevailing social relations. Much of today’s Subaltern Studies anti-statism, he points out, rests on a silent elision of historical specificities of the modes and formations of state oppression. And in this context he strategically repositions the Marxist histories as post-nationalist histories by returning a whole range of earlier critiques of nation-state from within that tradition.
That the question of categories is not merely a problem of philosophical hair-splitting but also one of structuring and organizing our mundane strategies of survival is well illustrated by Sarkar’s spirited and timely critique of both the blatant jingoism of the Hindu Right and the more clandestine resignation of the mainstream left leadership to a rabid ‘fetishization of maps and frontiers’. However, Sarkar’s perceptive analysis of the potency of the category of the nation to subsume a supposedly radical post-nationalist politics is somewhat marred by his choice to miss, what one may call, a history of ‘the BJP bomb’ from below.
Once we agree to disengage the subaltern from the residue of moralistic pedagogy, it leaves little scope for dodging with the fact that many real-life disempowered people actively and, for many of us, embarrassingly participate in euphoric nuke-nationalism. Sarkar himself opens the essay with the observation that ‘[o]ne of the frightening things about nuclear bombs is the way their possession gets normalized.’ We should be wary of reducing this complex process of ‘normalization’ into a model of passive subaltern acceptance of virulent elite propaganda and rehabilitating a purely repressive and conspiratorial view of power. The same point might be raised about the relative underplay of the affective in Sarkar’s narrative of lower caste groups extending support for integrationist-communalist projects.
This, I think, gestures at two larger methodological problems with which both the volumes engage in different ways. First, how does a philosophically positioned historian address the disaggrieved in the subaltern? Second, how does she attend to the teasing gap between pedagogy and performance, between discursive constructions and historical enactments of subject-positions?
Chakrabarty responds to the first question with an intriguing ease: the category of the subaltern has to be radically rethought, he says, ‘as the ideal figure of the person who survives actively, even joyously, on the assumption that the statist instruments of domination will always belong to somebody else and never aspires to them.’ Histories that try to ‘instill or incite’ in the figure a desire to participate in the statist/totalist imagination are immersed in an undemocratic (because the desire has to be ‘brought from outside’) mode since the subaltern is ‘by definition’ – and here the deconstructionist historian reads Gramsci remarkably literally – incapable of thinking the state. In the same essay, however, Chakrabarty argues for ‘a subaltern historiography that actually tries to learn from the subaltern’ through an open-ended ‘dialogue’ unconstrained by any predetermined philosophical and ideological obligation of the historian. Contrarily, it can be argued that such a conceptualization of the subaltern, which leaves her locked within an essentialized, self-consciously utopian definition of joyful incapability as well as delimits her ‘active survival’ by keeping a reductionist rein of predictability (‘will always… never…’) on her potentially ever-refractive ‘aspirations’, violently impedes the dialogue. Moreover, here the historian is prescribed an almost positivist repression of her own ‘political philosophy/ideology’, whereas in another powerful essay that challenges the universalization of public/private binarism through a discussion of the interrelation between subaltern sensibilities about filth and the demand of colonial and postcolonial bourgeois modernity, Chakrabarty declares the virtual impossibility of a nonaligned academic observer.
We have already entered the second problematic. To effectively contest the imperialism of categories we should combat not only the entities of, but also the relations between, historical terms. Otherwise, we might tend to reinforce an unprocessed essentialism, as Chakrabarty does when he says: ‘The politics of being human differ between and within cultures. We are not impervious to one another but that does not mean that the differences are not real,’ forgetting that this reality of differences is derivative only of the reality of categories through which we separate and form cultures.
But to re-interrogate difference is also to re-examine the materialities within which the production of historical knowledge is possible. And if here one finds Chakrabarty’s mysteriously neat and almost teleological history of Subaltern Studies ironing out historiographical digressions and detours related to the collective’s belated but intimate habitations of first world academia, only to make 20 years’ collective practice appear ‘in retrospect’ as having always been ‘a democratic project meant to produce a genealogy of the peasant as citizen in contemporary political modernity.’
Sarkar, who is quite critically sensitized to the institutionalization of Subaltern Studies in the context of a globally hierarchized division of intellectual labour, can also be seen as placing an unmediated emphasis on expertise and eminence of Indian left-secularist historians, which remains somewhat innocent to the power relations within third world knowledge industry. To dispute the sacred positivist difference between the historian and the historicized as a foundational given is also to remain aware, against the stealers of surplus meaning in the economy of categories, of the undesired beneficiaries of discursive struggles.
As Sarkar shows, ‘Being more conventionally "secular", in the predominantly Indian sense of non or anti-communal, has often involved immersion in a language of "national" unity as the supreme value, "integration", independent development along technocratic-statist lines.’
It is as a token of the commitment to this usually complex, frequently self-defeating and yet always promising traffic between historians’ enunciations and subalterns’ enactments that these volumes are to be remembered.
HISTORY AND PRESENT edited by Partha Chatterjee and Anjan Ghosh. Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2002.
THE introductory essay by Partha Chatterjee titled ‘History and Present’ is a dramatic critique of the conceit of the historian and his craft. He draws attention to the need that scientific history and its practitioners have felt in the past decade to seek legitimacy and validation for its methods and findings from an external authority outside of itself – the domain of the ‘popular’. Tapati Guha-Thakurta’s essay on the museumisation of the Didarganj Yakshi by art historians and museum officials reinforces Partha Chatterjee’s argument. According to Partha Chatterjee, this need was precipitated by the rise of the Hindu Right in the 1990s, both the result of as also leading to, the fall of the Babri Masjid.
The Hindu Right, in Chatterjee’s view, drew its ideological legitimacy from the ‘politically sanctioned outpourings of semi-literate prejudice.’ The professional historian and history was pitted against ‘partisan historians and archaeologists who had some academic credentials or accreditation.’ This domain of the ‘popular’, which had hitherto been considered both illegitimate and vulgar, forced historians to revise the basis of the discipline and practice of history. The limitations of the methodological repertoire of the historian were brought into relief in this battle of wits with a foe wielding the sword of the ‘popular’ – a popular which is not a ‘massified, homogeneous structure’ but one which has people as active agents, transforming, interpreting, rejecting, distinguishing and classifying the world as they understand it. The historians had to give in by incorporating and coopting the ‘popular’ in their fold. Perhaps cooption was the only tool remaining in their survival kit.
Not surprisingly, this collection of articles on myriad subjects have a common thread running through them, that of a ‘desire to find a way out of the self-constructed cage of scientific history that has made the historian so fearful of the popular, virtually immobilizing him or her in its presence.’ One causative factor, however, in the revisionist drama that Partha Chatterjee fails to dilate on, is the demise of the Soviet Union, which created an ideological vacuum for an entire generation of historians writing from within the fold of the left. The rise of the Hindu Right and fall of the Soviet Union were contemporaneous and perhaps the impact of the latter has been insufficiently explored.
Moreover, despite pledging itself to the idea of ‘incorporating within itself an appropriate analytic of the popular,’ the task of coopting the popular does not always appear a palatable one. For instance, Chatterjee’s labelling of the domain of popular writings, from which the Hindu Right drew its legitimacy, as ‘semi-literate’ and ‘partisan’ is itself demonstrative of the condescending attitude that the historians still harbour for the popular/populist writings outside their domain and a reticent realization of the ‘loss of the role of the traditional intellectual to act as an arbiter of culture.’
The question that comes up now is, what is the relation of this ‘popular’ with the ‘present’? Why does the discussion veer from the need to incorporate the ‘popular’ to one on the relevance of history in the present? The answer lies in one recurrent theme of the volume – the modes of temporalization – the ways that different people and communities adopt to deal with their past and their present; where the past and the present both may not always be monochrome but ridden with dichotomies, non-homogenous characteristics and also may not be flowing continuously from one to the other. And where the ‘historic’ may not be part of the chronological past but a mythical present resting in the womb of memory.
The various modes of temporalization explored in this collection range from myths, ballads, fantasy, genealogies to popular memory. Both Nandini Sundar and Reema Saad look at the genealogies and ballads of peasants of Bastar and Egypt respectively. Nandini Sundar delves into the world of village-settlement stories and genealogies of a village in south Bastar. She demonstrates how these provide an entry point into the present-day politics of the village and also the way they chose to order and relate to their ‘historic’ past, which was neither flattened nor monochromatic. It was a past that moved on different trajectories of chronological time and lineage time but did not take cognizance of the major regional rebellions, which a scientific historian would never fail to take note of. The concerns of this past were local and it was preserved in the settlement stories and genealogies, which were not only the site of contemporary village power politics but also served as local archives.
Reema Saad examines the peasant memories of Naseer’s agrarian reforms in Egypt and brings to fore two notions of the past, where one is bygone and divorced from the present and the other flows directly from the past into the everyday present. Such an ordering of the past enables the Egyptian peasant to deal with his schizophrenic present where the nostalgia for the bygone is a source of comfort while the other past is an acknowledgment of the need to change with the times.
Prathma Bannerjee, while examining the Santal rebellion of 1855, brings out another kind of present which is distinct from the everyday present. In the lives of the Santal the domain of the mythic time is the repository of action and the actual causal-historical time. The Santal temporalization was made available only when it was performed and enacted in their dance and songs unlike for the Bengali man whose present was bifurcated into two temporalities – one colonial and inhabiting the public domain, the other traditional and domestic. The Bengali man, much like the Egyptian peasant, could retreat to the inner free zone of past existence in time of respite and repose.
Sundar Kaali’s essay on the very interesting cult of Vellaikkaran, or a white man wearing jacket and boots, carrying a gun and field glasses, also dips into the ways the local people have tried to order their past through ballads of Vellaikkaran in which the white man is deified. He demonstrates the way the colonized attempts to imagine the ‘colonizing other’, leading to ‘colonial doubling’.
Indrani Chatterjee’s essay too covers much the same terrain but deals with the Rajmala, which is the verse history of the Tripura Raj. The polyvalent narrative of the Rajmala is important for its description or recording of a particular event that ‘happened’ but ‘as a history of ideology and politics of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.’ The narrative at one level attempts to paper over internal differences and renders service in assimilation of different peoples within the Hindu samaj structure but at the same time becomes a site from which contest over caste were articulated.
Deepak Mehta’s article takes the discussion to a completely different site – the urban slums of Bombay. Through individual interviews, he constructs the Hindu-Muslim riot of 1993. He brilliantly demonstrates the way historiography conceives of the riot ‘in the singular’, instrumental terms, obliterating the voice on violence. He retrieves this voice from the discursive practice of writing of history by juxtaposing the actual historical event and the informants statements.
Besides a wide-ranging discussion on modes of temporalization, another issue, which the present volume brings up, is the idea of ‘alternate history’. A case in point is Shahid Amin’s critical re-examination of the ‘big story’ of the Muslim conquest of North India. He establishes the need for a paradigm shift through a retelling of the narrative of ‘Sword of Islam’ associated with the martyrdom of Ghazi Miyan. In the ballads of Bahraich and the popular cult associated with him, he is both an Islamic warrior and a protector of cows and has Turks and Ahirs (local cowherds) as his followers. Scientific historians had hitherto attempted to divorce the idiom of conquest from conversion and had shied away from addressing the fact of existence of sectarian strife, leaving the field open for sectarian historians to highlight the conflictual aspects and thereby make political gains. In Amin’s view the way out for historians is to address the issue of sectarian conflict and ‘to write non-sectarian histories of sectarian conflict.’ He further urges for writing alternative histories, which are histories written from within the profession and are ideally available to those outside it as well.
The attempt that Amin makes of rewriting historical paradigms is laudable. However, he fails to tell us how it is possible to make what historians write available to those outside the field. Is this not the root cause of the alienation of the scientific historian from the domain of the popular and the sudden haste of co-opting the latter? What historians write is rarely read by people outside their domain and even if there is a change in methodology through self-introspection, does that signify a change in readership, audience and modes of dissemination?
What hope does the new avatar of the historian have in front of rabble-rousing politicians and popular writers. No amount of rewriting history and mutations in methodologies can assist a historian in gauging the popular. The real problem is for the historian to have a finger on the pulse of the ‘popular’. Chatterjee talks about democratization leading to a loss of the historian’s ability to act as a cultural arbiter. But how would the historian assert the right to be a cultural arbiter? A self-assigned role would necessarily be different from one that is bestowed on the historian by the ‘popular’, and Chatterjee’s statement reflects a historian’s self-realization of the problem of concretizing this imagined claim.
This is not to say that ‘history’ and ‘popular’ shall never meet but for that the historian has to go beyond a mere methodological change. S/he has to adopt an alternative vehicle of expression – the vernacular, publish for popular journals and magazines and introduce in the curriculum the study of popular writings and above all accord a legitimate status to these writings.
A PRINCELY IMPOSTOR: The Kumar of Bhawal and the Secret History of Indian Nationalism by Partha Chatterjee. Permanent Black, Delhi, 2002.
THIS work of narrative history examines the trial of the Bhawal Sanyasi in the 1930s and 1940s. In the first decade of the 20th century, the Bhawal estate located near Dacca was owned by three brothers known as Kumars. The main event of this story is the alleged death and cremation of the second Kumar of Bhawal at Darjeeling in 1909 and his mysterious resurfacing 12 years later. In 1921, the Kumar returned as a sanyasi and started living in the vicinity of the estate. The estate had by now lapsed into the control of the Court of Wards because the other two princes had also passed away, leaving three childless widows. The sanyasi was recognised and accepted as Kumar by his grandmother, sister and elder sister-in-law, but the Kumar’s wife and the colonial authorities declared him an impostor and issued injunctions forbidding him from entering the estate.
The presence of the sanyasi in the area did not go unnoticed by other residents of the estate. If at all, the sanyasi was accepted as Kumar by a large number of tenants of the Bhawal estate. They sanctified their relationship with their lord by celebrating a ritual confirming their loyalty to him. These tenants even refused to pay rent to the Court of Wards, despite threats and use of coercion. The claims of the sanyasi were also legitimated by the neighbouring zamindars who granted him the respect and honour due to the Kumar of a large and important estate.
Eventually in 1930, the sanyasi filed a suit staking his claim as the second prince of Bhawal, expectedly contested by the state. The trial of the Bhawal sanyasi generated great excitement in Bengal. It was an event which produced all manner of rumours and speculation. A large number of these stories were printed and the Bhawal affair produced a variety of literature in the form of pamphlets, poems, satirical verses, doggerel, numerous articles and even books.
By the time the trial began in 1933 in the court of Panna Lall Basu (an Indian judge) the nation was agog. The trial was a long and protracted one; interest was sustained through 608 days of actual hearing in which the plaintiff’s lawyers put up 1042 witness and the defence produced 433 witnesses. The witnesses were a diverse lot and came from England, Punjab, Nepal and Bengal. The trial proceedings and the judgement finally consisted of 11327 printed pages of material supported by three volumes of photographs.
The most exciting part of the story was the judgement which argued cogently with substantial proof for the reinstatement of the sanyasi as prince. The judgement was contested by the state in the High Court, but Panna Lall Basu’s arguments persuaded the judges of this court and they refused to overturn the judgement. An appeal made to the Privy Council was also rejected. The second Prince of Bhawal had returned from the dead to reclaim his inheritance from the Court of Wards, an amazing story, with all the high drama that it entailed. The sanyasi triumphed and his success added to his legendary stature – a legend which Partha Chatterjee’s father loved to narrate, a story which inspired the son to produce the first full length academic work on the subject.
The narrative produced by the scholar scrupulously avoids a sensational retelling and refuses to pass judgement. The title of the book is therefore ‘Princely Impostor’ and Partha Chatterjee provides a self-avowedly ‘positivist’ account of the events in which authorial intervention is kept to a minimum. Yet the rendering of the story as an episode in the ‘secret’ history of nationalism is the author’s ‘construction’. He reads the story in the context of colonial India of the 1930s and 1940s and argues that the Bhawal sanyasi affair has to be located within the changing power/knowledge network of this period.
Chatterjee demonstrates how nationalist consciousness articulates its resistance to imperial forms of dominance from within the interstices of the colonial state. Nationalist lawyers who argued on behalf of the plaintiff strove to carve out a cultural space for ‘Indianness’ within the judicial system. This is evident in the manner in which certain cultural practices legitimated the claims of the sanyasi (the fact that the Kumar’s grandmother insisted that he perform the last rites for her). The judge accepted these as significant and validated these claims, even though he had to resign his position after he delivered the judgement (because he anticipated problems if he continued to serve his colonial masters).
It appears that changing power configurations as a consequence of World War II favoured the sanyasi’s claims because the judges also seemed to be influenced by the prospects of imminent decolonisation. This argument is familiar and in consonance with Partha Chatterjee’s earlier formulations about Indian nationalist consciousness and its attempt to carve out a discrete ‘spiritual’ space for itself within the ‘derivative discourse of nationalism.’
Historicising the trial further, the author points out that the Bhawal sanyasi affair, despite its incredible storyline, was not unique. He cites certain instances when other protagonists had also come back in similar circumstances to claim ancestral property, but had been denounced and proclaimed imposters by the judicial system. This supports his argument that the Bhawal sanyasi’s success was the product of a particular historical conjuncture, illustrating the significance of ‘the conditions when the truth is produced’ (p. 105).
The story, a delightful one, is well told, but begs a question: Does the history of the Bhawal sanyasi affair constitute the secret history of nationalism? Where does the secret inhere – in the retelling, in the silence of its judgement, or in the mystery of the sanyasi’s identity?
Chatterjee’s exercise on the subalterns does not explore in detail the significance of the event for popular imagination. There are many resonances – folklore abounds in such legends – but the author refers in passing to a pamphlet which argued that ‘in the age of Kali such an event is required.’ The response of the tenants to their Raja is dismissed as utopian and little importance is granted to the evocative power of the Raja turned ascetic. In the historical legends of Bengal the Raja and the renouncer form a powerful dyad. Chatterjee does explore certain indigenous philosophical traditions (why Nyaya only?) for understanding the constitutive elements of identity but again fails to interpret as powerful the motif of ‘loss of memory’. This is an important narrative device which could be read as the erasure of ‘sansara’ and could therefore grant the prince an even more potent persona.
Chatterjee’s discussion on how the state structures and constrains individual identities within modernity is persuasive. Certainly ‘homogenising’ and ‘essentialising’ of identities is part of the historical process and is apparent in the argument of the lawyers, but the way this story is narrated appears to emphasise the ‘secret’ of each national culture which lies in the construction of its own ‘uniqueness’. The myth of ‘uniqueness’ and of ‘difference’ sustains interest in the Bhawal sanyasi case and thereby helps in its appropriation by nationalism.
An important focus of the book relates to the manner in which the dominant discourse of nationalism constructs ‘class’ and ‘gender’. It is well accepted that elite Indian nationalism interrogated imperial history only in terms of its arrogation of power from the imperial elites; it accepted the understanding that nationalist elites were superior to other strata because they were the ‘evolved’ groups of the pre-colonial epoch. Elites of earlier periods were, therefore, the ‘natural’ leaders of the colonial present.
Chatterjee does not explicate this in the context of the story, except tangentially. He could also have elaborated the discussion about how Bibahhet Devi (wife of the Kumar) is ‘represented’ in popular imagination. Her refusal to accept the sanyasi as her husband (to change her status from widow to wife) defies cultural sanctions and makes her a figure who epitomises the ‘educated female’ whose deracination leads to deviation.
It is evident from the structure of the book that debates about identity do not form the substantive core of the work. The author’s intention, it appears, is to tell a story and to tell it well. The primacy of the ‘narrative’ mode is established and the work clearly amplifies, through its elegance and dexterity, the importance of the ‘narrative’ for the historian’s craft. As Amitav Ghosh asserts, the book is a literary classic and deserves to be read as one.
REMEMBERING PARTITION: Violence, Nationalism and History in India by Gyanendra Pandey. Contemporary South Asia Series 7, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2001.
CONVENTIONAL narratives of modern Indian history have followed a neat, straightforward trajectory that commence with the year 1757, building up to narratives of the rapid British subjugation and expansion over the entire subcontinent, before the Congress launched its nationalist struggle that culminated in freedom on 15 August 1947. This is where Indian history ends. 1947, however, was more than the definitive year marking independence. As Gyan Pandey argues, it was a rupture – a Partition – that accompanied independence with an unprecedented violence and suddenness.
As Pandey has explained elsewhere, disciplinary history as presently conceptualised is incapable of dealing with violence and suffering.1 The language available to the historian and the discourse in which historiography functions do not permit the discourse of ordinary people who live through traumatic events like Partition to be recognised. Rather, such violence is seen as alien to long established traditions and national struggles, as Pakistani and Indian historians have emphasised.
Pandey explains that more than a rupture or a decisive break, there exist at least three different conceptions of ‘partitions’ that went into the making of the Partition of 1947. The first ‘partition’ was signalled by the Lahore Resolution of 1940 when an important section of the Muslim political leadership demanded a state of their own – a demand that over the next seven years was taken up and articulated more widely and fiercely by Muslims across the subcontinent. The second ‘partition’ was the demand put forward in early 1947 by several within the Hindu, Sikh and Congress leadership for the partition of Bengal and Punjab. And finally, there was the feared and then dreadfully realised ‘partition’ of families and local communities – the third partition that so many people speak of. The historian’s apprehension of 1947 is limited to the first two conceptions of partition, leading to a wide chasm between history and the popular account of survivors – the third conception of partition.
For the survivors, Partition was violence but for historians it was in the main a new, constitutional, political arrangement, which did not affect the broad contours of Indian society or even its history. But this other history, based on memories of its survivors needs to be rewritten.
Memory steps in when history fails or refuses to address particular moments of dislocation that societies (communities?) in all their complexity and painfulness often face in their history. It is when history renders violence non-narratable that memory intervenes to give history an additional lease of life. In private memories, and their numbers have multiplied as recent writings on Partition show, Partition is the violence – the day of Partition is the day troubles occurred. In survivor memories, Partition takes on other names – migration, violence, uproar. The choice of nomenclature (partition, migration, etc) as Pandey stresses, determines not only the images that are constructed but also the questions that are asked about historical and contemporary events.
There are historians who have argued to the contrary – on the importance of not studying Partition violence. For the ‘little events’ – violence, rape, mass murder and the expulsion of whole communities are the product of other forces, and other processes. Instead, they highlight the need to focus on the centrality of the state, long-term historical processes, the need to reemphasise an enduring aspect of the Indian legacy – the pluralism that has been a characteristic of ‘our civilizational ground.’ Forgetting is also in the interest of India’s unity and the need to forget in the interest of normal interaction between communities.
Should such accounts of violence then, as Gyan Pandey asks, be left only to right-wing writings and their attempts since the 1980s to consolidate a right-wing, rigidly defined religious community based politics? Recounting the violence that accompanied partition of British India – a ‘critical (traumatic and repeatedly re-cited)’ moment in the establishment of two nation states and the life of their newly constituted peoples – does not automatically amount to telling stories of violence. For while there were reports of mutual support and kindness even at times of great violence, Partition was also a moment which saw changing Hindu-Muslim-Sikh relations; emerging right-wing formations, a state whose attitudes betrayed its increasingly partisan manner and also a growing societal tolerance of violence and brutality.
In the making of the history of any society, narratives of particular experiences of violence too form a significant part. The making of this history takes on a process different from what disciplinary history has often all too easily assumed – that subjects like society, nation, state, community, locality, have a ready fixed existence and that human development follows a natural, pre-determined trajectory.
The violence of 1947 created new subjects and subject positions. Whole communities came to be refugees and the members of an entire population were rendered faceless, undifferentiated, suspect and hunted. It was also followed by a moment of contest and an intense debate about what the character of the new nation state should be; who would constitute its ‘natural citizens’? For the Muslims who stayed on (like the Hindus who stayed on in Pakistan-East Pakistan) now constituted a minority problem. The abducted persons who remained on the wrong side of the international border also constituted a different sort of problem – they were conceived of as an impurity or theft or both. The question posed was what would be their place in the new dispensations of India and Pakistan?
After 1947, Muslims were asked to demonstrate their loyalty towards India. Their willingness to ‘shed their blood for India’ (p. 162) became a desperate password for citizenship, for being Indian. While being part of a community was enough to deny nationality or to confer it on certain others naturally, for the abducted women, it was in the process of their recovery and restoration that the new nationalisation was decided. In 1947, women who were long considered as having no religion or community or nation, came for that moment to stand for nothing else. Represented as nothing but the possessions of their men, their communities and their nations, many of the abducted women and children became mere pawns and had little say in the crossfire of nationalist demands that came to mark it.
Subjects are also created in the act of remembering, of reconstructing life and community out of the contradictory and difficult memories of Partition. Reconstructions of violence in the past are frequently forced to grapple with the question of the meaning of this violence for the community – then and now. While nations and states can insulate themselves behind grand, dramatic theorisations about national interests and national agendas, face to face local communities have to live with disturbing memories and have to deal in their own way with their ‘non-disciplinary’ histories of the painful moment of violence. They are compelled to pose the question of what constitutes the community, the subject of history, ‘us’ and ‘them’. Memories of violence, its discourse constitutes attempts to (re)construct community.
But in such recounting, the violence inevitably happened at the boundaries of a community – ‘out there’; violence occurred in a moment when the community faced the threat of disintegration; violence, thus occurs to preserve community, to restore an old one or create a new one. In such a discourse, the violence against women is glorified – tales of bravery of ‘our’ women and acts of savagery inflicted on others women as part of revenge attacks were carefully constructed and reconstructed largely to restore pride and self-respect in the midst of humiliating circumstances. By acknowledging the violence, such (re)constructed accounts seek to promote the undying valour of the community.
But as Gyan Pandey argues, the reinvention of community is not always easy. The communities thus constructed are necessarily fragile, however much they come to be invoked in the wake of social and political turbulence. Senses of community appear all too malleable, fuzzy, and contextual. Little histories too get transformed in the process of their retelling, in the very process of their construction.
If the ‘histories’ of Partition, its memories are themselves of a fleeting, re-reconstructable nature, Pandey asks if this history can be written back to also include the dimensions of force, uncertainty, domination and disdain, loss and confusion, the presence of nemesis, that in turn redefined community and life itself. Historians have pleaded for the use of literature to resurrect the ‘many histories’ of the Partition.2
The relationship between violence and community apparent in Partition and accounts of Partition, Pandey insists, still have something unusual to tell us. In times, as 1947, good or evil coexist at the same time and often in the same person; there is moreover doubt as to what is which: what does good society and moral order really stand for. This dichotomy is stark in individual accounts. In all of these, the sheer incomprehensibility of the violence is apparent. These accounts speak of the grave tensions, the ambiguity, the uncertainty and desperation of the time. Everywhere the anguished search for explanation is evident.
The civil servant, while ‘sleeping through’ the most gruesome incidents of violence still asks what in the Sikh polity allowed the Sikhs to act in this way and to feel no compunction for it even now (p. 178, emphasis mine). In another account, a Muslim who had been ‘converted’ to Sikhism, yet did not reconvert after the ‘troubles’ asks, ‘Why does it always happen in the Punjab?’ The same kind of violence had beset the region in the 1980s. His answer (p. 178) is that it is the Sikhs who take arms, go out in jathas (gangs) and kill. In Dehlavi’s voice, in his despair and need to escape, there is also dilemma and anguish for Delhi had been home, ‘even though she (Delhi) had become a dayan (witch), she still remained a mother’ (p. 185).
In citing these accounts, Pandey looks at Partition not merely as an event but as a category of understanding a happening. There is a greater need to understand how the tragedy of Partition played itself out, equally important is to understand how it was told and therefore ‘made in 1947’ and afterwards? The violence is not mere ‘local’ detail but is central to an investigation of our times, of our future and past politics. Understanding its nuances, its moment, might help redefine and reshape contemporary society and at the same time, effectively pose a challenge to the attempted definition of communities as rigid, ‘natural, permanent’ entities, as an increasingly vociferous right-wing polity is seeking to do.
1. Gyan Pandey, ‘The Prose of Otherness’, in David Arnold and David Hardiman (eds), Subaltern Studies, Vol VIII, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1994.
2. Mushirul Hasan, ‘Memories of a Fragmented Nation: Rewriting the Histories of India’s Partition’, Economic and Political Weekly, 10 October 1998.
PREJUDICE AND PRIDE: School Histories of the Freedom Struggle in India and Pakistan by Krishna Kumar. Viking, Delhi, 2001.
COMBINING scholarship with passion, verve and an engaging pen, Krishna Kumar makes his study of rival Indo-Pak school historiographies what academic books but rarely are: a source of both intellectual and aesthetic pleasure. Lamenting that, whatever its differences within and across the national divide, the entire historiographic production in the two countries, and the often fierce debates around it, should neglect its primary subject – school children – the study focuses on the unrelieved want of concern for children’s curiosity and sensibility. Refreshingly unaffected by nationalistic narrowness, it uses three salient features – the politics of mention, pacing, and the conception of the end – to bring out the broad similarities and differences between the master narratives of the freedom struggle that characterize school histories for various kinds of schools in India and Pakistan.
These master narratives are designed to serve the school’s function of ‘socializing the young into an approved national past, the approving agency being the state’ (20). Rather than whet the children’s innate sense of wonder and induce them to think for themselves, history teaching is geared to the state-dominated enterprise of schooling the young into a dominant pattern of national identity. The purpose being to impress and indoctrinate, an interpretative approach is spurned in favour of one that provides information – selective information – in a bid to direct national memory (and national amnesia). Following the compulsions of the politics of mention, it decides the what, who and how of national remembrance. The students are filled with convenient facts, not taught the connections among facts. Even when, occasionally, an interpretative approach is employed, it is ‘much too interpretative to allow children to relate to it’ (100).
What, as instruments of larger national enterprises, these master narratives are intended to achieve is to inject their young with ‘a deep awareness of the "other"’ (29). Depending upon the ever changing, and mutually reactive, political and cultural climates in the two nation states, the perception of the ‘other’ may acquire ‘a strongly hostile or weakly friendly articulation’ (32-3). As a pervasive institutionalised influence, however, the master narratives contribute to the hardening of the negative mindset which has its foundation in the relationship that the two nation states have established between themselves; chosen as they have ‘to stay interlocked in a web of unresolved instincts, memories and images’ (39).
Two striking examples of the politics of mention cited in the book, which also reflect its author’s radical perspective, may be noticed here. Showing that Gandhi in Indian school histories ‘remains a frozen figure of greatness’, and that this greatness is crafted through striking omissions (167) – ‘the politician in him is left out: only the Mahatma remains’ (147) – Krishna Kumar exemplifies the point: ‘No Indian text mentions that Gandhi substituted the value of loyalty to the state’s laws with a self-imposed structure of moral behaviour.’ To mention Gandhi’s anarchism ‘would be inconsistent with the stated educational aim of training children for citizenship’ (140-41). Another significant absence, illustrative of the kind of national memory that is sought to be transmitted through school historiography in India, is the non-mention of the historic Poona Pact; it is omitted even from discussions relating to movements of the Depressed Classes (168-69). (Why does, though, Krishna Kumar refer to the pact as one between Gandhi and Ambedkar?)
The politics of the latter absence, and similar others like the non-mention of Moplah killings, stand out in sharp relief against the politics of the Pakistani master narrative which finds use for both the Poona Pact and the Moplah killings. This should not, however, warrant the conclusion that the two rival master narratives constitute mirror images of each other. They, as Krishna Kumar amply demonstrates, are ‘different, but in a highly complex manner’ (75-6).
The best of his passion employed on behalf of school children, the hapless victims of the historiographic rivalry, and against those responsible for the victimization, Krishna Kumar remains wonderfully indifferent to academic reputations. As an illustration may be cited his remark on the following about Iqbal in Bipan Chandra’s Class XII NCERT text: ‘In his earlier poetry, he extolled patriotism, though later he encouraged Muslim separatism.’ Kumar’s remark is: ‘How and why Iqbal might have encouraged Muslim separatism becomes so inconsequential in this statement that it might as well have said Iqbal caught a virus in later life’ (180). Similarly, the Pakistani school historian Bajwa’s astonishing formulation – that ‘religion, not allegiance to a community or culture was a motivating force for nationalism, not just in the Indian subcontinent but in other parts of the world as well’ – is pooh-poohed in less than a sentence: ‘Without offering an example – obviously because there are none – he [Bajwa] moves on...’ (200).
All this brilliance, however, is tempered by a melancholy realization that in both the countries school historians have remained trapped within ‘the traditional role of writers of history texts as magicians who show students what all happened in the past but do not reveal the basis of their knowledge’ (243).
Realistic enough not to expect, in either country, any systemic reforms in the foreseeable future, Krishna Kumar refuses to end on a hopeless note. His faith derived, perhaps, from the non-governmental initiatives that have brought together a small but growing number of people from both sides of the frontier, he hopes for an ‘innovative enterprise’ that will bring together a ‘handful of schools in India and Pakistan’, and ‘inaugurate the lifting of what is arguably one of the thickest iron curtains in the present-day world, so far as the flow of ideas and scholarship is concerned’ (244-46).
Scintillating as this work is, its brilliance seems to hide a want of logical/methodological rigour. Let me try and voice this by concentrating on the treatment of a binary – the nationalism-communalism binary – that cannot but be pivotal to a study of the historiography of the freedom struggle in India and Pakistan. Krishna Kumar is alert to the difficulty of applying the distinction between nationalism and communalism to a situation where the creation of Pakistan marks, from the two opposing national viewpoints, the consummation of ‘nationalism’ as much as of ‘communalism’. He quotes, apparently approvingly, L.I. and S.H. Rudolph’s description of communalism as the ‘perceived opposite’ of secularism (53), which should justify the acceptance of a similar relationship between communalism and nationalism. But he is also, at the same time, able to observe: ‘Even though communalism as a political force is rightly portrayed as being hostile to nationalism, the narrative of nationalism can hardly be disentangled from the record of communal consciousness’ (154).
The problem, in this formulation, suddenly ceases to be epistemological. It is no longer an aporia that will admit of no conceptual basis for telling one from the other. Because the empirical reality has them inextricably fused, the difficulty, now, is one of separating nationalism and communalism. Let us concede this difficulty straightaway. Let us also admit that there may be political, normative and even heuristic compulsions for having to distinguish between the two. But none of that can warrant a formulation that reduces the theoretical difficulty of perceiving and naming to the methodological one of disentangling the phenomena. Where does that leave us in the matter of narrativising the freedom struggle for Pakistan? Forget their disentangling, can there be a semblance of consensus about the constitutive elements of the ‘narrative of nationalism’ and ‘the record of communal consciousness’?
And yet, just three pages later, Krishna Kumar observes: ‘The sharp bifurcation of the "communal" and "national" is a structural feature of the Indian narrative of freedom. Its conceptual validity apart...’ (157). What, then, is the conceptual validity of his own earlier approval of the distinction between nationalism and communalism? And if that approval is valid, for reasons that somehow remain unstated in the otherwise brilliant 250 pages of his text, what is the conceptual validity of his general criticism of ‘the Indian narrative of freedom’?
Krishna Kumar, rightly to my mind, is critical of histories that are grounded in a distinction between nationalism and communalism. He cannot, however, give up the distinction altogether. He embodies in this the predicament of all those who, even while seeing through nationalism, realise the need, in the context of their own times, to combat what they believe is communalism. It does not matter to them, in that context, if no impeccable conceptual criteria are available for naming that phenomenon as communalism.
The predicament is reason for grappling with the aporia of distinguishing between nationalism and communalism, or between secularism and communalism. No easy solutions will do. Neither for appreciating how various histories have dealt with the past, nor for dealing with our present difficulties. Krishna Kumar’s text reveals little evidence of being informed by an awareness of the aporetic character of the problem. It seems too eager to judge without turning its critical gaze inward.
Two quick final points. First, with his understanding of the subcontinent’s identity politics and of the magical efficacy of words, how can Krishna Kumar describe religious identities as ‘ethnic’? (170). Its theoretical and empirical indefensibility apart, the description can have harmful consequences, given the current valorisation of ethnicity. Second, what is the rationale for including in the index even those works of ‘professional’ history which have received only a passing mention, while excluding all the ‘school’ histories that constitute the staple of Prejudice and Pride? The index will not help any reader who may wish to see how a particular textbook or school historian has been analysed in the book.
THE BRITISH ORIGIN OF COW SLAUGHTER IN INDIA: With Some British Documents on the Anti-Kine Killing Movement 1880-1894 by Dharampal and T.M. Mukundan. Society for Integrated Development of Himalayas, Mussoorie, 2002.
Francis Bacon said that some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested. The book by Dharampal belongs to none of the above categories. He seeks to prove that the practice of cow killing originated during British rule and presents in support of his claim a collection of documents with which serious historians are already familiar. These documents do not prove that the practice of cow slaughter originated during the colonial period. In fact, we have much evidence, both archaeological and literary, to indicate the prevalence of cow killing in ancient times.
Throughout the pleistocene ‘bones of the cow/ox have been discovered more frequently and at a large number of places in the river and other deposits than of any other animal.’ But even when man in India reached a civilized stage, he continued to kill animals to meet his dietary requirements. Excavations clearly prove that the authors of the Harappan civilization ate cattle flesh of which the relevant archaeological evidence is spread over a vast area covering Sind, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Kutch, Saurashtra and coastal Gujarat – a fact which will not be palatable to Hindu fundamentalists who look for ‘glorious’ lineage for themselves.
The continuity of the practice of cow killing is borne out not only by archaeological but also literary texts. The Vedic and post-Vedic texts are replete with references to the killing of cows in various sacrifices and special occasions including the reception of an important guest. Yajnavalkya’s strong preference for tender cut of beef is well known (Shatapatha Brahmana, III.1.2.21) and so is the Upanishadic precept that a person desirous of a learned and longlived progeny should eat rice with a stew of veal (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, VI.4.18). The Manes felt happy for a year if the cow flesh was offered to them (Apastamba Grihyasutra, II.7.16.25; II.7.17.3). In the early centuries of the Christian era, Charaka and Sushruta, and later Vagbhata (seventh century) refer to the therapeutic uses of beef; Sushruta speaks of the pregnant woman’s craving for ox meat which he considered pure (pavitra).
The Sanskrit secular literature, ranging in date from the eighth to the twelfth century, provides many references to the killing of cow in honour of guests. Interestingly, when the Brahmins began to discourage cow killing to meet the requirements of an ever expanding agrarian society and refer to it as forbidden in the Kaliyuga, they associated the practice increasingly with untouchables who have continued to eat beef in our own times – in contemporary India out of 450 scheduled castes 104 have a preference for cow beef and 117 for ox beef! Despite the brahmanical disapproval of cow killing they remembered the ancient practice.
Several commentators including Mitra Mishra (17th century) of Gwalior and Mahamahopdhyaya Madana Upadhyaya of Mithila (early 20th century) refer to the old practice without a sense of guilt, and memory sans remorse might as well be nostalgia. Not surprisingly, killing of cows and buffaloes was practised at Todgarh in Merwara (Rajasthan) until 1874 when the local Rawats entered into an agreement to abstain from beef eating. (J. Digges La Touche, The Rajputana Gazetteer, II, Ajmer-Merwara, p. 48.) In our own times, a large number of bulls are killed every year at a place called Bhunkhal, 13 kilometers from Pauri (The Pioneer, 11 December 2002).
All this is part of Indian dietary and ritual tradition and calls for a detailed critical study. But Dharampal is not concerned with rational enquiry into the past. His objective is to prove that cow killing originated during the British rule, not by critical scholarship but by cashing in on the ignorance of the common man. The Preface and the Introduction (pp. 1-82) of his book is full of sweeping and unsubstantiated statements and glaring contradictions. On p. 2, for example, he tells us that during the rule of Muslim kings the question of killing cows did not arise because they were not there in the land of the origin of Islam. But on the very next page he avers that the maximum number of cows killed in any one year during Islamic dominance would not ordinarily have exceeded 20,000 in all. The ignorance that Dharampal, the Gandhian, is trying to dish out to his readers (with whom I sympathise!) explains the vicissitudes of Gandhism in our country.