Book Review — The Violence in Our Bones: Mapping the Deadly Fault Lines Within Indian Society by Neera Chandhoke

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November 07, 2021 1:30 AM

A partisan account of violence and its causes mars an interesting subject

The facts have been cherry picked by her and arranged in a manner that matches her prejudices. However, one can’t single out Chandhoke for partisanship, as most Indian scholars lack the candidness of historian Eric Hobsbawm when it comes to ideology and objectivity.The facts have been cherry picked by her and arranged in a manner that matches her prejudices. However, one can’t single out Chandhoke for partisanship, as most Indian scholars lack the candidness of historian Eric Hobsbawm when it comes to ideology and objectivity.

The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use—these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of fact he wants.” These lines penned by EH Carr in his insightful What is History? best illustrate that historical facts are never objective. The most effective way to influence public opinion is by the selection and arrangement of the appropriate facts. “It used to be said that facts speak for themselves. This is, of course, untrue. The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context,” Carr concluded.

While reading Neera Chandhoke’s The Violence in Our Bones, these lines instantly come to mind, for the author, a faculty member of the political science department of Delhi University, has presented a partisan account of violence and its causes rather than an objective analysis of the subject. The facts have been cherry picked by her and arranged in a manner that matches her prejudices. However, one can’t single out Chandhoke for partisanship, as most Indian scholars lack the candidness of historian Eric Hobsbawm when it comes to ideology and objectivity.

Asked if activism restricted his intellectual freedom, Hobsbawm’s answer was, “I hope that it never restricted my intellectual freedom. However, I have to admit that any real and strong political or religious commitment tends to impose, I wouldn’t say obligations, but more a preference or a prejudice favourable to advancing the cause.” Hobsbawm was born in Germany in 1917, later professed the Communist ideology, saw the rise and decline of the USSR, but remained committed to Marxist ideology till his death in 2012. His answer, therefore, should be a lesson for all ideologue writers and academics as he conveys in no uncertain terms that one is never objective while analysing the ideology one professes.

There’s nothing wrong in Chandhoke professing what she believes in but a disclosure would have certainly helped in establishing the honesty of her purpose.
To be fair, Chandhoke has chosen a very relevant subject. Where she fails is its premise and treatment, both of which get blinded because events and their causes are seen through a one-sided ideological prism. First, on the premise. The blurb on the back cover reads: “The Buddha, Ashoka, Gandhi – the three greatest Indians who ever lived – were emblematic of non-violence. Yet, paradoxically, their country of origin is one of the most violent places on earth. Do we, the people of India, have violence in our bones?”

How’s this a paradox? Buddha appeared in the country’s history when violence was a norm for kings and their kingdoms. He preached against violence, but how short-lived his ideology and preachings were can be gauged from the fact that they very soon disappeared from the land of his birth. Where is it found today? China. Ashoka came to power through violence, turned to Buddhism and non-violence after a violent battle and with his demise the non-violent credo also disappeared.

Gandhi thrived at a time when violence was the only tool to build as well as extinguish an empire. His non-violent methods were unique during the time, brought independence to India but could not end violence and he himself met a violent death. The short point is that violence has been a norm all along in Indian history—in fact in world history—so the examples Chandhoke has proffered for the land having a history of non-violence are more in the nature of exception rather than rule.

Rather than analysing the cult of violence at an individual level involving family, community, and inter-personal interactions at a time when road rage, killing for reasons as trivial as wrongly parking cars in a crowded society, are increasing, Chandhoke resorts to the usual caste, communal and Maoist violence by throwing in events during Partition, struggle for secessionism in Kashmir and the North-East. Analysing violence at an individual level requires psycho-sociological expertise, while recounting political violence is easy as it just a cut-and-paste exercise from newspapers, with some garnishing of personal commentary.

Still, the book would have been readable had Chandhoke brought historical finesse and astute scholarship to her arguments, but she instead dishes out grossly wrong interpretations at several places and a jaundiced view in which the state has been shown as an aggressor and non-state actors as victims.

The chapter on violence during Partition provides wrong cause by simply blaming the British for its divide-and-rule politics, forgetting that it was more the introduction of democratic and secular politics that created problems between the Hindus and the Muslims. On communal violence in post-independence times, Chandhoke shows the majority community to be aggressors and the dominant minority, the Muslims, always as victims, totally forgetting that such violence has a power-play aspect too. When the largest and the second-largest communities clash, it’s got more to do with competitive politics rather than ethnic cleansing. Similarly, everyone agrees that lower castes have faced the worst kind of violence in India but at the same time any analysis should also bring to light that lower castes are not monolithic and power politics has made an entry there also. There are several cases of lower/dominant castes coming to power and unleashing violence on the upper castes.

The chapter on Kashmir is the most dishonest, as here she tries to rationalise majority (read Muslim) violence in general and against the Kashmiri Pandits in particular. The chapter on violence in the north-eastern states is laughable because it blames the manner in which the Indian state was formed as the cause for violence. If that’s the case, then would it not be appropriate to say that the formation of a nation-state in India itself was wrong and that all princely states should have been left autonomous?

The author is most careful in dealing with Maoist violence, maybe because of her ideological predilections. She first distinguishes it from the other forms of violence like caste, communal and for regional autonomy and then at length goes on to explain that the problem is not with ideology per se but with the violent methods chosen by the revolutionaries. That the two are inextricably linked has been conveniently overlooked, for it does not tie up with the larger narrative woven by the author.

The conclusion is even more confusing because instead of offering the way forward, Chandhoke gives a long monologue on Gandhian philosophy and practise of non-violence, which even schoolchildren are aware of. For a regular newspaper reader, the book is nothing but a collection of clippings garnished with the author’s lopsided views buttressed by random couplets of some poets.

The Violence in Our Bones: Mapping the Deadly Fault Lines Within Indian Society
By Neera Chandhoke
Aleph
Pp 288, Rs 699

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