Categories
Issue 7

The Violence We Inherit

This year, the morning of 26th January held two instead of just one Republic Day parade. At Rajpath, celebrations for the 72nd year of the adoption of the Indian Constitution took place, whereas, in another part of Delhi, the farmers were exercising their right promised by this prestigious document, to highlight their demand to revoke the three controversial farm bills through a tractor rally. While at one end, the sound of the 21-Gun salute echoed in the air, in another part, chants of ‘kisaan kanoon wapas lo’ and clashes between the police and farmers were observed. 

Soon, videos surfaced on social media platforms of farmers driving tractors recklessly, bringing down barricades as policemen scrambled out of their way. Instances of police indulging in lathi-charge and tear-gas at protestors were also recorded. Events escalated to a level where certain protestors derailed from their march to hang the Nishaan Sahib, a saffron flag of great relevance to Sikh religion, at the Red Fort. The aftermath resulted in over 80 police personnel injured. 

In the past, having been known as the land of satyagraha, we have developed a certain identity rooted in non-violence. Does this notion influence the different ways we view violence in a protest today? While violence has been excused in certain contexts, it has been condemned in others. Moreover, there is a culture of blaming the violence on a ‘foreigner’ as a means to separate oneself from the narrative as it hinders the ‘non-violent’ reputation of India.  

With regards to R-Day, various conflicting views have surfaced regarding who holds the baton of responsibility for instigating the derailment of events. While Delhi Police Commissioner, SN Srivastava claims that the farmers were responsible for inciting violence and should be held accountable for their condemnable actions, various farmer leaders have explicitly separated themselves from those who chose to deviate. In an interview with the Hindu, Balbir Singh Rajewal, the president of the Bhartiya Kisan Union claimed that “it was a historic parade by lakhs of farmers with over 2 lakh tractors and 99.9% of the farmers stayed peaceful”. Along with this, certain farmer union leaders, as well as the opposition, have been propagating the view that the farmers were not responsible for the mayhem, and violence was instead enforced by individuals who were ‘foreign’ to the community and aimed at wanting to defame the peaceful farmer protests.

As simply consumers of news content, judgement about ‘who is responsible’ cannot be passed without proper investigation. However, it is interesting to note the emergence of different narratives surrounding the violence witnessed on R-Day. Certain sections that support the farmers argue that the violence showcased was ‘minimal’ and justified, considering that the government was choosing to ignore their citizens’ demands. Some even claim that it was anyone but the farmer responsible for the upheaval. However, those who do not believe in the farmers’ cause broadly argue that engaging in violence is condemnable and therefore warrants severe repercussions.

This manner of justifying violence in certain instances, and condemning it in others is not new to Indian culture. Ancient Indian epics like the Mahabharata have justified use of violence, where dharma (duty) to the caste system supersedes the value of kinship bonds. Romila Thapar, in her paper ‘War in Mahabharata’, highlights the moral-ethical dilemma that surrounded the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna, where the latter encouraged the former to kill his maternal uncle as he was an ally of the Kauravas. So, social obligations towards one’s caste became a valid explanation for killing a kinsman. Despite the description of “arrows tearing apart chests of warriors and free flow of blood creating a pandemonium”, the epic is still passed on in the form of tales to future generations, with gruesome violence deemed acceptable in the name of acquiring a kingdom and protecting its people. While the aim may be universal peace, it is reached through violent means.

Furthermore, ancient India has often been deemed as ‘peaceful’ and the reign of terror and violence has often been blamed on the ‘foreigner’ or ‘intruder’, like the Mughals and the British. This association of non-violence with ancient India exists  because we predominantly identify ancient India with Ashoka, the great emperor of the Mauryan dynasty who chose the path of non-violence and Buddhism after witnessing the repercussions of the Kalinga war. However, historian and author of ‘Political Violence in Ancient India’, Upinder Singh, in an interview with theWire, highlights how even “Jain and Buddhism texts use the vocabulary and imagery of war. Mahavira is a jina (victor); the Buddha fights a battle against the god Mara before attaining enlightenment while sitting under the Bodhi tree.” Historian DN Jha, in his book ‘Against the Grain’ also challenges this rhetoric of ancient India being devoid of any religious violence. Jha traces the Buddhist Sanskrit work, Divyavadana that describes Pushyamitra Shunga, a Hindu ruler and founder of the Shunga dynasty in 185 BCE, as the “great persecutor of Buddhists”. Jha claims that the ruler was responsible for the vandalising of the Sanchi Stupa and burning of the Ghositaram monastery in Kaushami that killed Buddhist monks. 

While these are just a few of the various instances of violence in India’s past, they have either not been emphasised enough or have been consciously ignored. The question to raise then is, when is violence excused and when is it not? 

The glorification of non-violence can be credited to satyagraha for freedom from British colonialism in modern Indian history. As Indians, we identify as the land of ahimsa and, therefore, choose to ignore the other side of the story. In fact, school history textbooks, sidelined those who engaged in violence for the freedom struggle and labelled them as ‘radicals’. However, movements like the 1857 revolt, showcased extreme violence that shook the stability of the East India Company within the country. The violence, while aimed towards a ‘foreigner’ was instigated and chosen by us as a path to rebel. If it weren’t for the widespread killing and burning of bungalows as well as chants of “maro firangi ko” (kill the white man) that filled the streets, would the British have left when they did?

Coming back to the opinions concerning the farmers’ protests—it can be observed that both the views justifying the violence and the ones condemning it and blaming it on an ‘intruder’, are views that are not new to Indian history. These biases can be observed in the ways we judge violence in current times.

Harshita Bedi is a student at Ashoka University pursuing her Psychology major. In her free time, you would find Harshita catching up on her sleep.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 7

Museums of Democracy: How the Central Vista Project highlights the Importance of Curating History

This is primarily because any history we read, hear, or watch, is refracted, it is shaped by the person or thought process that is engaged in the exercise of compiling it. The difference between History with the capital ‘H’ and history as everything that happened in the past is crucial. The former is carefully picked out from the latter – a series of events  and artefacts chosen to tell a story. The historian then carefully selects these ‘chosen ones’ to help shape the narrative they wish to see furthered; a narrative that is intrinsically based on the politics of the day.

The question raised then is why should someone care about this act of selection now? The answer is simple, everyday instances like the renaming of roads, the demolition of buildings and the rebuilding of common spaces reinforce this act of selection. One such undertaking that makes one stop and think about this is the Central Vista Redevelopment Project.

The project aims to renovate 86 acres of land in New Delhi, including historical buildings like the Parliament House, the Rashtrapati Bhawan, and the India Gate. Moreover, the National Museum is also set to be taken down and rebuilt where the current North and South Blocks stand in the Central Secretariat. The area, associated with affluence and political power is commonly called Lutyens Delhi after the architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker who designed it when the capital was shifted to Delhi in 1911 under the British rule.

Ever since its announcement in September 2019 by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, the project has come under scrutiny for violations of municipal and environmental law as well as change in land use. Following this, the Supreme Court gave it the green light in January 2021. Close to a month prior to January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation of a new Parliament building under a Hindu ceremony. The ceremony itself was allowed when the government reassured the court that no demolition or construction would begin until the final decision had been received. 

The focus of this article, however, is to draw attention to something that seems fairly inconspicuous at first but can have lasting impacts on how we associate our present with our past. The act of demolition and consequently rebuilding employs the historical process mentioned earlier – that of selection and by extension erasure of what gets chosen to be rebuilt and featured. With the National Museum for instance, the idea is that North and South Blocks will be able to house more historical artefacts. However, which artefacts are highlighted and how are questions that remain to be answered. 

The entire episode reminds me of something Susan Sontag said in relation to photography – “[To photograph] means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and, therefore, like power.” While she was talking about the act of framing something within photographic borders, the idea at its crux seems especially relevant here – when somebody controls the framing of the past, they wield power. Perhaps, therefore, the same self-reflectivity is required for the curation of renovated spaces.

While the words ‘heritage’, ‘redevelopment’ and ‘conservation’ paint rosy pictures in one’s mind about the building of new spaces, they actually point to the larger question of historical knowledge production. Buildings and architecture has always been used to assert power, symbolise progress and display grandeur. The act of rebuilding is not unique either, as history is replete with examples of the same. That being said, the question, especially with an edifice like the National Museum is its current housing of historical artefacts, and the process of curation that will go into the remade property. 

While the aforementioned already acts as a repository of history, the other buildings like the current Parliament House are receptacles of public memory of post-colonial India while themselves being colonial products. The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) is a prime example of a building set to be taken down which is associated with the memory of a former Prime Minister. Founded by Kapila Vatsyayan, it is a space where art has found expression during nationally significant events. Keeping the relevance of these in mind therefore becomes important as contemporary history may be memory for now, but it will not remain so for the coming decades. This highlights the importance of preserving not just historical remains but also elements of post-independence public memory that have not become canonical History yet.

Preserving public memory, if nothing else, can create context. They point to the uncomfortable understanding that even if features do not fit proposed narratives, they cannot be razed. For instance, the reason behind the decision to withdraw the candidature of colonial Delhi and Shahjahanabad as UNESCO World Heritage sites in 2014 has been traced by some to their legacies rooted in the Mughal period and the colonial era. While the legacies may cause discomfort to some, their significance cannot be dismissed.

The Central Vista Project sheds light on the importance of history and public memory. The fact is that the past cannot speak for itself. Whatever the past says, it does through the actors who consolidate it. The thing to keep in mind then in light of the project is this – demolishing heritage buildings should not open up the passageway to raze history.

Sanya is a student of History, International Relations and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).