‘The idea of a non-violent ancient India is a myth’: Historian Upinder Singh

Upinder Singh who is former PM Manmohan Singh’s daughter, says this in her new book "Political Violence in Ancient India".
‘The idea of a non-violent ancient India is a myth’: Historian Upinder Singh
‘The idea of a non-violent ancient India is a myth’: Historian Upinder Singh
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By Saket Suman 

India's independence movement was built on the principle of non-violence but a new book by noted historian Upinder Singh, also the daughter of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, suggests that the idea of a non-violent ancient India is a myth that Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru "helped create" while driving the independence movement on the principle of non-violence.

In "Political Violence in Ancient India" (Harvard University Press/Rs 999/pp 598), Upinder Singh, head of Delhi University's History Department, documents the "dynamic tension between violence and non-violence in ancient Indian political thought and practice over twelve hundred years".

But what makes Singh reach the conclusion that the idea of a non-violent ancient India is a "myth" that Nehru and Gandhi helped create?

"I think that the great value attached to non-violence in Gandhian nationalism (of which Nehru was also an important part) lulled us into thinking of a non-violent ancient India. This is a myth. This is why the problem of political violence has hardly been noticed, let alone studied (till my book!). Ancient Indian history is full of episodes of bloody wars, succession struggles, patricide, fratricide, conflicts between states and forest people, and the killing of animals. There was also social conflict.

"These things are well known, but we have somehow not joined the dots. Ancient India boasts the icons of ahimsa like Mahavira, the Buddha and Ashoka. But what people need to realise is that their strong pleas for non-violence indicate that these men were very troubled by violence all around them. So, the idea of a non-violent ancient India is indeed a myth. This pleasant myth can perhaps offer some comfort in our desire for peace and harmony in our present violent, intolerant, conflict-ridden world. It can be used as a basis to argue for a return to a golden age of non-violence. But such a golden age never existed. Such myths are not history and it is necessary to demolish them," Singh told IANS in an email interview.

She, however, also emphasised that recognising our violent past does not prevent us from finding ways of creating a more harmonious and non-violent future and reflected at length on "our long and rich tradition of discussion, disagreement and debate on violence and non-violence" in which we can find resources to deal with our present problems.

According to her book, Nehru thought that India's history was marked by a high level of social harmony and a lack of conflict. In Mahatma Gandhi's understanding of Indian history too, the principle of non-violence stood out.

But her findings also seem to suggest that Hindu ideologue Vinayak Damodar Savarkar -- the hero of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its Jana Sangh predecessor, as also its ideological backbone Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) -- saw violence and war as "necessary and laudable Hindu responses" against foreign aggressors.

At the same time, the larger narrative in her book also shows that political violence indeed was an integral part of ancient India. Is she suggesting that Savarkar had a better understanding of ancient Indian history (as far as political violence is concerned) than Nehru and Gandhi?

"There is no comparison between the breadth of Gandhi and Nehru's vision of history and the nation, and Savarkar's very limited one. Savarkar saw Indian history as a glorious story of Indians throwing foreigners out of the country; this does not amount to an understanding of the problem of political violence. I have used modern Indian images of ancient India as a starting point for my investigation of ancient Indian political ideas. But my argument actually is that it is necessary to look beyond these (and other) images of ancient India, and beyond the idealisation of violence and non-violence," responded Singh.

She also mentions that Nehruvian model of ancient Indian past -- one in which Buddhism, Ashoka, non-violence, and cosmopolitanism had pride of place -- were reflected in the national flag and emblem post-independence. But, she argues in the book, it was based on a very selective reading of India's ancient history. Is it not possible that instead of being a mere representation of India's ancient past, these symbols were used by Nehru and Gandhi to reflect the aspirations of a modern independent country, with non-violence as the core ideal of the then newborn nation?

"These things cannot be separated. It is but natural that there was a close relationship between the political agendas of political leaders, how they perceived India's ancient history, what they emphasised, and their aspirations for India's future. But the perspective of today's professional historian has to be different and based on a more dispassionate analysis of the evidence. That is what I have tried to do. I have analysed a whole range of sources and tried to understand how they dealt with the issue of political violence in general and with punishment, war and the forest in particular," Singh added.

The noted historian, an alumnus of Delhi's St. Stephen's College who earned her doctorate from Montreal's McGill University, said that despite having read, taught and researched on ancient India for so many years, she had missed something important -- political violence. And so she set on an exciting voyage of discovery that kept her busy for six years and ultimately culminated in this scholarly offering.

(Saket Suman can be contacted at saket.s@ians.in)

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