Why I remember DN Jha as an exemplary food historian

His defining work was about a food item whose reality is markedly different from the narrative that has been built around it

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Friday 05 February 2021

Read Down To Earth’s 2016 interview with DN Jha here

Professor Dwijendra Narayan Jha, the eminent historian of ancient and medieval India died February 4, 2021, leaving a void in India’s intellectual scene. 

I still remember my interview with him nearly five years ago. I had been briefed by my editor to interview him on the subject of beef for Down To Earth and Centre for Science and Environment’s State of the Environment 2016.

Beef was then rocking the national discourse in India. Starting with the murder of Muhammad Akhlaq in Dadri, people were being lynched all across the country on the mere suspicion of possessing, transporting or consuming bovine flesh. Most of the victims were Dalits or Muslims. And the lynch mobs belonged to a particular political dispensation.

I, along with two colleagues reached Jha’s house located somewhere in the north-eastern corner of Delhi. The room we entered was painted sky blue. An elderly lady ushered us in and told us to wait.

After a while, a bald, bespectacled and very frail old gent entered the room, walking very slowly with a stick. And the interview began.

Before the interview, I had not read any of Jha’s works, including the seminal Holy Cow: Beef in Indian dietary conditions. I had nevertheless, done my research.

What struck me most was how, despite his age and fragility, Jha’s wit was razor-sharp, his command of his subject supreme and his memory strong. His answers left me open-mouthed.

For instance, in reply to one of my questions, he said there wascopious evidence of Brahmins eating beef in the Vedic period including in later Vedic times. But in due course of time, they gave up beef-eating and started associating it with Dalits, and later Muslims.”

This reply by Jha reminded me how multi-layered and nuanced the history of human societies really is. Today, an image of a Brahmin wearing a sacred thread and a shaved top-knot eating beef is anathema and blasphemy in India. But it did occur in the hoary past of this land, according to Jha.

It is indeed a tragedy that history has been the first target of Hindu nationalists in India. History has long been the ‘fief’ of ‘privileged, left-leaning intellectuals’ who have ‘the patronage of the Congress’, they have always alleged. The Hindu Right thus seeks to ‘rewrite Indian history’ according to what it deems appropriate to the ‘Hindu view’.

Professor Jha was a counter to all that the Right alleged. As far as I could see in that meeting, he was an ordinary, sober, average middle class man with not even a hint of superiority and intellectual snobbery in his bearing that rightists have long complained his peers to have. He was a teacher, someone who gave knowledge to others.

His work on beef is also unique in the sense that it helped in shaving off the layers of ignorance regarding a food item that is taboo in India. He showed that there was nothing exemplary about its consumption in ancient India, by a people who can best be described as pastoralists today.

The narrative that has been built up is that this food item was never consumed in ancient India. But with thorough research and references to historical records, Jha showed this was not the case. And so the people killing others in the name of one animal were not even aware about what exactly they were killing for.

It also shows the glaring lacunae regarding the teaching of history in India. In my lifetime, I mostly have seen people (including the ones I studied with) expressing disgust for history and other humanities.

Moreover, even the writers of school textbooks do not know their history well. The textbooks that I studied from were among the worst I have come across (this was in the prime minister’s home state incidentally). Our children are thus not even being given proper and most importantly, accurate knowledge about the past.

I also asked Jha about the irony of cattle in India: People worship the cow but hundreds of these animals are left to wander on the streets where they ingest plastic and die painful deaths.

“If cattle are not well-kept, they die painfully. But once they become unproductive, they become a drain on the economy. I don’t know how to strike a balance between the two,” Jha said.

Jha is an example of those honest and humble historians who have devoted lifetimes to the study of the past, poring over texts, scrolls, treatises, documents and records. Unlike the keyboard warriors of today who abuse, threaten, blackmail and bully others in the name of history among other things. And that too with no knowledge and blissful ignorance.

We need more people like Jha in today’s India. For history must be left to the historians to write. Not cyber scum or street thugs.   

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