Politics of vandalism

Published : Jan 30, 2004 00:00 IST

Invaluable books and artefacts have been destroyed in an attack on the Bhandarkar Institute in Pune by members of the `Sambhaji Brigade'.

in Pune

ON January 5, the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) in Pune became the target of a horrific act of vandalism. A 150-strong mob protesting against the institute's alleged involvement in maligning the name of the Maratha king Shivaji barged into its premises, ransacked the library, destroyed thousands of rare books, ancient manuscripts, old photographs and priceless artefacts, and took away some invaluable historical texts. The institute, one of the country's premier research centres for Orientology, has become a victim of what is now known as cultural terrorism and also the politics of a caste feud in Maharashtra.

The attackers were reacting to a derogatory remark on Shivaji's parentage, made by the American author James Laine in his book Shivaji: A Hindu King in an Islamic Kingdom. In a biographical account on the Maratha warrior, Laine writes that "the repressed awareness that Shivaji had an absentee father is also revealed by the fact that Maharashtrians tell jokes naughtily suggesting that his guardian Dadoji Konddev was his biological father... ."

Apparently, unable to tolerate such a statement, the attackers - owing allegiance to the "Sambhaji Brigade", a splinter group of the Maratha Seva Sangh, an organisation active in "promoting the cause of the Marathas" - targeted the BORI because one of the institute's research scholars, Shreekant Bahulkar, is acknowledged in Laine's book. They held him responsible for Laine's comment.

The controversy over Laine's book began in November 2003, when a group of historians led by Dadasaheb Purandare, well known for his biography of Shivaji, asked the publishers, Oxford University Press (OUP), to withdraw the book. Their letter to OUP states: "Though we do believe in freedom of expression, we cannot subscribe to the practice of maligning the life and character of any person, especially of one who commands the love, respect and admiration of crores of people and is a source of inspiration to them, by casting baseless aspersions." According to another historian of the group, "Laine's remark on Shivaji' parentage is factually incorrect and there is not a shred of evidence to support it." He told Frontline that if Laine were a responsible historian, he would have realised that such a statement without substantive evidence backing it would have serious ramifications.

The OUP withdrew the book immediately and issued an apology. The matter seemingly ended there. However, the historians reportedly held a meeting to condemn the book and celebrate their victory in having the book taken off the shelves. Shiv Sena activists, quick to react to any disparaging remark on Shivaji, stormed into the BORI building and blackened the face of Bahulkar.

Later Shiv Sena leader Raj Thackeray apologised to Bahulkar and the Sainiks have since been trying their best to disassociate themselves from the controversy. Laine too faxed an apology to the Sainiks and the media, stating that neither Bahulkar nor the BORI was responsible for the text in his book. On his part, Bahulkar explained that while Laine was at the BORI 15 years ago, he had helped him translate some Sanskrit and Marathi texts but had nothing to do with Laine's conclusions.

"The Sambhaji Brigade came out of nowhere," says Bahulkar. "Obviously there are some anti-social elements who wanted to create trouble and they used the controversy as a tool to further their cause." The attack appeared to have been planned meticulously. The attackers barged into the premises, cut the telephone lines, broke up into small groups of 10 and 15 and finished their task in half an hour. "This was not a spontaneous reaction to a derogatory remark," he told Frontline. But why did they react so late? It is hardly likely that any of these people would have read the book. Who backed them or who organised them?

THE Maratha Seva Sangh, which has claimed responsibility for the attack, is an organisation that is extremely anti-Brahmin, says Ajit Abhyankar, a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Its members wait for any opportunity to strike at the Brahmin community. Many of them believe that the scholars of the State belong to this community.

The battle between Brahmins and Marathas is very much part of Maharashtra's history, and it now dominates its politics. Pune has traditionally been a hotbed of such caste politics. It is alleged that using the anti-Brahmin slogan, the Sangh instigates unemployed youth to undertake anti-social acts such as the attack on the BORI.

In spite of the acceptance of blame, the police are yet to pick up any key member of the Maratha Seva Sangh. Informed sources in Pune say the Sangh's leader Purushottam Khedekar, a Public Works Department engineer, is close to several Ministers in the ruling Democratic Front government and, therefore, is unlikely to be touched. Khedekar allegedly wields so much clout that his career in the government remains on course though he has been arrested on corruption charges. His wife Rekha Khedekar is a Bharatiya Janata Party Member of the Legislative Assembly from Buldana district.

For the past six or seven years, says the source, Khedekar has been working on the "Maratha cause". He and his band of followers went to the various forts of Shivaji in the Sahyadris and placed Maratha Seva Sangh signboards and flags - probably indicating some sort of proprietorship over the area, says the source. Until the attack on the BORI, Khedekar remained relatively unknown. Although there has been a backlash, with several groups, political and non-political, condemning the attack, Khedekar has managed to make some gains from the publicity. The incident has given the Sangh an identity.

IRONICALLY, the Sambhaji Brigade destroyed a huge collection of books on Shivaji and damaged a portrait of him, which the BORI had received from the British Museum. "Is this any way to revere a king?" asks a visibly shaken Saroja Bhate, honorary secretary of the BORI. Also irreparably lost are: a 15th century, 10-inch idol of mundkata Ganapati and Syrian clay tablet dated to 600 B.C. found in Maharashtra. A version of the Mahabharata from Kashmir dated to A.D. 1000, is damaged partly.

The outpouring of help to the institute has been overwhelming. Donations have poured in and students from all over have volunteered to reorganise the library and clean up the mess. The much-needed funds will be spent on buying furniture and computers, which were also not spared by the attackers. "We are going to rise from the ashes," says Bhate.

In 1917, R.G. Bhandarkar, a historian, founded the BORI as a charitable institution with the aim of collecting rare and ancient historical books and preserving manuscripts to help in research. The then Government of Bombay handed over 20,000 manuscripts to the institution, which it preserved and catalogued. Many of these were destroyed in the attack. In 1919, the institute undertook an exercise to publish a critical edition of the Mahabharata. The final outcome of the project was a 19-volume, 13,000 demi quarto page publication, which was completed in 1966. President S. Radhakrishnan formally launched the publication that year.

The BORI attracts scholars from across the world seeking to research topics in Indology and Orientology. It is unfortunate that such an institution is caught in a controversy over what is apparently a non-issue.

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