Ban, after protest

Print edition : February 13, 2004

The Maharashtra government bans the controversial book on Shivaji.

in Mumbai

IN response to violent protests by the "Sambhaji Brigade" and in order to appease the Maratha lobby, the Maharashtra government has banned the book Shivaji: A Hindu King in an Islamic Kingdom, written by American author James Laine. The 128-page narrative on the life and times of Shivaji became the centre of a controversy in January when Maratha loyalists took offence to a remark made by the author about the parenthood of the Maratha king.

As Laine had named a professor from the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) in the acknowledgments in the book, protesters calling themselves the "Sambhaji Brigade" stormed into the institute and ransacked the library, destroying thousands of rare manuscripts and books and priceless artefacts (Frontline, January 30).

The Sambhaji Brigade, a splinter group of the Maratha Seva Sangh, an organisation involved in promoting Maratha consciousness, threatened to initiate more attacks if the government did not take action. According to a Professor, who prefers to remain anonymous, "the ruling Democratic Front government is not going to risk the wrath of Maratha voters with Assembly elections just around the corner. They were compelled to do something."

The book has been banned under Sections 153 and 153A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which allows a State government to take action against individuals and publications for provoking public sentiment and creating tension in society. A case has been filed against Laine and the publishers, Oxford University Press (OUP). Once the ban is enforced, the police would confiscate copies of the book under the Code of Criminal Procedure. Additionally, the Maharashtra government has the right to ask other governments to ban the book in their respective States.

It is unlikely that the police will find many copies of Laine's book. The OUP withdrew the book in November last, when a group of scholars led by the Pune-based historian Dadasaheb Purandare, known for his biography of Shivaji, asked the OUP to take the book off the shelves because Laine's statement was factually incorrect and would unnecessarily hurt the sentiments of the Maratha people.

Unfortunately, these scholars publicly condemned the book, and that brought the issue out in the open. Organisations such as the Maratha Seva Sangh have been waiting for an opportunity to gain visibility. Laine's book was just the excuse they needed to display their strength, the Professor said.

According to Saroja Bhate, honorary secretary of the BORI, Laine had begun his research on Shivaji about 15 years ago. He had taken the assistance of Shreekant Bahulkar of the BORI for the translation of some Marathi and Sanskrit texts. That is why he acknowledged Bahulkar in the book.

Frontline was able to procure a copy of the page, which appears in chapter nine titled "Cracks in the narrative", in which Laine made the objectionable statement: "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 Konndev was his biological father..."

Questioning Laine's purpose in writing the book on the Maratha warrior, the government says,"The author has mischievously questioned Shivaji's parentage.... The book has several references to the bickering within the Bhosale family to which Shivaji belonged. We want to know what is the motive of the author." In its ban order the government says: "The circulation of the book containing scurrilous matter is prejudicial to the maintenance of the public tranquillity along with law and order." Technically, the government is allowed to ban a book, but whether it is "justified legal action" is another matter, says Mihir Desai, a human rights lawyer.

The Professor from Pune points out that banning a book is perhaps the worst form of censorship. "We cannot call ourselves a democracy if authorities are allowed to suppress voices." The writer is an American, who has also apologised for his remark. Imagine what would have happened had it been an Indian writer? "Nobody should be made to feel scared about writing or voicing what they believe in. Have we reached such a pitiful stage where we cannot write about certain subjects?" If you do, your credibility and reputation takes a huge beating. This new trend is dangerous. Even I cannot let you quote me because I fear about the consequences.," he said.

The Professor says Laine should be allowed to arrive at his own conclusions. Besides, he said, the larger issue here was that you cannot pick and chose events from history. Unfortunately, Shivaji is no longer a historical figure. He has become a symbol of the Hindu Right. His name is mired in the dirty business of politics and politicians squeeze as much political mileage out of his name as possible. It is not his being a Hindu that is important but that he was a great warrior who took on the British. He did not sell out to them like several other kings and princes of his time, the Professor says.

Maratha organisations such as the Maratha Seva Sangh have begun to claim proprietorship over the warrior king. The Sangh has even put up name boards in each of Shivaji's forts such as Raigad and Sindhudurg in the Sahayadris. Clearly, these groups have sufficient political backing to do this. In fact, such is their might that the key leader of the Sangh, Purushotam Khedekar, a Public Works Department employee, has not been questioned in connection with the attack on the BORI. This, in spite of the Sangh's clear association with the "Sambhaji Brigade", which took full responsibility for the attack.

A police official told Frontline that someone wielding enough political clout was instigating these people.

More significant than the banning of the book, the intelligentsia believes, is the need to recognise the alarming trend in Maharashtra of suppressing the freedom of speech and expression.

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