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An icon as a political tool

Published : Aug 13, 2010 00:00 IST

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Members of THE Shiv Sena, the BJP, the MNS and other opposition parties during a protest against James Laine's book in Mumbai on July 12.-SHIRISH SHETE/PTI

Members of THE Shiv Sena, the BJP, the MNS and other opposition parties during a protest against James Laine's book in Mumbai on July 12.-SHIRISH SHETE/PTI

IN January 2004, the prestigious Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune was ransacked and vandalised by a mob. The attackers, calling themselves the Shambhaji Brigade, were apparently incensed by a derogatory remark made on the Maratha king Shivaji's parentage, by James W. Laine in his book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India. The institute was attacked for merely allowing Laine to use its library for his research. And a professor's face was blackened because he helped Laine with some translations.

Subsequently, Maharashtra banned the book, and its publishers, the Oxford University Press (OUP), said no more copies of the book would be printed. James Laine issued an apology, and it seemed the matter ended there. Yet from time to time in the past six years, the Laine controversy kept recurring, and political parties, in particular, exploited it.

The issue came to the fore once again when the Supreme Court lifted the ban on the book on July 9. Reacting to the verdict, the Congress-led Democratic Front (D.F.) government announced during the monsoon session of the State Assembly that a new law to prevent publication of literature defaming public figures would be introduced in the next session.

This seemed to have calmed down the opposition parties, particularly activists of the Shiv Sena (the self-proclaimed upholders of the legacy ofChhatrapati Shivaji). Shiv Sena activists had taken to the streets in northern Mumbai and Thane in their typically violent fashion,stoning and smashing public property in protest against the Supreme Court's decision.

State Home Minister R.R. Patil told the Assembly that the government would amend the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) to ban defamatory literature. Section 153 (a) of the CrPC deals with the act of spreading hatred among religions and communities, but the amendment will enable the government to deal with indecent and scurrilous literature, and will entail stern punishment, he said. It has constituted a committee consisting of the Law Secretary, the Home Secretary and the Advocate General to work out the details of the new law.

Interestingly, there has been little or no protest against the decision of the government, whichclaims to be liberal and forward-thinking. Even when Laine and the Bhandarkar institute were targeted, there were few voices of dissent. Shivaji is an icon for the Marathas and no one has the courage to mess with it. It is a powerful political tool, which is used conveniently by political parties to further their agendas and to appease the Maratha community. Although it is the Shiv Sena that has agitated the most on this issue, the D.F. government has been quick to ensure that it is not seen as showing disrespect to the Maratha king.

The Shivaji issue is essentially an age-old caste battle between the Marathas and Brahmins in Maharashtra, which has worked its way into politics. Laine summed up the Brahmin-Maratha tussle best when this correspondent interviewed him at the time of the attack on the Bhandarkar institute and the subsequent ban on the book (Frontline, January 17, 2004).

In reply to a question, Laine said: Yes,I believe that Shivabharata, the 300-page poem that makes up the bulk of the book The Epic of Shivaji, was commissioned by Shivaji as a glorification of his deeds and a way of legitimising his claims to Kshatriya status at the time of his coronation. The alternative title of the poem is Suryavansha Anupurana [Later Chronicle of the Solar Dynasty]. It is noteworthy, however, that there were Brahmins who supported Shivaji's claims and others who did not. There were Marathas who supported him and others who fought against him. There are legitimate debates about Shivaji, his status and the ways Brahmins and Marathas have struggled to shape the story this way or that. I just do not think I can be accused of favouring the Brahmin side or wilfully trying to be provocative or controversial.

The controversy over the book started in November 2003 after a group of Pune-based historians led by Dadasaheb Purandare, known for his biography of Shivaji, asked the OUP to withdraw the book.

The historians' letter to the OUP stated: 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, 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.

Anupama Katakam in Mumbai

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Aug 13, 2010.)

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