`It is all a big misunderstanding'

Published : Feb 24, 2006 00:00 IST

James W. Laine is Arnold H. Lowe Professor of Religious Studies at Macalester College in Minnesota, United States. Laine also leads the Maharashtra Studies Group of the Association for Asian Studies. His focus of research has been Hindu-Muslim relations in 17th century India. In an exclusive interview he gave Anupama Katakam, Laine spoke about the book The Epic of Shivaji and the injustice of the ban. Excerpts:

What is your reaction to the Government of Maharashtra's ban on both your books?

It is really none of my business since I am a foreign scholar. It is up to Indian intellectuals to decide how they feel about books being banned.

The government appears to have taken exception to the remark "Oedipal rebel". Could you explain the context in which it was written?

In Shivabharata, there are several passages that refer to Shivaji having a different view of things than his father. His father was an employee of Adil Shah whereas Shivaji rebelled against the Shah. It is further suggested that his mother encouraged him to rebel. In that context I use the word to refer to a father-son conflict, nothing more.

You have apologised for the remark. And you had earlier apologised for a sentence in Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India. Yet they held the ban. Do you think your book is being used for some sort of political gain?

Again, this is none of my business. I am an outsider to the local politics of Maharashtra.

Why must you apologise and also stand by what you have written?

I apologise because I have no intention of upsetting anyone in Maharashtra. I stand by what I have written because I believe that when properly read, one sees that it is not offensive or meant to defame Shivaji or anything like that. It is all a big misunderstanding.

Banning a book is seen as an undemocratic act. Your comments. Do you think you were easy prey, being a foreigner?

I firmly believe that books should not be banned and would oppose any such ban in the United States. I do not feel I was targeted because I was a foreigner. This incident is the latest in a long series of incidents that go back to the 19th century. As I discussed in my other book, since the time of Mahatma Jyotiba Phule there have been debates about just how the story of Shivaji should be told. I have simply been caught up in that debate.

Udhayanraje Bhonsle's lawyer talks about "a conspiracy waged by a particular caste of people who had also protested when Shivaji Maharaj was being coronated..." Is there any truth in this allegation?

Yes there is. In fact, 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.

A recent review of your work reads: "In the process, he [Laine] paints a new and more complex picture of Hindu-Muslim relations from the 17th century to the present. He argues that this relationship involved a variety of compromises and strategies, from conflict to accommodation to nuanced collaboration... By studying the evolution of the Shivaji legend, Laine demonstrates, we can trace the development of such constructions in both pre-British and post-colonial periods." Could you explain what your findings were about the construction of Hinduism and Islam and how relevant it is today?

This is a bit more than I can handle in a brief interview. I think the main point I would make is that there were contexts in which Muslims and Hindus were in conflict on the basis of their religious identities. There were other contexts where religious identity was not important and something like, say, political alliance was. That is not totally different in the contemporary world, but there has been the effort of some to heighten the degree to which religious identity marks a person as either friend or foe.

Shivaji was a great warrior but his being a Hindu is always emphasised. Is that a recent trend?

It is not a purely modern phenomenon, as anyone who reads Shivabharata can see. But one of the interesting things I noticed in the text was that the point of view shifts here and there. For example, in some cases, Hindus and Muslims are opposed as forces of dharma and adharma [anti-dharma]. In other contexts, a Muslim sultan can be described as "dharmatma" [the soul of piety] and his religion referred to as another dharma, the Muslim dharma.

What made you interested in researching Shivaji?

I worked previously on the Mahabharata and have been interested in the continuing tradition of heroic literature in India. In Maharashtra, Shivabharata was an interesting continuation of classical epic themes.

When was your last trip to India? Would you like to come and clear the air?

I was last in India in 2003. I am not sure I would get a visa in the current climate and am not sure it would be safe to come. Moreover, it is hard to "clear the air" about a book no one can read.

Are you hurt by the fact that no one has defended your work?

There are not many people who would know the work and be in a position to defend it.

Do you think academics, historians and others are living in an increasingly intolerant society? Will that eventually have an effect on the documentation of history?

Again, I think this is a question for Indian intellectuals to answer. I am free to do my work. Are they?

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment