Politics of a ban

Print edition : February 24, 2006

The Maharashtra government bans one more book on Shivaji by the American scholar James W. Laine following allegations that it "hurts the sentiments" of people who adore the warrior-king.

James W. Laine.-

MENTION James W. Laine and it is bound to raise the hackles of the Maratha community. Branded as an enemy for his allegedly derogatory writing on Shivaji, the American scholar who teaches at Macalester College in Minnesota has once again become the target of a hate campaign. His book The Epic of Shivaji was banned by the Maharashtra government in early January as it contained "insulting, tasteless, objectionable writing with a mala fide intent about Shivaji and his parents". Laine's book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India was banned in January 2004 raising similar reasons. If distributed, both books could cause law and order problems, said the government statement.

Ironically, Laine did not write The Epic of Shivaji. It is a direct translation of Sivabharata, a Sanskrit text written by Kavindra Paramananda. But as the campaign against Laine gains momentum, the reasons are beginning to appear less to do with Shivaji's history and more to do with political manoeuvres. Some sections have interpreted it as a battle between two dominant castes. The present Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) combine is dominated by the Maratha community. And the ruling coalition, apparently, is using the Laine issue to gain political mileage.

The ban was enforced after Udhayanraje Bhonsle, the 13th descendent of Shivaji and a former Bharatiya Janata Party legislator, filed a case in the Satara court against Laine for an allegedly offensive remark the scholar made on Shivaji's parentage. Laine uses the term "Oedipal rebel" in the context of Shivaji's relationship with his father. The government statement says: "Sentiments of people who have immense respect for Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj as a national hero have been hurt by the book. The author has created a question mark about the very motive for the book by writing carelessly, without bothering about public sentiments".

It is believed that Bhonsle, who considers himself to be the original protector of Shivaji's legend by virtue of his lineage, is going through a political slump. He lost the last Assembly elections to a cousin and got a bad image after he was arrested in connection with the murder of an NCP activist in 1999. Although a BJP member, the scion of the royal family is said to be keen to get into the good books of NCP president and Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar. According to an informed source, someone brought to Bhonsle's notice Laine's narrative in The Epic of Shivaji. He leapt at the opportunity to prove his support to the community.

Deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister R.R Patil, who belongs to the NCP, told mediapersons while announcing the ban that they may even initiate extradition proceedings against Laine. "We cannot allow derogatory statements against our revered king. Shivaji Maharaj is a hero and is respected by all Maharashtrians. Action must be taken against those who defame his name," he said. Patil had played a major role in the campaign against Laine's Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India too.

OXFORD University Press (OUP), India, published Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India in June 2003. In August and September 2003, Marathi publications Sakal and Samna (the Shiv Sena's mouthpiece) wrote positively about the book. In fact, the Sena daily called it a "good reference text" (quoted in "Censorship and Censureship: Insiders, Outsiders, and the Attack on Bhandarkar Institute" by Adheesh Sathaye; forthcoming in the Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies). However, it did not prevent Sena activists from assaulting Sanskrit scholar Shrikant Bahulkar on December 22 for the sole reason that Laine thanked him in the book.

Apparently, trouble began with a long critical review of the book in the Marathi magazine Rangataranga (October 2003). The reviewer drew attention to a short passage in the book that allegedly questioned Shivaji's "paternity" citing a joke circulated in Maharashtra. He denounced it as "ridiculous". It was this reference that triggered the controversy. A note introducing the review "publicly condemned it [the book], the author, and those who have provided him with false and malicious information". In early November, letters were sent to OUP demanding the withdrawal of the book. OUP apologised and withdrew the book later that month. But the worst was yet to come.

In December 2003, a Mumbai-based journal, Chitralekha, gave a new twist to the controversy. Sathaye, Assistant Professor of Sanskrit Literature at the University of British Columbia, Canada, notes in his essay that the Chitralekha articles on Laine's book interpreted the controversial passage as part of a "long-running Brahmin conspiracy to denigrate Shivaji's rule in favour of the Peshwas". Chitralekha identified by name the people who assisted Laine in the work for the book. In another issue, the journal said that none had yet "stood up and actually confronted those of perverse minds who have nurtured James' vileness". The articles dragged the book into the vortex of Maratha-Brahmin caste disputes over appropriating Shivaji and his legacy.

On January 5, 2004, about 150 cadre of the Sambhaji Brigade attacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI), ransacked its library and destroyed invaluable artefacts, manuscripts and books (Frontline, January 30, 2004). Although Chitralekha later condemned the "unforgivable" attacks, Sathaye says that "it is clear that [its] writings provided an intellectual and ethical foundation" to the violence. The Canadian scholar, who was in Pune at the time of the attack, points out the difficulty in categorising the Sambhaji Brigade as a "Hindu fundamentalist" outfit. He says: "The literature of [the Sambhaji Brigade's] parent organisation, the Maratha Seva Sangh, stresses devotion to Shivaji, to his mother Jijabai, and to modern non-Brahmin leaders Jyotiba Phule, Bhimrao Ambedkar and Shahu Maharaj, as part of a new religious/political movement known as Shivdharma. Founded in 2000, this largely lower-caste movement consciously regards itself as distinct from mainstream Hinduism and is particularly hostile towards Brahminic hegemony. Shivdharma is, in short, a marriage of a passionate folk devotion to Shivaji with anti-Brahmin politics." As Sathaye notes, Laine expected his book to be controversial, but for "his portrayal of Hindu and Muslim identity, and not for publishing a joke about Shivaji's mother". Two weeks after the attack, the Pune Police registered cases against OUP and Laine and the Congress-NCP government banned the book.

While the BORI attack shook academic and social circles, political parties extracted whatever they could from it. At that time the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections were looming and the Laine controversy seemed an ideal political weapon. The NCP was quick to claim that in spite of Shivaji being adopted by Hindu communal parties as a symbol of Hinduism, the party was eventually it that protected his name. The NCP used the issue to attract the votes of young Marathas. Needless to say, it paid off because it became part of the election campaign and in most Maratha-dominated areas everyone talked about the issue and how the party successfully protected the legendary hero's image. Patil in his election campaign said he fully supported the Shambhaji Brigade.

Inside the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, after the attack by the Sambhaji Brigade on January 5, 2004.-ANUPAMA KATAKAM

The BJP-Shiv Sena alliance was quick to deny any involvement in the attack. It took the moral high ground and used "the mindless violence on a blameless academic institution" in its political campaign.

Laine said he received over 400 e-mails related to the issue in over five months, including two death threats. Looking back at the controversy over Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, he told Frontline: "I truly believe that most readers would not find the book offensive or controversial. For a minority, however, anything not written simply as glorification of the hero is unacceptable. And for another group, everything connected with the history of Shivaji is read through the lens of a 160-year-old Bahujan critique of Brahmin bias. That critique is an interesting and important one, but I think I have been wrongly accused of colluding in that bias. ... I was not interested in debating specific points of historical accuracy - was Shivaji born in 1627 or 1630? Did he first meet Ramdas in 1649 or 1672 or not at all? ... I was interested rather in those forces that shaped the whole narrative, the story-line, as it were. Why was it important to have Shivaji meet saints? Why does a school textbook insert a chapter, with no historical context, about his meeting his father in Jejuri? How do all the complex facts of history get formed into a morality tale?"

UNFORTUNATELY, amidst the political shenanigans, what seems to be lost is that another book has been banned for no justifiable reason, freedom of expression has been suppressed and intolerance has reared its head again. "In the case of The Epic of Shivaji the ban is somewhat curious," says Suhas Palshikar, a Political Studies Professor at the University of Pune.

At least the previous time elections were around the corner and in an issueless election this controversy was useful. Of course, the government has a responsibility to ensure peace and prevent a law and order situation, he says. But to ban a book is an extreme step and they have to use this authority carefully. In this case they have not used their discretion well, Palshikar adds.

"The readership for this material would be scholars and intellectuals. It is highly unlikely that an average person will read this book," says a historian. "Clearly, someone has an agenda." It is unfortunate that an innocuous book, which is valuable for education, has been banned and that we do not have the courage to speak up, he says. "Academic freedom no longer exists and the intelligentsia seems scared as anything can spark a hate campaign these days."

"What we learn from this ban," he says, "is that today it is Laine, tomorrow it could be any one of us. Of course, we shouldn't sit quietly and allow this to happen." But the risk of being attacked and targeted as an anti-national is much too high these days, he adds.

Understandably, with outfits such as the Shambhaji Brigade proving that their threats are not empty, academics and intellectuals do not want to court trouble. That the Sambhaji Brigade has not even been reprimanded for an act of vandalism lends credence to the line of thought that tolerance is low and justice is not easily doled out. Sadly anyone who has anything to do with James W. Laine is distancing himself/herself from the author. His publishers are not willing to fight his case, and not many have openly supported him.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor