The armed bodyguard posted at my door since January 7, 2004 was finally taken off by the government of Maharashtra after three months. I had not asked for this protection. It was provided to me by the government who must have their own reasons for doing so. These reasons were not communicated to me, nor were they communicated to other taxpayers at whose cost the protection was provided.
Should I feel free from danger now? Assuming that the danger to me was from the same people and organizations that vandalized the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune on January 5, it did make sense to create a public impression that the government of Maharashtra was not actually targeting me. This could be done best by providing me an armed bodyguard to accompany me at every public event I attended, or on my visits to the University of Pune where I am a Chair Professor.
In Maharashtra, the now-publicly accepted reason for the vandalisation of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute is what the Marathi media and politicians across the board call the James Laine issue. It is believed that ‘the James Laine issue’ will influence the outcome of the elections to the 14th Lok Sabha. James Laine does not even remotely sound like a Maratha name in the caste sense unless it was the name of a former 96-clan ‘Maratha’ converted to Christianity, perhaps a remote cousin of the former Chief Election Commissioner of India whose first name was James and who was therefore portrayed as an alien in neighbouring Gujarat not too long ago. In neo-Hindu India, Christians are alien.
But then this Laine turns out to be much worse. He is a white American. If he were a black American, he would still be an alien, though an American dalit or bahujansamaj blackass. What business had he in Maharashtra? Was he a C.I.A. agent in disguise--a mole suddenly activated to become an agent provocateur in order to subvert the political equations in Maharashtra? You say he is originally from Texas? Is he part of the Texan long-range plan to capture Bombay High and deprive Maharashtra of its oil resources? You say he teaches comparative religion in a private college in Minnesota? A Christian proselytizer in disguise? Many Maharashtrians now believe that whoever he actually is, James Laine is a most undesirable alien in cahoots with the Brahmins of Maharashtra (not Marathas, please note) who have appropriated and subverted Maratha history for nearly 300 years now.
Those who have followed the BORI news trail would know that on December 22, 2003 a Shiv Sena group led by Rambhau Parekh blackened the face of Sanskrit scholar Shrikant Bahulkar in Pune for having helped James W. Laine, the author of Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India published by the Oxford University Press. On December 28, 2003 Raj Thackeray came from Mumbai to Pune and personally apologized to Bahulkar on behalf of the Shiv Sena, thus conforming the Sena’s involvement in the manhandling of the Sanskritist.
Then, on January 5, 2004 over 100 members of the till then little-known Sambhaji Brigade arrived in several cars at 11 a.m. at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune and vandalized the institute’s archives and library, destroying several original documents and objects that were irreplaceable sources for the study of Maratha as well as Indian history, rare manuscripts and artifacts, out-of-print editions of books, and so on. The reason given for this was that this well-organized mob brought to Pune from long distances represented the ‘hurt sentiments’ of the Marathas upon their perusal and serious reflection on Laine’s book on Shivaji in which he acknowledges the help he received from the BORI and some people associated with it.
The Maratha braves--who imagine they are the custodians of Maharashtra’s militant self-image--were outraged by this alleged conspiracy by Brahmin historians hiding behind the BORI’s 87-years old ramshackle main building on Law College Road, Pune and an alleged scholar and citizen of the U.S.A. to tarnish the image of the Founder King of Maratha Svaraj. They courted arrest in a spirit of defiance. Seventy-two of them were later tried in a Pune court but were released on bail. They have already been publicly celebrated as heroes in the Southern city of Kolhapur.
The government of Maharashtra--ruled by an alliance of the Congress Party and the Nationalist Congress Party--launched criminal proceedings against Laine and his publishers on January 9, 2004 for having hurt public sentiments and instigated riots among other things and announced a ban on Laine’s book on Shivaji on January 13, 2004. Oxford University Press had, in fact, withdrawn the book on November 21, 2003 from the market, even before it was banned, as they probably had an inkling of threatened disturbances from letters they received.
On January 10, 2004 the 77th ‘Marathi Sahitya Sammelan’ (Marathi Literary Conference) was inaugurated by the President of the NCP, Sharad Pawar. He cautioned research scholars against hurting public sentiments. He did not condemn the attack on the BORI in his speech. The President of the Sammelan, Professor R.G. Jadhav was provided an armed bodyguard just in case he might condemn the attack on the BORI and provoke members of the Sambhaji Brigade present in the audience to take care of that possibility.
On January 16, 2004 Prime Minister Vajpayee (of the BJP-led NDP coalition) speaking in Mumbai condemned the attack on the BORI and also criticized the Maharashtra government’s ban on the book. The very next day a former Chief Minister of Maharashtra, A. R. Antulay and the present Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde--both of the Congress Party--stated that an attack on the Chatrapati would not be tolerated. It was becoming obvious that the 17th century founder of a Maratha kingdom surrounded by hostile non-Hindu hegemonies was not only a cult figure for 20th century Maharashtrians but a ‘brand’ for whose proprietary marketing rights all political parties in Maharashtra would fiercely compete in the impending elections to the 14th Lok Sabha.
I was given armed protection from January 7 because Laine has thanked me in his acknowledgements. I neither have hastily condemned Laine’s book to distance myself from the heat nor sung the customary paeans to the great King of the Marathas (by which I understand all Maharashtrians) because such acts would be both cowardly and irrelevant. The lessons in freedom that Shivaji gave to us were to stand on one’s ground and tenaciously defend it. As a writer, my ground is freedom of the press; and in defending it with a state-provided armed guard at my doorstep, I felt for a while like a tycoon realtor or a Bollywood celebrity being protected against underworld extortionists.
But I was wrong. The state only seemed to protect me from itself. They did not do anything to the real instigators and engineers of the attack on the BORI, whom they have in effect protected so far from the law. They not only know these vigilante outfits and extra-constitutional armies and brigands but also have found them useful in creating a show of strength in the Prime Minister’s election rally at Beed in late March.
More bizarre uses of Shivaji were to follow. Gopinath Munde, former Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra and BJP leader demanded a ban on Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India and Bal Thackeray, the Supremo of the Shiv Sena, demanded a ban on a translation of a book on Shivaji by Surendra Nath Sen published by the Maharashtra State Board for Literature and Culture, following which on cue, the Shiv Sena attacked the house of the Board’s President, R. R. Borade in Aurangabad in full view of a television crew ( how did it get there at the right time?) and damaged his car parked in front. Borade was in Mumbai and escaped possible manhandling by the mob.
Way back in 1967, when the Shiv Sena ‘prevented’ the then Deputy Prime Minister Morarji Desai from entering Mumbai by creating a riot-like situation, I wrote two articles. One of them, turned down by a leading English newspaper in Mumbai but carried by B.G.Verghese on the edit page of The Hindustan Times, New Delhi was titled The Rise of the Third Shivaji and it warned against the rise of extra-constitutional politics leading to Fascism. The second article was Riots: Scenes and Reflections, an eyewitness account of what I saw during that three day orgy of violence at Shivaji Park, Prabhadevi, and Mahim. It was courageously published by A.D. Gorwala in his Opinion.
Both the Marathi and the English media have--forty years later--either treated the ‘James Laine issue’ with fearful circumspection or with a penchant for sick entertainment as though no serious issues were involved. They have not even remembered the sanctity of the Constitution of the Republic of India and pledges to the rule of the law and the due process it demands. It seems that the executive believes that hurt sentiments justify violent reactions that are ‘understandable’. They do not question the bona fides of violent mobs set upon destruction of life and property in the name of ‘hurt sentiments’ that are actually instigated and engineered cases of conspiracy against civil society and its values.
In my childhood, Marathi-speaking children used to play a nursery game. It was called Shivaji Mhanto (Shivaji Says). The rule of the game was to follow every instruction that is preceded by the order, "Shivaji Says". But the rule also lays down that a ‘false order’ given by anybody other than Shivaji must not be obeyed. There was a profound lesson in this. If the order is "Thackeray Mhanto" or "Pawar Mhanto" or "R.R. Pail Mhanto" or "Vajpayee Mhanto"or "Munde Mhanto" you know what to do. Just ignore the order. That is the true lesson of Shivaji for impressionable children. I do not know if the game is still as popular as it used to be or whether it is played at all now. But it is worth reviving it in the name of Shivaji.
Dilip Chitre is Honorary Editor of New Quest---a quarterly journal of participative inquiry into society and culture--and this is the Editorial of the journal’s issue Number 156 (April-June 2004).