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Lord Vishnu As Shivaji Maharaj

... and how he landed miniature painter Shrikant Pradhan in trouble with the Maratha Seva Sangh and the Pune Police.

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Lord Vishnu As Shivaji Maharaj

James W. Laine’s Shivaji: Hindu King In Muslim India has now been arbitrarily banned by the government of Mashrashtra in response to an attack on the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune on January 5, 2004 by cadres of an organization that calls itself the ‘Sambhaji Brigade’, and the subsequent agitation by the Maratha Seva Sangh against not only Laine’s book but also against all those whose help Laine acknowledges. This includes scholars as well as non-scholarly persons in both India and abroad who the author thinks deserve to be thanked in print. 

The Maratha Seva Sangh and the Sambhaji Brigade claim that certain sentences in the book have hurt not only their sentiments but the sentiments of all Maharashtrians. In public meetings held later, they went on to demand that all those who helped the author of the allegedly offensive book ought to be arrested (instead of the seventy-two persons arrested by the police, whom the Maratha leaders wanted to be honourably discharged for expressing their outraged sentiments), questioned, and tried.

I write from a vantage position because, in its wisdom the government of Maharashtra perceived a threat to my person as I was acknowledged for my help by the author himself:

"At meetings of the International Conference on Maharashtra at Heidelberg, Tempe, Mumbai, Moscow, Sydney and Saint Paul, I was able to discuss my work with an unusually congenial group of Maharashtra specialists. For their comments, criticisms, and encouragement, I thank especially Anne Feldhaus, Meera Kosambi, Jim Masselos, Irina Glushkova, A. R. Kulkarni, Rajendra Vora, Narendra Wagle, Jayant Lele, Dilip Chitre, Eleanor Zelliot, Lynn Zastoupil, Stewart Gordon, and Lee Schlesinger. Like most scholars in Maharashtrian studies, I am indebted to the work of the late G. D. Sontheimer. I am grateful to Kevin Reinhart, Carl Ernst, and Bruce Lawrence for all they have taught me in Islamic studies and to Philip Lutgendorf, Roland Jansen, and Jim Benson for helpful comments on my work. Allison Busch provided me with translations of important Hindi texts."

Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India,
Oxford University Press, New York, 2003 p.viii.


In the paragraph preceding this, Professor Laine has thanked V.L. Manjul, S. S. Bahulkar, Sucheta Paranjpe, Y. B. Damle, Rekha Damle, Bhaskar Chandavarkar, Meena Chandavarkar, Madhav Bhandare, in Pune and Asghar Ali Engineer for his assistance in Mumbai.

All the persons from the two sets of lists above who happen to live in Pune were provided 24-hour armed security from January 7 by the government of Maharashtra. I was in New Delhi on that date but the carbine-wielding young policeman assigned to protect me reported at my home in Pune on January 7. A second man was sent to protect me at night. From February 9, the night escort has since been withdrawn. As I write this (on February 14, 2004), I am provided day security within Pune city limits only. Beyond the city limits, I am on my own.

On January 8,  I returned from Delhi to Pune. A day later, uniformed policemen from the Yerwada Police Station and the Ramwadi police chowky, along with two plainclothes officers of the Special Branch paid me a ‘courtesy call’ giving me all the telephone numbers I might need in case of an ‘emergency’, though nobody could tell me what sort of ‘emergency’ to expect. 

Neither the Police Commissioner of Pune, nor any of his bosses ever contacted me. The Chief Minister of Maharashtra or the Home Minister of Maharashtra who had so promptly and generously taken steps to protect me did not deem it necessary to inform me from whom or from what I was being protected and why attention was being directed to me in this fashion. Nobody knows to this date why the police believe that I need their protection, and from whom. Neither does anybody seem to know why they have not questioned or proceeded against the various leaders of the Maratha Seva Sangh, the Sambhaji Brigade, the Maratha Vikas Sangh and other outfits who have been holding press conferences, public meetings, filing complaints and petitions to various authorities in this regard, and so forth. Their names have appeared in the press. They have been spreading suspicion about the people thanked by Laine and calling them his ‘collaborators’ and demanding that they be severely punished. 

On February 7, in NDTV’s 24X7 programme anchored by Rajdeep Sardesai (The Big Fight) the issue of censorship was debated by the Shiv Sena M.P. Sanjay Nirupam, the Nationalist Congress Party’s youth wing leader Jitendra Avhad, and the editor of the Marathi daily newspaper Loksatta --Kumar Ketkar. The live audience with which the three interacted included invited members of the Sambhaji Brigade as well as members of the Raza Academy , the Muslim organization that had offered an award of Rs. 1 lakh to anyone who would blacken the face of Salman Rushdie on his recent visit to Mumbai. 

During this debate, a clip from an earlier recorded interview with me in Pune was shown to the participants and the anchor, Mr. Sardesai referred to it while asking questions. Mr. Avhad, who brandished what he vouched, was a copy of Laine’s book (though it looked unlike a book), called me his (Laine’s) ‘collaborator’ on this nationally telecast debate. This is of course absurd and untrue and I could demand an apology or even threaten to sue Mr. Avhad for spreading this canard and further endanger my life since I have to live among fanatics claiming to have ‘hurt sentiments’. 

But if the Mumbai and the Maharashtra  police can let the Raza Academy, the Shiv Sena, the Maratha Seva Sangh, the Sambhaji Brigade and others have their freedom of speech in instigating potential disturbances, my complaint will not cut any ice with them.

How the Maratha Seva Sangh and the Sambhaji Brigade operate can be seen from the remarkable incident that occurred in the city of Pune on March 16, 2001 -- long before Laine’s book provided them with a high-profile excuse. 

Shrikant Pradhan, an artist in Pune, had painted a portrait of Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj in the tradition of Indian miniatures. This painting was inspired by the Sanskrit work Shivabharat composed in the 17th century by Paramananda. Pradhan had announced that he would exhibit this work on March 16, 2001 between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. at the Bharat Itihassamshohdak Mandal’s hall. Pradhan was helped with historical reference material by Ninad Bedekar, a local writer on historical subjects. 

At the time of the exhibition, a Maratha Seva Sangh activists’ group led by Shantaram Kunjir made violent demonstrations at the venue demanding that Pradhan’s painting be confiscated and destroyed as they believed that the painting, which depicted a four-armed Shivaji, distorted the hero’s image by seeking to deify him. The exhibition did not take place under the circumstances. 

But the significant part of the incident was the curious action taken by the officer-in-charge at the Vishrambaug Police Station in Pune who gave a written notice to Pradhan, the artist, and Bedekar, his consultant, in Marathi under the Criminal Procedure Code( Cr. P. C.) No. 149 which translates as follows:

"Notice under Cr. P. C. 149  

"You are being warned through this notice that you have painted a picture of Chatrapati Shri Shivaji Maharaj depicting him with four arms---holding a ‘dandpatta’ in one hand, a sword in the second, a lotus in the third, and a raised lance in the fourth; moreover, you have shown Hanuman and Bhavani Mata holding eight weapons in a corner of the painting. The Akhil Bharatiya Maratha Mahasangh, Pune City and District Branch have fiercely demonstrated in protest against the exhibition and the possibility of any untoward consequences cannot be ruled out, should you exhibit the said painting.  

"You are therefore being advised by this notice not to exhibit the controversial painting and to take care that no law and order problem arises.

"(Signed with an official stamp)
"Assistant Police Supervisor

Later in the evening after this happened, a completely shaken Shrikant Pradhan contacted me to tell me about the incident. He had already shown me his miniature painting (as a practising painter and occasional art critic, I am in regular touch with other artists in Pune; and being elderly as well as open and accessible, I am ready to discuss their work with them). The very next day, a patron of the arts in Pune, Surabhi Nag had invited me to deliver a lecture to a group of artists in Pune under the aegis of the Nag Foundation that she heads. The theme of the lecture was ‘The Visual Arts Environment in Pune’. I requested Shrikant Pradhan to attend my lecture where I decided to highlight his being bullied by the Maratha organization, and his being browbeaten by the police as well. 

My lecture the next afternoon was attended by over a hundred people and more than one half of the audience consisted of practising artists of Pune. I narrated the case of Pradhan to them and criticised what I called the ‘Talibanisation’ of Maharashtra and the oppressive, undemocratic role played by the police who, instead of taking cognisance of the threat to law and order by the violent demonstrators, threatened the artist of consequences if he exhibited his work. The audience spontaneously signed a letter of protest after the lecture. A reporter of Pune’s leading Marathi newspaper Sakal published a report of my lecture and the letter of protest on March 18, 2001. 

The same morning, I received a number of phone calls by a person not willing to identify himself. The calls were received by my son, my wife, and me. The caller simply threatened me by saying, "You have to live in Pune and in Maharashtra. We’ll settle scores with you sooner or later."  I thought of sharing information about this threat with the citizens of Pune and of Maharashtra, so I informed the same reporter of  Sakal about the threats. On March 19, 2001 Sakal reported the threats received by me. 

About three weeks of silence followed this. Then, on April 9, 2001 the Marathi weekly Saptahik Chitralekha carried an article by Dnyanesh Maharao (the same weekly and the same writer attacked Laine’s book in December 2003 that seems likely to have resulted in the blackening of Professor Bahulkar’s face by Shiv Sainiks in Pune and the attack on the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in January by the ""Sambhaji Brigade’).

On the very day that Maharao’s article was published in Saptahik Chitralekha, the Secretary of the Maratha Seva Sangh, Thane wrote a letter to the Editor of that weekly lauding Maharao’s piece for ‘representing the sentiments of the common man of Maharashtra’ about the various controversies on Shivaji’s date of birth, his deification, his biography, and his depiction by artists. Signed by Balakrishna Parab of the Maratha Seva Sangh, Thane a copy of this letter was mailed to Shrikant Pradhan and also to me. 

It is not a coincidence that the same names appear in the controversy created around James W. Laine’s book. Shantaram Kunjir was one of the speakers at a number of meetings held in Pune not only to demand action against the book and its author but against all people acknowledged or thanked by him. The Maratha Seva Sangh was in the forefront of the agitation. Dnyanesh Maharao wrote a series of articles in Saptahik Chitralekha creating ill-will among its readers whether they had access to the book or not, and whether they knew what role, if any, the people thanked by Laine played in the contents and the writing of the book. Since it is some police officer who decides whom to warn under Cr.P.C.149 and whom to let go, even when there is a pattern in the behaviour -- of those who claim to suffer from ‘hurt sentiments’ and those who hold up their cause in the tabloid press -- that suggests these are engineered incidents, the government may pretend it has no further constitutional responsibility in matters such as these. 

Where even celebrities such as the painter M.F. Hussain have to suffer at the hands of Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad and their works are damaged and their exhibitions wrecked, who will listen if a Shrikant Pradhan complained or narrated his woes?

The pluralism of Indian civilization, the syncretistic Hindu tradition, and the secular democratic Constitution of the Republic of India are under attack by extra-constitutional mobs mobilised by political parties across the board. This is the new populist culture rising in India and it carries the deadly virus of fascism.

Dilip Chitre is Honorary Editor New Quest - a quarterly journal of participative inquiry into society and culture - and this piece appears in New Quest Number 155 (January-March 2004) focussing on "the rise of neo-Fascism in India".

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