the complete review Quarterly
Volume V, Issue 1   --   February, 2004

James Laine’s Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India
and the attack on the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute

Background - Chronology - Reactions

     For more information, please also see in this issue of the crQ:

- the Editors, the complete review


       On 5 January 2004 a group calling itself the Sambhaji Brigade attacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) in Pune, in the state of Maharashtra, India. There was considerable damage done to the holdings of this significant cultural repository, including to irreplaceable and unique objects of historical and literary importance. While not on the same scale, it was a catastrophe comparable to the recent destruction and looting of libraries in Sarajevo and Iraq, or the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, a devastating blow to contemporary civilization and to the preservation of what remains of previous ones.
       The attack was the preliminary culmination in a series of increasingly disturbing and destructive events that were triggered by the publication of James W. Laine's Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India (Oxford University Press, 2003). Laine's book sparked controversy in India, leading Oxford University Press India to withdraw it from the local market in November 2003. This did not sufficiently appease those upset by the book. American professor Laine had done some of the research for his book at BORI, and he thanked the institute and some scholars affiliated with it in his acknowledgements; the institute and its members were then targeted by those angered by the book. In December 2003 one of those thanked by Laine, historian Shrikant Bahulkar, was assaulted, his face blackened by Shiv Sena activists. Then, in January, came the attack on the institute itself.
       While the attack was widely condemned, and over 70 of the participants were arrested, Laine and his undertaking continue to be denounced. Shivaji has now been banned, and Laine has been charged by the authorities and appears to be subject to arrest if he returns to India. Laine and his book -- and BORI -- continue to be used in what appears to be an increasingly politicised debate.

       These events are particularly disturbing because, unlike most other recent incidents of large-scale cultural vandalism, they occurred in a country at peace, and in a democracy -- a system that depends on a tolerance for a plurality of opinions and on free expression to properly function. Also striking -- and worrisome -- is that the conflict has been framed as one centred around questions of historical (in)accuracy and and (ir)responsibile scholarship, but there has been little interest from many of those challenging Laine's book to debate these questions, as they have answered them with mob-rule and violence instead of counter-argument.
       There has been much discussion about these events in India, but, despite the supranational issues at stake, as well as the roles played by an American professor and the world's largest -- and one of the most respected -- university presses, international press coverage has been very limited. The conflict is a complex one, and it is both politically and religiously highly charged, centred around an historical figure -- Shivaji -- who is not well known outside India.
       In this introductory overview we try to present the necessary background information to allow some understanding of the events that have taken place. Other pieces in this edition of the complete review Quarterly devoted to the subject are Bhalchandrarao C. Patvardhan and Amodini Bagwe 's essay on James Laine’s Controversial Book and our commentary, Attacking Myths and Institutions: James Laine’s Shivaji and BORI

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A guide to what's at issue

       Chhattrapati Shivaji Maharaj (also known simply as Shivaji or Sivaji) lived 1627/1630 to 1680. A Maratha leader, he was fiercely opposed to the Mughals that at that time controlled much of what is now India, and was instrumental in establishing Marathi independence. Crowned the first Maratha king in 1674, he is a founding-father figure who is still highly revered in India, especially in the state of Maharashtra (major cities: Mumbai (Bombay) and Pune); see, for example the official Maharashtra state site, where a page is devoted to Shivaji: the Maker of the Maratha Nation
       Shivaji is also perceived as a specifically Hindu hero, having established a Hindu empire in opposition to the Mughals (who were Muslim, and foreign). While widely revered in India, Hindu-nationalist groups have been particularly vociferous in allowing no criticism of the man, his accomplishments, and the legends around him.
       His name, of great symbolic value, is often invoked, especially in recent years as a Hindu-focussed nationalism (and political polarization) in India has been resurgent. So, for example, Mumbai (formerly Bombay) airport has apparently been re-named: Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport.

       For additional information, see:

       James W. Laine
       James W. Laine is the Arnold H. Lowe Professor and Chair of Religious Studies at Macalester College; see his faculty page. He got his B.A. from Texas Tech, and his M.T.S. and Th.D. from Harvard.

       James Laine's Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India
       James Laine's Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India was published by Oxford University Press; see the complete review's review. It apparently appeared in the US and the UK in early 2003, and was then published in India in the summer of 2003.
       In describing the book Oxford University Press writes:
The legends of his life have become an epic story that everyone in western India knows, and an important part of the Hindu nationalists' ideology. To read Shivaji's legend today is to find expression of deeply held convictions about what Hinduism means and how it is opposed to Islam.
       They also suggest:
Different sub-groups, representing a range of religious persuasions, found it in their advantage to accentuate or diminish the importance of Hindu and Muslim identity and the ideologies that supported the construction of such identities. 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.
       It appears that Laine's focus on a shifting legend -- rather a fixed-in-stone image of the man some groups insist upon -- and the notion that the legend has been adapted for other purposes is among the aspects of the book that has proved most controversial. (Ironically, reactions by some groups that tolerate only their current notion of the legend would appear to support at least Laine's underlying thesis.)

       The statement in the book that appears to have provoked the greatest outrage is the mention that it has been suggested that Shivaji's father was not Shahaji, Laine writing: "Maharashtrians tell jokes naughtily that Shivaji’s biological father was Dadoji Kondeo Kulkarni" (quoted, for example, in The Telegraph, 18 January). This statement -- indeed, even the mere suggestion -- is apparently considered an outrageous insult and defamation of Shivaji, Shahaji, and Shivaji's mother, Jijabai (all highly revered). The claim is also widely considered unfounded and gratuitous; apparently this particular 'naughty joke' is not familiar to most Maharashtrians (or at least none appear to have come forward acknowledging that they've heard this sort of banter).

       In his acknowledgements Laine thanked numerous people, writing also:
In India, my scholarly home has been the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune, and there I profited from the advice and assistance of the senior librarian, V. L. Manjul. I read texts and learned informally a great deal about Marathi literature and Maharashtrian culture from S. S. Bahulkar, Sucheta Paranjpe, Y. B. Damle, Rekha Damle, Bhaskar Chandavarkar, and Meena Chandavarkar. Thanks to the American Institute of Indian Studies and Madhav Bhandare, I was able to spend three productive periods of research in Pune.
       Laine's thanks were apparently interpreted as a declaration of scholarly complicity, and those named were among those targeted by the groups opposed to Laine's work -- despite the fact that several scholars attached to BORI distanced themselves from the book and were among those demanding that OUP India withdraw the book.

       Laine's Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India has not been widely reviewed (in part likely because it is a scholarly work of the sort generally mainly reviewed in academic journals, many of which take longer to review titles than the mass media does). Among the few reviews is V.N. Datta's in The Sunday Tribune (7 December), An image that might be disturbing

       For additional information see:

       Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute
       The Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute is located in Pune. It was founded in 1917 and is a leading repository of Indological manuscripts and a renowned centre for scholarship.
       For additional information see:

       Sambhaji Brigade
       A small, previously little known group affiliated with the Hindu-nationalist organisation, Maratha Seva Sangh

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       (Based on Ketaki Ghoge's chronology in his article, Rape of culture leaves city in shock (Indian Express, 5 January), and other mentioned sources. See also Anupama Katakam's article, Politics of vandalism in Frontline (issue of 17-30 January) for a good overview (and pictures).)

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       Almost no attention has been paid to the controversy surrounding Laine's book or the attack on BORI outside of India. Laine's opinion piece, In India, 'the Unthinkable' Is Printed at One's Peril, in the 12 January issue of The Los Angeles Times, and an article by Martha Ann Overland ("Vandals Attack Research Center in India in Retaliation for Help It Gave to American Scholar") in the Chronicle of Higher Education (issue of 23 January), neither of which is freely available on the Internet, and a Star Tribune article by Mary Jane Smetanka, Macalester professor's book incites a riot a world away ((Updated - 29 March): now only available at WCCO), were among the very few mentions in the American press.
       ((Updated - 29 March): With the calls for Laine's arrest at the end of March there has again been some international coverage, most notably Scott Baldauf's article, How a US historian sparked calls for his arrest - in India, in the Christian Science Monitor (29 March). See also Sara Rajan's A Study in Conflict (Time (Asia), 5 April).)

       What reactions there have been in the academic community do not appear to have made any impact or found any resonance outside those limited circles. There also appear to have been no calls to withdraw Laine's book, or ban it, anywhere outside India.

       In India , the attack on BORI has been widely (though far from universally) condemned. The destruction of property, especially that which is unique and of historical significance, and the threats against scholars have been denounced in the press and in public. Prime Minister Vajpee's approach, as reported in the Times of India, seems to be the preferred one: "He said the "right way" to express disagreement was through discussion" -- though even some of his political allies denounced him for these statements and his opposition to the book-ban.
       Disturbingly, a significant minority has been willing to excuse even the attacks on BORI as justifiable under the circumstances, and while 72 of those responsible were arrested and charged, there have been continued threats (both legal and physical) against BORI, scholars associated with it, and against author James Laine.

       As Laine noted in his 12 January piece in The Los Angeles Times:
The vast majority of Indians are appalled at what happened in Pune. And yet no one has stepped forward to defend my book and no one has called for it to be distributed again.
       Indeed, most of these events took place after Laine's book had officially been withdrawn from the Indian market, i.e. essentially no longer existed. The banning of the book and the attacks on BORI and various scholars were thus clearly aimed not only at this specific case, but at the whole enterprise of scholarship, and of freedom of expression. Concerns about this have been raised in the media, but Laine's book has received little support: there still appear to have been almost no calls for it to be made available in India again.
       Surprisingly, there has also been almost no criticism of Oxford University Press' self-censorship and withdrawal of the book from the Indian market. A rare mention can found is in the "Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)", People's Democracy, who properly note (25 January):
The media have criticised the Shiv Sainiks’ pranks but not the hastiness of the Oxford University Press in withdrawing the book even before the matter became public or the government for banning the book even before the matter was discussed in public fora.
       There have been numerous opinion pieces regarding these incidents. Among the disturbing trends they make note of is the uneven use of Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code to limit expression, and the politicising of what should be academic debates.

       Among the opinion pieces are:        (Note that in considering reactions in India we are limited to English-language material that is freely accessible via the Internet. It should be clear that this material may well not be representative of broader opinion, or even of media opinion. The Hindu and Marathi language press may well have responded entirely differently.)

       Bhalchandrarao C. Patvardhan and Amodini Bagwe's piece, James Laine’s Controversial Book, published in this issue of the complete review Quarterly, offers a somewhat different perspective, focussing on what exactly it is about Laine's book that many find so upsetting.

       There has also been some coverage of these events on weblogs, most notably at Kitabkhana and Ryan's Lair (as well as at the Literary Saloon).

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© 2004 - 2010 the complete review Quarterly
© 2004 - 2010 the complete review