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

Attacking Myths and Institutions
James Laine’s Shivaji and BORI

commentary at the complete review

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

- the Editors, the complete review

       On 5 January 2004 a leading research institute in India, the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI), was attacked (see here for details). The mob that ransacked it ostensibly acted in reaction to a book allegedly insulting one of India's great historical figures, a 17th century leader named Shivaji (despite the fact that the book -- James W. Laine's Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India -- had been withdrawn from the market by its publisher almost two months earlier). In researching his book, Laine had worked at BORI years earlier, and he thanked the institute and a number of scholars associated with it in his acknowledgements -- reason enough for the Sambhaji brigadeers to physically threaten and attack these men, and to destroy important bits of Indian history.

       What has happened with Laine's book and BORI is a terrifying glimpse of intolerance and mob rule. It is particularly worrying because it has happened not in a theocracy like the Taliban's Afghanistan or a revisionist dictatorship such as Turkmenistan or North Korea, but in a culturally diverse democracy.
       It is some comfort that these events are being freely and openly debated in India, and that the attack on BORI has been widely (though, unfortunately, far from universally) condemned. Nevertheless, events both before and after 5 January suggest that open debate and tolerance for alternative viewpoints and opinions are far from welcome by all.

       It does all come back to Laine's book. It's title alone -- the suggestion that there was ever an "Islamic India" -- has outraged many (see Bhalchandrarao C. Patvardhan and Amodini Bagwe's James Laine’s Controversial Book for this and other objections to the book). The subject matter is one of India's revered historical figures, a 17th-century king who managed to assert independence from the Mughals. In a contemporary India that is again increasingly polarised by religion he has become a particularly potent symbolic figure among some Hindus groups. (India is subject to many possible divisions, including along caste and linguistic lines, but the most prominent remains religion; while a large majority of Indians are Hindu, it must be remembered that the Muslim population in India exceeds that in any Arab or Middle Eastern nation.)
       In a commentary piece, In India, 'the Unthinkable' Is Printed at One's Peril, published in The Los Angeles Times (12 January), Laine describes his book as one about the: "narrative process, an account of three centuries of storytelling that produced a tale that lived in the minds of people celebrating Shivaji's legacy today". In the last chapter he also: "entertained what I called 'unthinkable thoughts' -- questioning 'cracks' in the Shivaji narrative". It is these unthinkable thoughts -- these different possible readings of Shivaji, or rather the Shivaji-legend -- that were found so objectionable.
       Blind, fanatical devotion to a set narrative is not unheard of, though it is generally reserved for stories about religious figures. In some circles, to hypothesise about Mohammed or Jesus, -- even when one relies on sound historical evidence -- is still impossible (and has led to similar book bans and physical assaults). Laine's alleged blasphemy is more complex, because Shivaji is simply an historical figure. While such figures are often also revered to an extent that blinds some to their faults (there are those who are outraged by discussion of the womanising ways of, say, Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King junior), it is generally accepted that speculation about such figures is permissible or even laudable. Indeed, if set narratives weren't constantly questioned, if they were considered inviolable, history -- written by those in power -- would be both useless and, generally, grossly inaccurate.
       Of course, Shivaji isn't 'simply' an historical figure, his story having also been appropriated by Hindu-nationalist elements using it for their own purposes. To question the legend as they would see it is to question their entire cause. And, like flag-wavers elsewhere, politicians have found that the Shivaji-name can effectively be used in rallying the masses who pay attention only to the glorious name and don't consider all the implications behind the words. So deeply does the cry of 'Shivaji' resonate with a large segment of the population (specifically in the state of Maharashtra, but also elsewhere in India) that almost everything except the most uncritical stance has been attacked.

       Laine describes the initial reception of his book in India, in the summer of 2003, as unremarkable. The book "ranked up with Hillary Rodham Clinton's in the local list of English-language bestsellers in Pune" and there were "a couple of bland but positive reviews in the Indian papers". Eventually, controversy erupted -- but Laine's sins had clearly not been self-evident: it took someone to point out the implications of what he had written (i.e. to offer a particular reading of his reading) to upset people. (As is often the case in such situations, it also appears that most of those who were upset did not actually read the entire text.)
       What happened then is also disturbing: numerous people, including scholars attached to BORI (and some who were thanked in the acknowledgements) not only distanced themselves from the text but called for it to be withdrawn from the market. Amazingly, Oxford University Press India obliged, withdrawing the book in November.
       Too little has been made of this self-censorship. While publishers often practice some sort of self-censorship in not publishing certain books in certain markets, it is usually in response to clear, legal prohibitions: art books depicting nudes are inappropriate for the Saudi market, Nazi propaganda for the German one, etc. But in most such cases there are clear guidelines and outright legal bans, meaning that any attempted publication would be met with legal action by government authorities. Nothing about Laine's book suggested it contravened any local laws, or public standards of decency or morality. The fact that for several months it sold reasonably well locally and received some review attention without causing much uproar or even complaint reinforces this notion.
       Laine's Shivaji was, ultimately (months after the book had been withdrawn from the market), banned, the author and the publisher charged under Sections 153 ("Wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot") and 153A ("Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony ") of the Indian Penal Code. Yet the charges can only be made because groups have chosen to use the book to promote enmity. This case -- and, as commentators have shown, it is not a unique case of the application of 153 and 153A -- is, among many other things, one of political correctness run amok. By engaging in criminal violence, but claiming to have been provoked by someone else's pronouncements -- regardless of how these were meant -- it seems any statement can become a criminal one, with the determination whether it is or isn't resting solely with the allegedly aggrieved.
       Such an interpretation of the law does not foster dialogue or harmony, but rather is an actual incentive for violence and discord. Dislike what someone says ? Just go out and riot and then blame it on the other's words. This is patently what happened in the case of Laine's book.

       The attacks on scholars and then on BORI, and then the banning of the book, would have been disturbing under any circumstances, but they are particularly so given that the book had been withdrawn from the market and was no longer readily accessible. Oxford University Press India backed down in the face of some pressure and withdrew the book in November, 2003, not because it had been ordered to do so or was legally required to do so, but because public sentiment (or at least vociferous elements) seemed to oppose allowing the book to remain available.
       This gesture of appeasement (or rather wholesale abandonment of Laine's book) did not have the (presumably) intended effect. Surrender to irrational forces rarely does (odd that that's a lesson that people just don't seem to learn). OUP India might have merely wanted to keep the peace, and sincerely believed that withdrawing the book from the market was the best way of doing so. Indeed, events might have escalated had they not done so. Still, it is troubling that a leading academic publisher was willing to be intimidated by a mob (prominent and respected though some of those among it were) and not stand up for freedom of expression. (Interestingly, there appears to have been no effort to make any legal determination as to the permissibility of this publication -- i.e. no one suggested at the time that, for example, the book promoted legally actionable enmity, etc. Funny how that only became a viable option after groups decided to riot.) In any case, far from resolving the issue, OUP India's withdrawal of the book appears to have pleased absolutely no one, dismissed on the one hand as a token gesture that came far too late, on the other as an obscene abridgement of academic freedom.

       Physical attacks followed: first scholar Shrikant Bahulkar was assaulted, then, two weeks later, came the attack on BORI. What appears to have upset the factions involved in these acts is not merely the dissemination of the ideas found in Laine's book (which had been practically stopped with the withdrawal of the book) but the very existence of such thoughts. The targets include some who had actually distanced themselves from the book and argued for its withdrawal; in the case of those who had been thanked in Laine's acknowledgements even such repentance wasn't enough to protect them from being attacked.
       The attack on BORI was an assault on the whole scholarly enterprise, suggesting that inquiry and speculation are inappropriate or even unacceptable, and that instead only a single account and interpretation of history (one, apparently, decided on by today's mob) is permissible. From those academics that called for the withdrawal of Laine's book, to OUP India doing just that, to the attack on BORI and the continuing actions against Laine and his book, everything has been done to stifle and suppress dialogue, when it is just the opposite that is needed. Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee admirably said that the proper way to counter objectionable ideas in a book was with other books and open debate. The local government -- and the local thugs -- have instead closed off debate wherever possible.

       The United States is an exception when it comes to freedom of expression, and most countries have far stricter limits. It might seem entirely reasonable that, much as Nazi literature is banned in Germany, writing which might incite readers to violence (directly or in response thereto) is suppressed or banned. At the very least, however, the general approach (and the specific application of the law) in India regarding freedom of expression over the past decade or more is of concern.
       It is clear that expression that actually exhorts to violence is far more objectionable than expression which causes offence which causes violence. In other words, Nazi tracts calling for the killing of Jews are far worse than Jewish tracts which upset Nazis (by, say, claiming that their ideas are foolish and based on unfounded premises) and lead them to attack Jews. Laine's book proved upsetting (arguably even: justifiably so) to a significant segment of the population, and action was taken against it (first voluntarily, then physically, and finally legally). Those responsible for the physical attacks were, at least, charged with crimes, but the newspapers continue to be filled with quotes from often prominent politicans and public figures with what are clearly threats (against persons and property) -- expression that is blatantly far more dangerous than anything Laine wrote and yet that has gone largely unchallenged. This double standard is completely unacceptable -- and very dangerous.

       To outsiders the case for why Laine's book should be read, discussed, and debated likely seems self-evident. Arguments that India or its citizens are somehow too immature to consider Laine's statements, or that the issue itself is simply too inflammatory, are unconvincing. People do no need to to be protected from challenging, foreign, or even unsupportable ideas; they do need protection from those who answer any statements they find unpleasant or objectionable with violence.
       Events as they have unfolded teach all the wrong lessons: rather than showing how difficult texts and ideas might be approached and dealt with (admittedly not always an easy task), they suggest that complete denial and obliteration (and the use of force to achieve these) are acceptable. The result can only be intellectual and social stagnation and decline. Threats and brute force, encouraged by self-serving politicians (looking only towards the next election) and political groups, can easily win the day -- they have here--, but the long-term costs could be devastating to India.

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© 2004 the complete review Quarterly
© 2004 the complete review