[Reader-list] Some recent events in Pune

Gayatri Chatterjee gchat at vsnl.net
Fri Jan 23 07:22:21 IST 2004

An account of the recent events in Pune that have filled our hearts with horror and shame can begin with the annual meeting of the Akhil Bharatiya Maratha Mahasangh held in the second week of December 2003 at the Balgandharva Theatre premises. There were discussions of several items on their agenda, such as renaming the University of Pune 'Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj University'. Also on that day, Mahasangh members expressed anger at Jim Laine's book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India (brought out by Oxford University Press earlier the same year), and talked about taking some action against those mentioned in Laine's acknowledgements. But the book was not topmost in their mind nor was there any plans for immediate action. 
The ABMM program brochure contains several items of interest, but two are of particular importance here. A few years ago, the Maratha Mandir, a social and cultural organization in Bombay, had undertaken a project of compiling a biography of Shivaji. A committee comprising historians Y. D. Phadke, A. R. Kulkarni, M. S. Mhate (then at Deccan College), P. V. Ranade (from Aurangabad University), and others had brought out the first volume. This contained a passage from Ibn Battuta's book in which some of the fourteenth-century traveller's remarks were judged derogatory of Maratha women. A protest was voiced by the women of the Maratha Mahasangh. As a result of this agitation, while the book was not withdrawn from circulation, it was reissued with a white page pasted over the offending portion. The other incident concerns a humoresque play from the genre of popular Marathi theatre, Majhe Pati Chhatrapati ('My Husband, the Chhatrapati'). It was observed that such a lightweight use of the title Chhatrapati was an insult to the Maratha King. Consequently, the play was allowed to run but with a change in title. 
Now to come to the two incidents that concern us more intimately today. There had been protests and grumbles against Laine's book ever since its appearance and Oxford University Press had withdrawn the book from the market on 22 November. But apparently this was not enough, and subsequently the Shiva Sena embarked on a process of targeting one by one those seen as involved with the writing of the book. On 22 December, Shiv Sena members led by one Rambhau Parekh went to the Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth, entered the office of its head, Professor Shrikant Bahulkar, roughed him up, made him stand on his chair, and smeared his face with some blackening agent. Why Bahulkar, of all the names thanked by Laine, should have been chosen as the first target is not clear (the day's issue of Samna, the Shiv Sena organ, may shed some light on this question). 
On the next day some members of the Shiv Sena visited the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute and inquired about the BORI's role in Laine's book, as some of the names mentioned in the acknowledgments are connected with the Institute. Saroja Bhate (serving a term as Honorary Secretary, BORI) informed them that Shrikant Bahulkar had in 1988-89 helped Laine translate the Shivabharat, a nineteenth-century Sanskrit biography of Shivaji. Manjul in his capacity as librarian had made books available. The Sena cadres returned without any further ado or making threats of any kind. 
Protesting against this event, BORI personnel released a statement to some local newspapers, including the Marathi language Sakal. But there was no protest registered from the University of Pune, its various departments, nor from Deccan College or other colleges or Pune institutions. This institutional silence was the impetus for the scholar Gajanan Mehendale to contact Pradip Rawat-a member of parliament from the BJP, an admirer of Mehendale, and a book lover-to inform him that he had destroyed four hundred pages of his own manuscript on Shivaji (painstaking scholarly work of which some six hundred pages had already been published). Mehendale's contentions were: a) If this is the state of affairs, then evidently the country has no need for books; b) Those who are so incensed as to burn any Shivaji book that doesn't please them can very well go write one for themselves. 
Now all hell broke loose; even the Times of India sat up and started reporting. Rawat protested the Bahulkar event in print and allegedly sent Pune Municipality staff to scout around in the city's dustbins for the discarded pages. (However, one part of the story is not clear: either Mehendale has photocopies or he wants to write those four hundred pages over; he has told Rawat he would give him the manuscript-to be published only after his death.) 
Along with Rawat, Sena leader Raj Thackeray met with Bahulkar on 30 December and offered a personal apology. He gave his assurance that the Shiv Sena would not engage in any destructive act-without his sanction. Laine sent in an apology of his own, saying he had 'foolishly misread the situation in India' and that 'it was never [his] intention to defame the great Maharashtrian hero.' The general feeling was that the dust had settled. 
(However, the very next day, Parekh and other Sena members went to the police commissioner's office with a warning that his cadres would stop all New Year's parties that went later than 10 pm. Chief Commissioner of Police A. N. Roy gave a statement: Even on a normal day, restaurants run till after 11 pm; he would not stop any party conducted indoors; he would not allow any vandalism. Incidentally, the week before, Christians had not been permitted to celebrate Midnight Mass. Meanwhile, 38,000 soldiers and police in Mumbai and 6,000 in Pune were mobilized to help citizens usher in the New Year. Pune was uneventful that evening-it would seem Raj Thackeray had managed to keep his promise.) 
But behind the scenes, other storms were brewing; one meeting was held at a tamasha place, Chauphula off Aundh, by young members of an ABMM offshoot group, the Maratha Seva Sangh, its Sambhaji Brigade, and a group calling itself the Majdoor Samaj (the 'Workers' Society'). These firebrands, some of whom came from Osmanabad and other remote districts, resolved to take their 'revenge.' 
On 5 January, some two hundred members of the Sambhaji Brigade entered the Bhandarkar Institute when they were opening and preparing for the day-that is, when there was the least number of people. They first cut the telephone wires. Then, shouting slogans, they ransacked the place-a task for which they had come fully prepared, for example bringing with them the kind of gear needed to topple heavy cupboards easily. The heaviest damage was to the front hall where seminars are held, which houses the Dandekar collection. The Jain manuscript section has also been badly roughed up-the full extent of the loss is not quite clear. The cadres could not go upstairs (because of the arrival of the police) and so the damage is confined to the downstairs sections of the library. The computers in all the offices were destroyed; some rare art pieces and prints have been stolen. The oil paintings of scholars that line the entrance lobby were slashed and disfigured. The police could not be alerted on time, since the telephone connections had been severed; the Prabhat Road and Deccan Gymkhana police stations were not geared for a violent attack by a mob of two hundred. By the time the police had gathered in force, the damage was quite severe.
By the evening, I heard that the Sambhaji Brigade had threatened to physically harm Manjul and some others. I went to BORI at 10 pm, when archaeologist M. K. Dhavlikar (retired from Deccan College and a BORI member) and the police were still in the process of writing the report. I was assured they would be provided police protection. The newspapers the next day carried reports of people being given police protection-one by one, all the Pune residents whose names feature in Laine's acknowledgements section have had to be provided police protection. 
The response from Pune residents to the assault on BORI has been tremendous. The first day, students and professors of Sanskrit from all the city's colleges and the University of Pune, along with students of other disciplines from Ferguson and S.P. Colleges and some foreign Sanskrit students visiting India, gathered to help clear the debris and stack up the books that had been scattered everywhere. By the third day the place had been almost cleaned up and librarians were ready to put the books back in those racks and cupboards that were still intact (barring the parts made of glass, which had all been shattered). 
The newspaper response has likewise been vigorous (this needs to be looked at carefully; this report could not be based on a thorough study of all the papers). The most interesting to study is the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Samna. The upper right-hand corner of the front page for 6 January carries a photo of books on Chhatrapati Shivaji lying on the floor, some of them torn; below that is a photo of the Saraswati idol that used to be kept in a glass box at the entrance lobby, with her arms broken; below that is a closeup of a lady BORI employee crying brokenly. The headline reads: Shivrayacha nam gheta 'Shambhaji Brigade'-cha itihasabarac ghala: 'Bhandarkar' var halla (Taking Shivaji's Name, 'Shambhaji Brigade''s Attack on History: Attack on 'Bhandarkar'). The reaction from Babasaheb Purandare was much more severe-the man seems truly affected by the act of destruction. The Samna editorial of 7 January, written perhaps by Bal Thackeray himself, takes a lighter attitude. 'Who is this Jim Laine? He has ne len na den with our culture and history.' He adds, 'Raj himself had gone and apologised to Bahulkar and we had thought the matter over.' 
On 8 January, the Indian Express at last got into the Akhil Bharatiya Maratha Mahasangh angle and introduced the key figure of Purushottam Khedekar, a retired engineer with the Public Works Department (it may be recalled that he was arrested for corruption and illegal purchase), who while still in service founded the Maharashtra Seva Sangh, the offshoot of the ABMM of which the Sambhaji Brigade is part. On 10 January Shantaram Kunjir, the Secretary of the Pune Chapter, made a statement of support in the name of the ABMM to the events. They also raised the slogan 'Bhandarkar jhanki hai, Shanivarwada baki hai'-('The Bhandarkar incident was just a glimpse [of our intentions]; there is still Shanivarwada [to be conquered]'[1] 
The papers naturally are interviewing all whose names are there in Laine's acknowledgements-in particular, those specifically threatened. Manjul (the now-retired BORI librarian), on behalf of Bahulkar and the Marathi and Sanskrit scholar Sucheta Paranjpe, reported that the full extent of his own collaboration with Laine was only to provide books in his capacity as a librarian and Bahulkar and Sucheta's involvement was limited to giving Laine language lessons and assistance in his Shivabharat translation. Manjul has severely condemned the 'heinous act' Laine committed in his book. I am told that related statements that appeared elsewhere have also come from Manjul; apparently he spoke for everyone (this has been difficult to check, since many have been refusing all communication not only with journalists, but even friends and colleagues.) 
Several young scholars with liberal credentials have told me that it is absolutely crucial at this point to castigate Laine severely. More senior scholars have taken the position that while the quality of Laine's scholarship might be questionable, that cannot be seen as a justification for these sorts of acts-they are more concerned with the humanist aspects and less attuned to the present political mood of this part of India. The newspapers have begun to point to the coming elections as a determining factor behind what is to come next. It is clear from newspaper coverage and government reports that there is no way these Shivaji-related matters could be talked about with any level-headedness. Not just now. 
There is one other occurrence that needs to be mentioned here. On 4 January, a self-described Professor of Business Management, Prafulla Chandra Tawade, who has started his own history research platform, called for a meeting of historians-amateur and professional. There he read out the line from Laine's book that had most offended everyone: 'The repressed awareness that Shivaji had an absentee father is also revealed by the fact that Maharashtrians tell jokes naughtily suggesting that his guardian Dadaji Konddev was his biological father.' In the analysis that followed, Tawade felt the need to gloss biology as 'a mix of botany and zoology.' U.S. scholars Lee and Lisa Schlesinger were present at the meeting. Everyone says that Lee spoke very well. When asked what he thought of the agitation and the banning of the book, he said, 'I cannot say anything in this case for I come from a country that does not believe in burning and banning books.' He then added: 'Today you have sought my opinion. Now, if you quote me tomorrow, will I get beaten up? If you write a book tomorrow, will it be said the whole of your book is tainted by this opinion of mine that you are seeking just now?' 
One thing that can be and is being said at this point is that an important factor at work here is anti-brahminism. (When I had first contacted him after the Bahulkar incident, Dhavlikar had told me, 'Gayatri, nothing can be done. After all Maharashtra is only three or four percent brahmin.') Indeed, one of many Dalit groups, the Dalit Mahasangh, was the first body to come out publicly stating its support for the Sambhaji Brigade. The way different alliances are being formed and rifts are getting created within parties here is something that needs to be studied with close attention to its complexities.[2] 
It should also be mentioned here that if the recent events reminded the playwright and actor-director Satish Alekar of anything, it was how the 'same BORI brahmans' had succeeded in having the play 'Ghashiram Kotwal' banned for a period in 1972, sending out death threats to the entire cast and crew. 'Those were the days before television and so the gaze of all Maharashtra was on this play and its fortunes.' 
Sunita Nene of the American Colleges of the Midwest Programme has also been targeted. 'I had asked Laine why he included my name . . . I did not contribute anything to it.' She (with Raja Bhora) drafted a letter and sent it to various Marathi newspapers. In it they included an appeal to Sharad Pawar to visit BORI. Sakal refused to publish it, but Lokasatta has. Pawar had been keeping quiet, but has now said something against the book at the Marathi Sahitya Sammelan, since there was a threat to disrupt the event.  
On 13 January, according to newspaper reports, Shashikant Pawar, president of the ABMM, denounced the Sambhaji Brigade's ransacking of BORI. He has met with Saroja Bhate and visited BORI. Without naming Khedekar, he has condemned this act by a faction formed by a 'self-serving person,' who has misled unemployed youth from poor backgrounds. 
Some forty thousand people were expected to descend on Pune on 14 January to celebrate Jijabai's birthday (and, by extension, Shivaji's childhood spent in the Lal Mahal palace). Anticipating trouble, the Deccan Gymkhana police booked Laine, declaring that he would be arrested and his passport confiscated if he were to visit India. The event turned to be a damp squib, with only five thousand arriving from the city and elsewhere. 
The ABMM has declared the matter closed. But now this book-related matter is spreading to other levels and creating other platforms. The Maharashtra government banned Laine's book on 15 January. Prime Minister Vajpayee, while visiting Mumbai on 15-16 January, took a strong stand against this action by the state of Maharashtra and the violence perpetrated by the Maratha forum (Indian Express, 17 Jaunuary). After unveiling a statue at Mumbai's international airport, a much-anticipated event, he said: 'If you do not like anything in a particular book, then sit and discuss it. Banning is not a solution; we have to tackle it ideologically. If differences of opinion remain after a issue is discussed, the best way would be to come out with another good book on the subject.' In response, Congress Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde has criticised Vajpayee in strong terms. The polls are coming.
 -Gayatri Chatterjee 
[1] The Peshwas were ministerial appointees under Shivaji. The Shanivarwada fort in Pune was built by the Peshwa Bajirao I who, in the absence of the Maratha Prince Shahu Maharaj, imprisoned in Delhi for almost a decade, was able to bring about a reformation and expansion of the Maratha kingdom in the Deccan. Most remarkably, the Brahmin Bajirao is known for putting in various positions of power members of all local communities, even, for example, the nomadic Dhangar pastoralists. The fort nowadays is taken as a symbol of Pune Brahminism and there are efforts to 'take it away from the Brahmins.'
[2] A post from Gail Omvedt (already circulated  by Harsh Kapoor) throws much light on the caste-related aspects of these events. 
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