Oxford University Press (OUP) has withdrawn a new book from the Indian market following violent protests. The controversy over Shivaji: Hindu king in Islamic India by James Laine, Professor of Religious Studies at Macalester College in Minnesota, led to an Indian academic being assaulted and to the ransacking of a library with ancient manuscripts.
King Shivaji (1627-80) is revered among Hindus for founding the Maratha empire, a confederacy of chieftains in western India, which resisted Mughal rule. Professor Laine’s book provoked anger among certain Hindu nationalist militants by raising questions about Shivaji’s family life. He suggested that Shivaji might have been born at a time when his parents were estranged and reported that some inhabitants of Maharashtra State in West India joke “naughtily” about the identity of his biological father.
Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Professor Laine said he had “set out to examine the development of the Shivaji legend rather than providing a biography of his life.” His academic book was published by OUP’s New York office last February and copies were distributed by OUP India in July.
It was not until November that the offending paragraphs came to public attention. On 22 December an Indian academic at the University of Pune near Mumbai was attacked because he is acknowledged in the preface to Professor Laine’s book. Sanskrit specialist Shrikant Bahulkar was assaulted in his office by dozens of protesters from the Hindu Nationalist Shiv Sena party who blackened his face with tar.
The assault and the lack of protests from fellow academics at the University of Pune, angered a leading scholar on Shivaji, Gajanan Mehendale. In a dramatic gesture, he tore up 400 unpublished pages of his third volume on the king on 25 December. Following this, Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackery apologised to Dr Bahulkar for the behaviour of his militants.
Professor Laine then issued his own apology from Minnesota. “It was never my intention to defame the great Maharashtrian hero and I had no desire to upset those for whom he is an emblem of regional and national pride. I apologise for inadvertently doing so.” He emphasised that the book is “my own and its faults are my own. No one in India or abroad who gave me books or texts should be held responsible for my interpretations.” The book was immediately withdrawn from sale by OUP India, although it continues to be available in the US and Britain.
The crisis worsened dramatically on 5 January, when hundreds of protesters from a group known as the Sabhaji Brigade, a youth movement of the Maratha caste, stormed the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune. In the preface to his book Professor Laine acknowledged the institution’s assistance, describing it as his “scholarly home” in India. Its library was ransacked and at least 25 important manuscripts were stolen, as well as a manuscript album of the Nizam (a Muslim nobleman), and a Ganapati sculpture. The police arrested 72 protesters.
On 15 January, the Maharashtra State government banned the book under a law which forbids “wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riots” and “promoting enmity between different groups”. It is also initiating legal proceedings against OUP and its author.
Police are now providing personal security to a number of academics named in the book’s introduction. Although Professor Laine has visited Pune for over 20 years, he currently has no plans to return.
o For Commentary by the writer and broadcaster Mark Tully, see p.23