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- 8 01 2004 - 22:01 - katatonik

A book and the aftermath

“Angry Hindu activists ransacked India’s prestigious Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute on Monday, tearing pages out of rare Sanskrit manuscripts, breaking windows, and smashing equipment. The protesters attacked the institute because it had given research assistance to an American professor whose recent book questions the history of a revered 17th-century Hindu king.

According to the police in Pune, a city about 75 miles southeast of Bombay where the institute is located, more than 150 Hindu hardliners armed with chains and wooden bats pushed their way into the research center as its staff opened the doors on Monday morning. Witnesses said the assailants—from the little-known “Sambhaji Brigade,” a group of religious extremists—were yelling “Victory to King Shivaji” as they destroyed ancient writings on palm leaves and vandalized paintings of renowned Sanskrit scholars. During the rampage, a statue of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, was also smashed.

Saroja Bhate, the institute’s secretary, said the staff was still assessing the damage but knew that at least 25 ancient books had been stolen.

The institute, which was created in 1917 to care for 20,000 Sanskrit manuscripts, had been on the periphery of a dispute that began last January, after Oxford University Press published Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, by James W. Laine. In the book’s preface, Mr. Laine, a professor of religious studies at Macalester College, in Minnesota, thanked several Sanskrit scholars affiliated with the institute for their assistance.

A politically powerful right-wing Hindu group, the Shiv Sena, charged that the book makes derogatory remarks about the much-admired king. Hindu activists in the group, which was responsible for violent campus protests in 2001 against the celebration of Valentine’s Day (The Chronicle, February 15, 2001), soon organized a campaign to ban the book. After a few months, and without explanation, Oxford University Press withdrew Shivaji from the Indian market.

The protesters, however, were not placated. Last month, Hindu activists from the Shiv Sena burst into the office of Shrikant Bahulkar, a senior member of the institute, and blackened his face with tar. The attackers were angry because Mr. Bahulkar was among those thanked in the book’s acknowledgments.

Speaking from his office in Minnesota, Mr. Laine said he was horrified when he learned of the assault on Mr. Bahulkar. Hoping to prevent attacks on other scholars mentioned in the acknowledgments, Mr. Laine quickly faxed a letter to the major Indian newspapers apologizing to all who had been offended by his book. In the letter, he also wrote that no one but himself was responsible for the book’s contents.

Mr. Laine said, however, that he stood by his work. He issued the public apology, he said, “because it was not worth the violence.” He added that his critics had misunderstood and misrepresented the book, which is not a history of Shivaji but a study of how the stories and myths surrounding him were constructed and became “real.”

Mr. Laine said he believes that simply the suggestion of alternative explanations of history—some possibly unflattering—is what made the Hindu extremists so angry. “With a great hero, there can be nothing associated with his life that besmirches him in any way,” Mr. Laine said. “What they are saying is that no one is allowed to criticize him.”

On Wednesday, an editorial in The Indian Express blasted the scare tactics of the right-wing Hindu groups. “By vandalising the Bhandarkar institute, these cultural zealots were destroying their own history that an institution like this one had painstakingly endeavoured to preserve,” the editorial said. “This monkeying around with history for political dividends must be put an end to, once and for all, if India is to be taken seriously in the academic world.”“

Martha Ann Overland: “Vandals Attack Research Center in India in Retaliation for Help It Gave to American Scholar”, Chronicle of Higher Education, June 8, 2004.

pictures, more pictures (from “Sakal”, a local Marathi newspaper in Pune), Times of India article, a review of the book at issue.

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