History and Hindu nationalism: A call to arms

Warning: Investigating the identity politics associated with legendary Indian warrior kings can be dangerous to your intellectual health.

Published April 11, 2007 9:00PM (EDT)

On Monday, India's Supreme Court ordered the Maharashtra state police to drop all charges of inciting "racial hatred" against an American professor of religious studies, James W. Laine, author of a book about the 17th century Maharashtra warrior-king Shivaji. (Thanks to the wonderfully named Pass the Roti on the Left Hand Side blog for the alert.)

In Maharashtra, home to the Indian cities Mumbai and Pune and about 90 million people, Shivaji is a figure of near demi-god status, revered by Hindu nationalists for establishing an independent kingdom in a region dominated by Muslim rulers. His portrait is ubiquitous and his life story a staple of children's history textbooks.

The Oxford University Press published Laine's book, "Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India," in 2003. It was initially well-received, generating a few "bland and positive" reviews, according to Laine's own account. But then some Hindu nationalist firebrands, possibly seeking a campaign issue to rally voters around, seized upon one specific sentence, in which Laine recounted, presumably from his personal experience, that Maharashtrians occasionally joked about Shivaji's parentage, speculating as to whether the person historically known as Shivaji's father was in fact his biological parent.

It is no understatement to say that from that point on, all hell broke loose, kind of like the recent <a href="http://www.salon.com/opinion/walsh/misc/2007/03/29/chocolate_jesus/index.htmlchocolate Jesus debacle in New York, only amplified by about a trillion orders of magnitude. Laine's book became ammunition in a multifronted war that crossed caste, ethnic, political and religious lines. Scholars who had been thanked in Laine's acknowledgments were physically attacked by Hindu fundamentalist extremists -- one had his face blackened with tar. A group calling itself the Sambhaji Brigade ransacked the research library in Pune where Laine had spent years, destroying, in the process, irreplaceable historical documents and artifacts.

Laine's own account of the turmoil, published in the Los Angeles Times in 2004, stated, somewhat plaintively:

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. Few will read it for themselves. Instead, many will live with the knowledge that India is a country where many thoughts are unthinkable or, if thought, best kept quiet.

In this light, the decision of the Indian Supreme Court is to be applauded, at least by anyone who believes that scholarly inquiry should be combatted with battling footnotes, and not mob violence. But perhaps the most fascinating part of the whole story is how the reaction to Laine's book can be seen as an integral part of the very narrative he was trying to explicate.

Laine's goal was not a traditional biography, but a deconstruction of how "the Shivaji story" had evolved over 300 years; how the facts of his historically verifiable existence had been manipulated and massaged and morphed in ways that served emerging political, ideological and religious needs. It should go without saying that in a country where "communal" tensions are as intense as they are in India, such an investigation, by an outsider, of one of India's most legendary Hindu "heroes" could be inflammatory. Indeed, it seems almost as if Laine expected something to happen. Witness these words from the introduction to "Shivaji":

The task I have set myself is not that of providing a more accurate account of Shivaji's life by stripping away the legends attributed to him by worshipful myth makers or misguided ideologues, but rather to be a disturber of the tranquility with which synthetic accounts of Shivaji's life are accepted...

The italics are mine. Laine succeeded. Tranquility was disturbed. The reaction to the book serves as a perfect afterword flowing directly from the main narrative, as the very same cultural impulses that shaped the evolution of Shivaji's cultural significance also formed its critical reception.

For example: One pair of reviewers could barely contain a mounting sense of outrage as they deconstructed Laine's deconstruction. They called it "vicious," "willful, calculated sensationalism," and "an exercise in skullduggery" that "might well qualify as yet another attempt at fragmentation of the steadily developing strength of a society that is waking up to a realization of the many historical frauds perpetrated on itself for centuries."

For them, any attempt to recontextualize the popular conception of Shivaji betrayed a profound misunderstanding of how important the warrior king was to Hindu Maharashtrian identity.

The learned author, in spite of his protracted contact with the region since 1977, failed to realize that the "Shivaji story," as narrated in every Maharashtrian home, has far more significance and enjoys immensely greater credibility than all history taught in academia...

But another reviewer, revealing his own antipathy to the politics of Hindu fundamentalism by noting that Shivaji is "a key cultural idol in the chauvinistic repertoire of contemporary Hindu nationalism," applauded Laine for raising "fundamental questions about a range of identities -- religious, linguistic, economic, caste, moral, regional, national and political -- relevant to contemporary Maharashtra, India and Hindus." Moreover, the reviewer lambasted "a myopic state that has routinely created purist superhuman icons out of historical figures for the sake of particular populist ends. In the process, the state, in deference to the radical end of the citizenry, has produced a socio-political culture accommodative of violent public displays of disregard for scholarly plain-speak about those icons."

This is identity politics on a mind-boggling scale. The telling of history is often -- some cynics might say always -- an exercise in propaganda, shaped as much by the attitude and ideology the scholar brings to the archives as by the facts and data unearthed there. And it is certainly not unusual for a work of history that explores a politically and religiously fraught topic to be caught up in those currents itself.

But when scholars thanked in acknowledgments are physically attacked and research libraries are ransacked and historians are brought up on charges of inciting racial hatred, the stakes seem a bit greater than with your run-of-the-mill monograph. And that brings out its own moral imperative: The singular intensity of "the Laine controversy" is a call to arms, a clear mandate for the practice of more history, more deconstruction of how identity is inculcated and manipulated in the modern world, and more unraveling of the threads that make up the warp and woof of contemporary Indian society.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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