OUP withdraws book after violent protest

January 23, 2004

Oxford University Press in India has withdrawn a US academic's book on the 18th-century Hindu ruler Shivaji after violent protests by far-right groups who claim that it cast "aspersions" on Shivaji and his mother.

The book, Shivaji - The Hindu King in Islamic India , by James Laine, lecturer in classical and Near Eastern studies at the University of Minnesota, has also been banned by the state government of Maharashtra, where Shivaji was born and where militant Hindus venerate him for his stand against the Mughal empire.

Manzar Khan, the general manager of OUP (India), confirmed that the book had been pulled but refused to comment on its contents, which, it is claimed, include "unsubstantiated" anecdotes about Shivaji's personal life, especially his paternity.

Academics have denounced the protest as an attempt by Hindu extremists to suppress free speech. They were particularly outraged by a mob attack on the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (Bori) in Pune, where Professor Laine researched the book.

Protesters, claiming to be followers of Shivaji, ransacked its archives and blackened the face of Sanskrit scholar Shrikant Bahulkar, who helped Professor Laine in his research. Hundreds of rare manuscripts are reported to have been destroyed or damaged in the attack.

"We still don't know whether it is safe," said an official who did not want to be identified.

The attack provoked widespread condemnation. "Even if we assume that the book is genuinely objectionable, hooliganism is not the answer, and the state government has set a bad precedent by banning it under pressure from political groups," a Delhi University historian said.

Bori is home to the original copy of Rig Veda , a collection of short hymns devoted to the praise of the gods, detailing the earliest form of Hindusim.

John Smith, reader in Sanskrit at Cambridge University, who has been associated with Bori, said: "Bori is an institution with a great national and international reputation; it has no meaningful connection with the book to which activists and thugs have taken such exception, and the whole episode looks to me like confected rage against the only target that happened to be within reach."

Rachel Dwyer, chair of the Centre of South Asian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University, said she was "appalled" and "distressed". "I hope the Indian government will investigate this unsavoury incident and prosecute those responsible," she said.

In a letter to the prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, academics from several international institutions have called for the groups that were behind the attack to be disbanded.

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