Why I urge India's politicians to denounce cultural vandalism

January 23, 2004

The city of Pune, formerly known as Poona, lies in the state of Maharashtra, about three hours inland from India's giant commercial capital Mumbai (Bombay). To anyone who has ever lived in a university city, it is immediately recognisable for what it is: the bookshops are well stocked, the cafes full of students in jeans and T-shirts, and there are colleges everywhere. Next to the Law College stands the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (Bori), established in 1917 to commemorate the great Indologist Ramakrishna Gopal Bhandarkar. Bori is India's leading institute for the study of Sanskrit and Indology, with an excellent library, a large collection of manuscripts and a team of internationally renowned research scholars. It is the institute that published, over a 33-year period, the standard critical edition of India's national epic, the Mahabharata . And Bori is the place that was trashed two weeks ago by a violent mob of Maharashtrian nationalists.

For nationalist Hindus to vandalise a seat of Hindu learning is so nonsensical that one is forced to ask what is going on. The answer is an ugly one. Ever since gaining political power in 1998, the Hindu right has taken as its watchword Orwell's maxim that "who controls the past controls the future", and has busied itself rewriting Indian history. School textbooks have been changed to remove "controversial" claims, such as that beef was eaten in ancient India (it was). The Indian Council for Historical Research was reconstituted to allow scholars with unsatisfactory views on issues such as the demolished Babri Mosque in Ayodhya to be replaced by more amenable colleagues. Senior historians have been threatened and systematically vilified.

Bori's crime was to be mentioned in the acknowledgements of a recent Oxford University Press book - James Laine's Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India .

In the book, Laine made "objectionable" statements about the 17th-century ruler, and the Maharashtrian Hindu right were duly scandalised. OUP withdrew the book from sale in India, and Laine apologised for hurting Hindu feelings, but this was altogether too good a provocation to let go easily and so, in the absence of the author, thugs were bussed in from out of town by a little-known group called the Sambhaji Brigade to wreak revenge on the institute where he had consulted documents. Their leader described Bori as "a centre of cultural terrorism", and said that even to destroy it 1,000 times would not be enough. His troops, evidently more practical men, took the opportunity to supplement their task of holy destruction with a little thieving.

The response of the citizens of Pune, aside from the fanatics, seems to have been shock, dismay and a wish to help. Political responses, however, have been more varied. Prime minister Atol Behari Vajpayee, to his great credit, spoke out against the attack on Bori and the Maharashtra government's decision to ban Laine's book, and pointedly chose to do so at a ceremony to unveil a statue of Shivaji. But not all politicians have been quite so firm in their condemnation: Sharad Pawar, whose Nationalist Congress Party is a member of the ruling coalition in Maharashtra, chose instead to observe that research scholars should not "tarnish the image of inspiring personalities" such as Shivaji.

Thus in some eyes the scale of justifiable forms of political protest is being recalibrated (again) to include arbitrary violence against third-party institutions with no direct involvement in the issue in question. A lot now rests on the judiciary: will justice be done, or will most of the 72 arrested get off lightly? As a foreign scholar who spends a lot of time in India, I shall keep an anxious eye on developments. I have no wish for my friends to have their computers or their heads broken because of some incautious observation on my part.

John D. Smith
Reader in Sanskrit
University of Cambridge

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