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Hiatus Aborted

Myth against History-DILEEP PADGAONKAR(Times of India)

The ugly turns and twists in the controversy over an American scholar's book on Chhatrapati Shivaji drive home the point yet again that in this country it is myth, not history, that ignites popular imagination.

History is stuffed with ambiguities and contradictions. Its resources cannot be easily marshalled to push ideological and political agendas. A myth, on the other hand, is sanitised enough so that the good guys can be set apart from the bad ones without a trace of ambiguity.

The casteist and the communalist, the regional chauvinist and the political opportunist can thus exploit it to further partisan goals.

When members of the Sambhaji Brigade, a chauvinist Maratha outfit, ransacked the Bhandarkar Institute, a leading centre for Indological studies in Pune, and terrorised those historians and writers who had collaborated with the author, James W Laine, it was precisely because the book, in their eyes, slandered the great warrior-king.

As a professional historian, Laine wasn't interested in adding more sheen to the Shivaji myth but to explain how the myth has been built up by successive generations of historians.

He also seeks to explore how writers in the 20th century sought to harne ss the myth to the history of nationalism to oppose British colonialism, reinforce Maharashtrian pride in general and Maratha pride in particular and finally to shape a pan-Indian Hindu identity.

Such an undertaking implied that he would have to focus on grey areas in the Chhatrapati's extraordinary life, areas which the historians had chosen to ignore.

Laine writes about Shivaji's unhappy family life, his harem, his disinterest in Bhakti saints, his personal ambition which was to build a kingdom rather than to liberate a nation, the compromises he had to make to survive and thrive in Islamic India and so forth.

There is also en passant references to Maharashtrian jokes regarding the paternity of the Chhatrapati. It is these references which proved to be the proverbial last straw.

Laine had, in the plainest of terms, damaged a myth which sustains Maratha pride and enables certain forces to portray Muslims as usurpers, aggressors and oppressors. Small wonder that the controversy has acquired casteist and communal accents.

Politics, including electoral politics, has also shaped this controversy. The Congress has for several decades now, and more recently the NCP, have been closely associated with the Maratha community.

This explains why the Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra banned the Shivaji book with alacrity and has indeed threatened to arrest and prosecute its author and its publishers. NCP chief Sharad Pawar's mealy-mouthed reaction to the vandalism at the Bhandarkar Institute is similarly explained.

Electoral considerations also appear to be behind Union HRD Minister Murli Manohar Joshi's statements on the controversy. He condemned the attack on the Bhandarkar Institute, but supported the banning of the Laine book.

The attack, Joshi asserted, demonstrated laxity on the part of the law enforcement agency. Clearly a pot-shot at the Congress-NCP government which will be pitted against the Shiv-Sena-BJP combine in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

But by upholding the ban on Laine's book, Joshi also pandered to his own sangh parivar. The minister charged that Laine's account was not based on evidence and then went on to question the American scholars motives.

One would have expected him to say that the book ought to be in the public domain where it can be subjected to critical scrutiny, not least because it often smacks of pamphleteering.

It is a vain expectation. Dissent in India is dispensable when it comes to myths, legends and icons. Hot-heads of every persuasion survive and thrive on them.
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OK, so I've had a change of heart!
My sabbatical from the hallowed pages of the web is hereby aborted. Blogging is my way of lending my voice against injustice. Our conscience should never be mummed. Consequently this blog will live on.

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