January  2004 
Year 10    No.95

Cover Story

Wake-up call


When I first read about the attack on the Bhandarkar Institute and the destruction of valuable material in that library, my immediate concern was not so much about what might have been lost but how so much more material spread all over the world is at the mercy of various forces and needs to be preserved in easily retrievable forms. As a reader, researcher, writer and publisher, I know how valuable books, documents and artefacts are for study or work on any topic.

Since the threat to archival and archaeological material is ever present, we need to take special steps to protect these. In recent years we have witnessed what the Taliban has done in Afghanistan. When the so-called United Nations forces invaded Afghanistan, the bombs could not have been sparing towards the libraries and museums and towards other material of historical importance that had not been so carefully stored. Nearer home, while huge dams like the Narmada Sarovar are being built, we have been callous even about human life and about the means of livelihood of the native population. Would we care that much about archival and archaeological material or heritage buildings while submerging acres and acres of land? In this situation, repositories of knowledge have to jealously guard things held in trust by them. While financially it may be possible to rebuild or repair the damaged portion of the Bhandarkar Institute, how can the rare books or manuscripts ever be replaced?

This made me realise that we should give priority to the preservation of valuable material by making use of available technology. Further, it has to be made retrievable from various points. The Sarvajanik Vachanalaya in Nasik, for example, has a project to transfer all their old and rare books onto CD so that they can be read by scholars without the risk of damage to the aged brittle paper while in use. The CDs could also be copied or lent to other libraries.

Immediately, I could envisage institutions complaining of shortage of funds. In my state of shock, I could even dream of a solution. We seem to be in a more charitable mood when we visit places of worship. Many Temple trusts or Church boards or Wakfs are flush with funds that are meant for good causes. Why can we not link our worthy organisations with some of these so as to ensure a continuous flow of funds independent of the whims of the bureaucrats or the trustees?

Over the years we have made huge strides in taking advantage of new technologies to link India with world networks that could make India instantly privy to universal knowledge. This might have made India a world power in this field. However, what India can uniquely contribute was lying unexplored in thousands of manuscripts and private papers. These were spread not only over public libraries but were held even in private homes. The material is subject to the ravages of climate and time as also the forces of ‘development’ and the urbanisation urges of modern times. This material could throw up another Kautilya, or works of fundamental importance in the fields of Mathematics or Medicine or Music. I would not ignore the worth of a Bhasa just because plays do not have utilitarian value. I have learnt on good authority that several old manuscripts are in coded scripts where the codes are family secrets. With the new generation opting for Bank or Insurance company jobs over family tradition, there is a real danger of losing out on some of these works altogether unless steps are taken to preserve and decipher these manuscripts speedily. While India could access what other countries of the world would create and preserve at a later stage, the loss of this rare material would be permanent.

When material is lost due to human endeavour as in the recent events in Pune, the main cause is dissent. We must respect dissent and realise that all human progress is probably rooted in dissent. We don’t need to constantly refer to Galileo and Copernicus to show how dissent leads to great discoveries. Nor need we quote British statesmen to emphasise how we must respect the right of the opponent to hold his own views even as we violently differ with what he has to say. Perhaps there is need to start a ‘Dissent International’ on the basis of ‘Amnesty International’ to protect the right to dissent and more importantly the right of dissenters. I respect the right of the followers of Shivaji Maharaj to protest against the findings as much as I respect the right of a researcher to state what he thinks fit. But any destructive act, which would be harmful to further research, is definitely uncalled for.

One of the primary reasons for encouraging dissent is that without open-ended research it is absolutely impossible to arrive at the truth. But for the work done with the help of materials so far unexplored how would we have known what Asoka, Akbar, Shivaji or Phule stand for? What we now know was found out without anticipating the end results. I was privy to excellent work done by Dhananjay Keer in writing the first major work on Mahatma Jyotiba Phule. Using material from the archives and old newspaper files, he came to conclusions which now form the basis of further work on nineteenth century Maharashtra. Had he been in a pre-conditioned state of mind or under pressure from various communal forces, we would not have known the greatness of this Mahatma.

Is it possible to take such a neutral position in day-to-day life? Are we not conditioned by our own preferences or by our emotions towards those whom we choose to worship?

Gandhi is a favourite punching bag of the Marxists, members of the sangh parivar, Dalit followers of Ambedkar and several other groups. I am, if I may be so presumptuous, a Gandhian. Yet I have published several works critical of the Mahatma. I published with enthusiasm the works of Dhananjay Keer, who wrote primarily from a Savarkar viewpoint. I published the Kanji Dwarkadas memoirs. Kanji was close to Dr. Annie Besant at a time when major political differences existed between Gandhi and Besant. I have found Marxist critique a very effective tool for analysis and compiled the writings of CG Shah, one of the earliest Marxist theoreticians in Bombay. All this because I sincerely believed that these different views would bring us closer to a clearer picture of Gandhi.

Sadly, the debate over the recent episode has thrown up many other points which are shocking, to say the least. Who should write about larger than life characters like Shivaji? Does a foreigner have the right to take up research on Indian subjects with an emotional appeal? Should the researcher belong to any particular caste to be able to maintain objectivity? Can only a Dalit appreciate what someone of the stature of Ambedkar stood for? Are all others belonging to other social groups unable to and therefore not eligible to write about such universal heroes?

To return to the example of Gandhi, the first two biographies of Gandhi were written by South Africans of British origin – Rev. Joseph Doke, a Christian priest, and HSL Polak, a Jewish Journalist-Lawyer. On the other hand, there was no full-length biography of Gandhi in Gujarati until October 2003. Ambedkar’s first major biography, which led to all further research and is still being read almost like a bible by Ambedkar’s followers, is written by a non-Dalit (Dhananjay Keer) and some of the most authoritative scholars, and if I may say supporters, of Ambedkar are YD Phadke, a Brahmin, and Elinor Zelliot, an American. Yet now in the year 2004 one of the outcomes of this present controversy is the not too subtle suggestion that caste considerations are not irrelevant while presenting research about great personalities.

This sad event is a wake up call at many levels.

(Ramdas Bhatkal is chairman, Popular Prakashan, Mumbai).

‘Where they burn books they will, in the end,
also burn human beings’

Heinrich Heine

"The remains of the day were damaged artefacts, mutilated manuscripts and inconsolable scholars. Twenty-five valuable manuscripts in Sanskrit, Pali and Ardh Magadhi were stolen. So were 11th century copper plates, spearheads, rare relics and a portrait of Shivaji acquired from a French museum. A clay tablet dating back to the Assyrian civilisation (600 BC) was completely destroyed. The SB activists also damaged a manuscript of the Mahabharata from 10 AD, palm leaf inscriptions, Vedic literature besides countless other books and manuscripts."

(Harsh Kabra, A Taste of Bamiyan).


Is the worst still to come?

PUNE: Two senior state education department officials have instructed the civic bodies not to collect funds from students for rebuilding the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI), which was ransacked recently by activists of the Sambhaji Brigade (SB).

The directive — issued by Vijay Patil, director, education (secondary and higher secondary), and Vasant Kalpande, director, education (primary) — follows a threat from the Maratha Vikas Sangh (MVS) that it would resort to more such attacks if money was "extorted" from students for rebuilding BORI.

On January 14, the 406th birth anniversary of Shivaji’s mother Jijabai, 35 Maratha outfits held a demo at Pune’s Lal Mahal, turning what is otherwise a low-key affair into a bristling show of muscle.

A resolution steered by Ravindra Malvadkar of the Shiv Mahotsav Samiti demanded that the 72 SB members held for the attack be freed — echoing a call made at the Akhil Bharatiya Maratha Mahasangh’s ‘camera-friendly’ protest at the district collectorate. Malvadkar is planning to record powadas (folk songs) and speeches against Laine and his Indian ‘friends’. The Maratha Vikas Sangh wants to see the "objectionable documents" at the institute destroyed after the state government takes it over. And the Maratha Shikshan Parishad is targeting scholars who fed Laine with "solid yarns".

SB spokesman Shreemant Kokate goes a step ahead. He accuses the institute of roping in Laine to write a blasphemous account and wants the state government to either hang Laine’s associates or hand them over to the SB. Describing the institute as "a centre of cultural terrorism", he says, "even if it is burnt down ten thousand times, the insult inflicted upon Jijabai would not be mitigated". The SB has since threatened action against the American Study Circle, Deccan College, Bharat Itihaas Samshodhak Mandal and Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth — all prominent research hubs of Pune.

This language has spread fear. Litterateur RG Jadhav, a recipient of SB threats, took police cover to preside over a Marathi literary meet. At its inaugural, Pawar got away with an oblique allusion to the SB vandalism, almost instructing researchers to "ensure that great personalities aren’t shown in poor light". Only after this did the obligatory formal censure come.

(From a report in The Times of India, January 18, 2004).


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