January  2004 
Year 10    No.95

Cover Story

Shredding a legacy

Violence, hatred and riots fetch electoral dividends to some politicians but they also tear apart the fabric of democracy and bring the day of Hitler’s reincarnation closer


On January 5, 2004 mobocracy took over in Pune and at-tacked the internationally renowned
Bhandarkar Orien-tal Research Institute (BORI) established in 1919. Valuable ancient volumes, manuscripts (30 thousand), rare books (18 thousand) and antiques fell prey to the vandalism. A ‘brigade’ floated in the name of king Sambhaji accomplished this act. The storm troopers of the Sambhaji Brigade were called ‘lunatics’ by large sections of the Marathi press. Today it is crucial to condemn unequivocally not only the platoons but also the patrons of such actions who gain political mileage from such acts.

Several reasons justify the condemnation. First: Some of those who justify the act say, ‘Persons associated with BORI provided perverted facts regarding the parentage of king Shivaji to James Laine, the author of the controversial book, Shivaji: A Hindu King in Islamic India. Never mind that, the credentials of sources and other contexts of the arguments could well be countered in writing or through public speeches. On occasion, one can even symbolically burn a copy of the controversial books to create awareness. Instead, the ‘heroic’ Sambhaji Brigade, an outfit of the Maratha Seva Sangh went on the rampage without even bothering to read James Laine’s book. The patrons of such uncultured acts care a hoot about democracy.

Second: It has become part of current political culture to distort and change history, to destroy the tools through which rational history may be learnt, to even manipulate history for political expediency and also to replace history with folklore. Faithful to current day culture in Maharashtra, the attackers have destroyed the tools of history. If this trend continues, there will come a time when we will not be able to differentiate history from tales.

Third: The attack coincides with the upcoming elections and that is not mere coincidence.

The icon builders

A thick web of tales is woven around the legend of king Shivaji over the period of a century. The Shahiri (singers who praise the king) tradition, which portrays the life of the king Shivaji in black and white with no shades of grey, has sunk deep into the consciousness of Marathi speaking people. Not just the legend of king Shivaji, but also the icons of Dnyaneshwar, Tukaram, Gandhi, Phule and Ambedkar have been developed on lines of different castes. Any laudable qualities that are associated with Shivaji Maharaj are attributed to this caste appropriation and any unworthy, despicable traits are imposed on the ‘other’ – enemy image. Thus, the a-historical game is played and replayed again and again.

The patrons of political power brokers cannot resist the temptation of deriving mileage from this ongoing process. This paradigm is used mainly to build the Hindu and the Musalman as inimical forces. It is essential to keep the antagonism burning with such tales as that of the daughter-in-law of Kalyan’s Subedar, who used the box of fruits to escape from Agra. However, genuine history is more subtle than such a rendering allows it. All the great historical personalities have been products of their time. Icon building is an emotionally charged exercise that blocks the passage of rational enquiry.

Narratives woven around personalities in the process of this icon building do not constitute history. They do, however, serve as important clues to interpret the current social climate and ethos. Based on this, the author claims to have traced the process leading to consolidation of Hindu and Muslim identities in his book. In case of the narratives alive in the minds of people, the referencing is futile. For example, there is a narrative that Saint Tukaram attained salvation ‘Sadeha’ i.e., not only of his soul but also his body. It is difficult and futile to trace the source of such a narrative. Research should focus on whether the narrative is alive, what it conceals and what it highlights. However, one is not in a position to express an opinion on the book because the book is not available due to a legal ban.

Ban after ban

Normally parents, presuming that their children are ignorant, decide what they should or should not read and see. In the same vein, the government and patrons of vandalism presume that the masses are ignorant and ban something or the other day in and day out. Just a glance at the list of such bans, or violent protests demanding bans, proves this point: books like Me and Gandhihatya (I and Gandhi’s Assassination) by Gopal Godse, a book on Savarkar by two foreign authors, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, Riddles of Hinduism by Dr. Ambedkar; dramas like Avadhya by Khanolkar, Ghashiram Kotwal by Vijay Tendulkar, the Last Temptation of Christ, Me Nathuram Boltoi (I Am Nathuram Speaking) by Pradeep Dalvi; films like Garam Hawa by MS Sathyu, Fire and Water by Deepa Mehta; and paintings by MF Hussain.

This tradition of intolerance is carried forward from our past. The self-proclaimed ‘religious’ tendency destroyed Tukaram’s manuscripts. Since bans on ‘indecency’ are not the topic of this article, it is sufficient to state that those bans have a different logic.

Calling for a ban by threatening social violence has helped build a constituency many times in the past. The craze to consolidate this constituency does not stop short of the bans, it ostracises people who hold disagreeable views and it also attempts (and often succeeds) in eliminating opponents. This too has roots in our tradition. A tradition that has ostracised Dnyaneshwar, executed, clandestinely and brutally, Chokha Mela and Chakradhar Sawmy. The act of murdering Gandhi by Nathuram has its roots in the same intolerant tradition. The very tendencies belonging to this tradition murdered Graham Staines and his two sons in January 1999.

None of these murderers were lunatics. They have an ideology: their ideology. These ideologies need to be countered through effective protests, writing and other public expressions. Such acts of vandalism need to be stopped with courage. Calling for bans on opponents or on their thoughts and finally justifying their execution is no remedy.

Stepping stones to power

Stifling dissent is the motive behind an official or unofficial ban. Having tasted success, power brokers have refined their technique. Just as the use of women’s bodies in advertisements increases the sale of products, the vicious circle of hatred and violence pays dividends in terms of ‘popularity’ attained, opinions polarised and economic and political power consolidated. This can be seen in Maharashtra and throughout India as well. For example, consider the violence against South Indians in Maharashtra in1968, communal violence after demolishing the Babri Masjid in 1992-1993, the genocide after the Godhra carnage in Gujarat in 2002. These acts have helped the Shiv Sena to grow, the BJP to attain power at the Centre and in Gujarat.

Similar aims might have motivated the patrons of the Sambhaji Brigade during the current pre-election scenario where bargains are being struck for success at the polls. In Maharashtra, the Maratha lobby enjoyed power for a long time. The ruling Maratha lobby has had the support of OBCs in the past. The changing equations are making it difficult for the Marathas to retain power. Today Maratha power brokers are scattered in the tents of the Congress, Rashtravadi Congress (NCP), Maratha Seva Sangh, Maratha Mahasangh, Chava and Sambhaji Brigade, Shiv Rajya Party, Shiv Dharma, etc. Their one-time OBC supporters have joined the ranks of the Shiv Sena, the Bajrang Dal and even the BJP, etc.

News reports on, and reactions to, the attack on BORI bring out these ruptures along caste lines in the erstwhile Maratha monolith. One can club the reactions in three main categories: 1) unequivocal condemnation, 2) soft-peddling by qualifying with ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ 3) outright justification.

These are largely on caste lines and received along caste lines. The scattered Maratha power brokers have a love-hate relationship with the Brahmanical saffron sangh parivar power brokers who have mastered the technique of reaping the harvests of violence fanned by hatred. The power brokers who thrive on the iconic image of Shivaji have maintained a calculated silence and avoided antagonising any faction of the Maratha lobby since the elections are imminent.

Sentimentality or sensitivity?

Hatred can brew anywhere on the lines of caste, religion, language, or nationality. Those who reap the harvest of hate invite fascism and drag the whole of society towards destruction. Iconic legends built along caste and religious lines have emotionally blinded battalions of unemployed youth and also permanently polarised them along caste and religious lines. Poor and unemployed youth have become the lethal combustible fuel in the game plan.

Our political or social priorities show scant sensitivity to issues like the right to education, to food, to work, to water, rights that are denied to large sections of our people. In turn, alienation results and a deep cynicism about life grows within. These alienated cynical sections then become fodder for the power brokers. Any act seen as ‘touching’ one of the icons is enough to send them into convulsions of violence. Unfortunately, there is no scarcity of icons and legends on the one hand and unemployed youth on the other!

Over a period of time, those directly involved in acts of violence get isolated. They fail to understand why they committed those misdeeds, why conscience was lost, what the temptations were, why they lost their humanity, etc. However, the opportunity to capture this remorse is lost as the power brokers discard them and march ahead. Our nation is busy producing such leaders with their combustible fodder.

The conscience-free leadership prides itself on the police security provided to them, which is a direct result of the reign of insecurity that they breed. Today a reign of insecurity engulfs writers, journalists, artists. And now, even institutes like BORI. The clamour now is for police security, techno-savvy security equipment and high walls.

Capitalising on violence, hatred and riots tears apart the fabric of democracy and brings the day of Hitler’s reincarnation closer. Therefore, instead of referring to the attackers as ‘lunatics’, they and their political power brokers need to be squarely condemned. Simultaneously, to curtail the constant supply of combustible youth-fuel, basic issues like education, unemployment, food, health, water and electricity have to be tackled on a war footing. Today the state is withdrawing from the social sector, resulting in a fearful cynicism. It seems the days of prudent leadership are over. Now it is the masses who themselves have to take stock. Isolate the power brokers who reap harvests on hatred. In short, the masses need to become prudent. That seems to be the only way.

(Prakash Burte is a social activist from Mumbai).


[ Subscribe | Contact Us | Archives | Khoj | Aman ]
[ Letter to editor  ]

Copyrights © 2002, Sabrang Communications & Publishing Pvt. Ltd.