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Politics of caste and religion and the ban on the Shivaji book: An interview with Anand Patwardhan

by Jyoti Punwani, 30 July 2010

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The Times of India, 30 July 2010

Q&A: ’Bankrupt caste politics led to ban on Shivaji book’

Bookshops are afraid to stock James Laine’s Shivaj i: Hindu King in Islamic India, even after the Supreme Court struck down the Maharashtra government’s ban on it. Film-maker Anand Patwardhan, one of three petitioners who challenged the ban, speaks to Jyoti Punwani :

What prompted you to challenge the ban?

Ambedkar gave us a Constitution. It is up to us to protect its spirit. Whether it is Ambedkar’s Riddles in Hinduism or works by Taslima Nasreen, we must not allow bullies to dictate what we read. I would oppose a ban even on books i abhor, like those by Golwalkar and Godse. The real inspiration and the legal hard work, however, came from human rights lawyer P A Sebastian. We have won many court battles against the censorship of my documentaries. In each case, the courts upheld my right to freedom of expression and the public’s right to information. Naturally when we heard about a book banned under pressure from right-wing groups, we intervened.

Shivaji is revered in Maharashtra. Didn’t you anticipate an adverse reaction?

Bankrupt caste politics led to the ban. An academic book on Shivaji would have remained largely unnoticed. But our politicians have many economic crimes to hide and identity politics is a convenient public diversion. An emotive rumour that Laine had questioned Shivaji’s paternity spread, since no one had actually read the book. A research institute was attacked, historical manuscripts destroyed, then the publishers were attacked and books burned. The government, dominated by the same caste forces that rampaged in the street, banned the book.

Those opposing the judgement have made it a Maratha Vs Brahmin issue.

No one reads the book so the entire opposition to it is based on hearsay. Incidentally, all the petitioners come from different castes, Dalit, Maratha, Brahmin, though each of us categorically rejects the caste system. In fact, the claim that Laine’s book is a "Brahmin" conspiracy against the "Maratha" Shivaji is so hollow, it could not be articulated even by those who fought for a ban in court. They could only argue that it would cause enmity between those who admire Shivaji and those who don’t.

When the court asked "Who does not admire Shivaji?" there was no answer. The attempt to reduce Shivaji’s greatness to his paternity reveals a desire for sacrosanct bloodlines (Vaunsha and Kula). The very concept of "purity" comes from patriarchal upper castes that had to establish their long lineage to mythical forefathers. So some Marathas proudly claim "Shahannau Kula" (96 forefathers) and some Brahmins maintain immaculate family trees.

Laine himself has no caste axe to grind. He compares texts written in Shivaji’s lifetime where the Brahmin Ramdas is hardly mentioned, with those written in the Brahminical Peshwa period where Ramdas gains prominence as Shivaji’s guru, to texts inspired by the Varkari movement, those written by Mahatma Phule, by the British, each with their distinct motivations. He paints a complex picture of 17th century Maharashtra where cross-religious alliances were the norm.

This complexity is anathema to those who want to use Shivaji as a symbol of Hindutva or who appropriate him as a caste hero. This is not only an injustice to Shivaji, but also to historical and scientific enquiry. Laine’s anatomy of a legend is not the last word on Shivaji. Nor must it be a word that is forbidden.