And Freedom Of Speech
By Manu Bhagavan
30 March, 2004
James Laine, a professor
of religious studies at Macalester College
in MN, is facing arrest through interpol for writing a
book entitled SHIVAJI: HINDU KING IN ISLAMIC INDIA. As a result of its
publication, Indian scholars and scholarly institutes in Western India
(Maharashtra) have been harassed and ransacked. The controversy has
grown to such ridiculous proportions that the Indian Prime Minister
has commented on the book, "warning" Laine, and the Maharashtragovernment
has called for his ARREST through Interpol.
If you don't have
the book, get it! It is quite good. As with
The Satanic Verses and The Myth of the Holy Cow (or Harry
Potter for that matter), those who seek its ban have
usually not read the book in question and certainly
have no desire for nuance or precision.
SHIVAJI: HINDU KING
IN ISLAMIC INDIA is about the role
of myth and legend in the construction of historical memory.
One claim in the book in particular has raised people's
ire---that Shivaji's mother may have had an affair with
someone other than his "real" father. For this, Indian
politicians have claimed that Indian pride has been
insulted and that this is an insult to the nation.
It's a shame that
the nation has such thin skin, but it is
also easy to see why nationalists would be so threatened
by this book. I've looked at the passages in question.
They are in Chapter 5 of the book, especially in the
first, full paragraph on p. 93. Without a doubt in my
mind, this controversy is a bunch of nonsense---politically
motivated through and through. Laine begins this chapter
with a quote from W.E.B. DuBois. Let me requote it for
you: "[O]ne is astonished in the study of history at the
recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten,
distorted, skimmed over.... We must forget that George
Washington was a slaveowner...and simply remember
the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. The
difficulty with this philosophy is that history loses its
value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect
men and noble nations, but does not tell the truth."
Shivaji is one of
these perfect heroes in mythic history.
Laine's goal is to illustrate the tensions between myth
and history, not by historically proving one thing or another,
but by raising a panoply of "questions that haven't or
can't be asked." By revealing the gap between what is
known or thought to be known, and the unasked (let
alone unanswered) questions, Laine hopes to provide
foundation for further serious, historical inquiry.
To this end, he
begins with a discussion of Texas and
myths related to Davy Crockett and the Alamo (timely,
given the new movie coming out on this topic). He then
states: "My primary claim is not that I have a truer, more
objective history than the standard accounts. What I
would prefer to do is look once again at the emerging
narrative that we have considered to see those places
where the authors themselves have carefully avoided
saying something, or where they say something rather
abruptly in order to answer some unexpressed concern.
Such a pursuit will allow us NOT TO SEE THE "REAL"
SHIVAJI BUT TO BETTER APPRECIATE THE IDEOLOGICAL
CONCERNS OF THE MANY AUTHORS WHO HAVE
SHAPED THE NARRATIVE TRADITION OF SHIVAJI'S
LEGENDARY LIFE. [Caps added for emphasis] The real
issue is what the authors are saying about themselves,
about the dreams they hold, the dreams they see
expressed in the tales of their hero." (p. 90)
Laine then broaches
the "unthinkable thoughts" and dares
to ask questions that haven't been asked. Among 5
questions, can we imagine, he asks, if Shivaji had an
unhappy family life. In an elaborate multi-page answer to
this question, Laine provides some speculation, not
quite idle, but not "proof of the fact" either. But his goal
is not to prove a point of view, but precisely only to
illustrate people's popular ideas versus some "thoughts
that cannot be thought." To this end, Laine states on
p. 93: "The repressed awareness that Shivaji has an
absentee father is also revealed by the fact that
Maharashtrians tell jokes naughtily suggesting that
his guardian Dadaji Konddev was his biological father.
In a sense, because Shivaji's father had little
influence on his son, for many narrators it was
most important to supply him with father replacements,
Dadaji and later Ramdas. But perhaps we read the story
of his life as goverened by motivations buried deep
in his psyche by a mother rejected by her husband.
[This point is discussed on the previous page.] One
could then see that Shivaji's drive to heroism was
spurred by his attempt to please his doting
mother, and that she, aware of her Yadava heritage and
thinking of her husband as a collaborator of low birth,
instilled in her son the dream of a revived Hindu
"None of these
unseemly facts accord well with the family
values of contemporary middle-class Indians, and are
largely ignored in popular modern accounts...."
man was great because of his public deeds,
and as a great man, he is presumed to be a man whose
private virtues informed his domestic life. But, in fact, we
know virtually nothing of his family affairs."
These last lines
are critical, because they acknowledge the
weakness in our historical knowledge. More questions need
to be asked and more research done. Laine does not claim
that he is providing the definitive answers.
Laine's book and
the crisis surrounding it are therefore
battlegrounds on freedom of speech and freedom of
expression issues. How can we pursue ideal, objective
scholarship if certain questions cannot even be asked, let
alone certain answers ever be provided?
One does not have
to agree with Laine's conclusions or
with his assessments. But that is what scholarly debate
is for. Material that "breaks ground" gets us thinking
about new issues, and in new ways. It does not imply that
it is definitive, that it is the "last word." It might or
not be, but we'll only know after healthy, vigorous debate.
But we can't have
that if this debate is clotured before it
is even begun. Banning books only reveals the fear of debate
that the banners have. Which leads to the question: what
are they so afraid of? What gives the banners the right to
determine what we can or cannot discuss, what we can
and cannot think or say? Think about DuBois' prescient
analysis. Therein lies the rub.
Department of History and Political Science
N. Manchester, IN 46962 [USA]