PUCL Bulletin, March 2004

The politics behind the vandalism of Bhandarkar Institute

-- By Asghar Ali Engineer

The recent attack on Bhandarkar Institute in Pune by the Sambhaji Brigade is highly condemnable. In fact no words are enough to condemn such vandalism. Such attacks were highly condemnable even in medieval ages.

How can then such acts be justified in 21st century? But yet we see such vandalism, taking place in our own times and under our very nose and we feel helpless. The Government does not seem to be interested in taking action for its own political reasons particularly in this election year.
Howsoever condemnable the act might be it is necessary to understand politics behind it, especially the caste politics. It is also important to note denunciation or silence about it and its nuances. Also important is to note communal overtones or undertones of its condemnation. The modern India is undergoing turmoil along caste and communal lines and such events needs to be placed in proper perspective for this reason.

Such vandalism whether it took place in the past or in the present cannot be ascribed, as we often do, to mere religious or caste fanaticism. It always has a political message behind it. Some universities were vandalised in the past by Muslim invaders. We often ascribe it to mere Islamic fanaticism. It is far from true. It is strange that some scholars including some ‘progressive scholars’ are unearthing these past events and comparing the attack in Pune to those past vandalism. It clearly shows we are still unable to overcome our conscious or unconscious caste and communal attitudes.

An editorial in a Marathi daily from Mumbai condemned this act invoking
Mughal rule. The caption of the editorial was “Punyatil Mughlai” i.e. Mughal vandalism in Pune. This betrays the attitude of editors of the daily. They think such vandalism was indulged into by Mughal rulers and this has been repeated in Pune. In fact such vandalism, as pointed out above, did take place in the past but by outside invaders in 11th and 12th centuries and not during the Mughal period. In fact the Mughals have contributed richly to our composite culture. There is hardly any field be it architecture, painting, music, literature, food, dresses in which they have not contributed. Our culture will be poorer without this contribution. Why then compare the acts like the one in Pune with ‘Mughal vandalism’. Even Mughals would be ashamed of such an act.

Some other ‘progressive scholars’ invoked another mythical act to compare with Pune vandalism. It was said that the 2nd Caliph, Umar destroyed the Alexandria library by saying that if the Qur’an contains all knowledge these books are useless and if these books contain knowledge other than that of Qur’an they are of no use. This myth was systematically spread by those hostile to Islam and Islamic power. The fact is that the library in Alexandria was destroyed much before it was conquered by Muslims during the Umar’s time. This points out widespread communal attitude among Indian intelligentsia even of the progressive variety.

Another thing we would like to emphasise here is that there is always a political message behind such acts. Those who know understand this message. The Pune act was also not without this political message. Either the conqueror or the invader displays his power and leaves the message that his conquest is complete and no one dare stop him from doing this or he destroys it because the institution was controlled by the ruler and was considered as most prestigious. Its destruction showed helplessness of the defeated ruler. One can say this of many temples destroyed by the Muslim invaders also. Destruction was not an act of religious fanaticism but an act to show that the ruler was unable to protect the temple of his own deity and so lost all legitimacy to rule.

The act of vandalism in Pune with the slogan that this is just the beginning and that Shaniwarwada (a stronghold of Brahmins) still remains is indicative of the caste war in Maharashtra. Shivaji is a symbol and remarks in James Laines book only an excuse for the destructive action. Pune is the cultural centre of Maharashtra and culture and knowledge is considered as a monopoly of Brahmins. Bhandarker was a liberal progressive Brahmin and the Institute named after him is storehouse of knowledge of which any scholar could be and should be justly proud.

It is quite significant to note that the alleged remarks against Shivaji and his mother were made by James Laine, not by anyone associated with the Bhandarkar Oriental Institute and yet this Institute was ransacked. If the leaders of the Sambhaji Brigade really wanted to show their love for Shivaji they should have demanded ban on the books instead of ransacking of the famous Institute. But they chose to vandalise Bhandarkar Institute instead.
Thus the purpose was not so much as to protest against Bhandarkar Institute but to attack the institute considered to be the storehouse of Brahminical knowledge and controlled by the Brahmins. And that is why they raised the slogan “yeh to ek jhanki hai, abhi Shaniwarwada baqi hai” i.e. it is just the beginning and Shaniwarwada is yet to be attacked. The attack was not so much on the books as on the Brahminism and Brahminical culture.

There is acute struggle for political, social and cultural supremacy between various castes in India and in Maharashtra particularly between the Brahmins and Marathas. It is said that three M’s (i.e. Marathas, Muslims and Mahars i.e. dalits) always vote for the Congress and the BJP, the Party supposedly of the Brahmins is trying to capture Maharashtra along with the Shiv Sena. The Marathas would not like to loose their political hegemony in Maharashtra at any cost.

It is also important to note that the attack came after the NCP of Sharad Pawar failed to negotiate political alliance with the Shiv Sena-BJP in Maharashtra. The message is loud and clear: Do not try to seize political power from Marathas. It would not be acceptable. And of course Shivaji is the symbol of Maratha power as he fought against the Mughals to retain his sovereignty. The Bhandarkar Institute provided facilities to James Laine to write the book on Shivaji with a purpose to defame him. Thus it was Brahminical “conspiracy” to de-legitimise the Maratha power. This cannot be tolerated in any case.

The NCP of Sharad Pawar is in alliance with the Congress in Maharashtra and for this reason the Government of Maharashtra is not acting strongly enough against the leader of the Shambhaji Brigade. The police did arrest 72 persons but have not touched the leader who is close to NCP leaders and ministers.

The Government is silent about the whole episode and Sharad Pawar, while speaking in the Marathi Writers conference even advised the writers to be sensitive to people’s sentiments. The Government moved swiftly to ban the book and might take action against the publishers Oxford University Press. The Publishers had already withdrawn the copies of the book.

The Shiv Sena also faces dilemma. Earlier its men blackened the face of Sanskrit scholar Shrikant Bahulkar for helping James Laine to write biography of Shivaji in which he defamed him. It shocked the author of Shivaji’s biography and a noted scholar Gajanan Mehendale, tore off his biographical manuscript written after 30 years of research. The Shiv Sena realised the mistake and apologised. However, the Sena leadership is silent on the act of Shambhaji Brigade for obvious reasons. If it condemns, it alienates Marathas which it cannot afford to do it in this election year. If it supports it, it would alienate the BJP’s Brahmanical powerful vote bank of Brahmins.

It is quite likely that the action was planned with secret approval of a political party looking forward to Maratha votes in the coming Loksabha elections. Each party today has its own caste basis and all calculations are made with a view to these caste or community vote banks. The BJP in the eighties had launched a powerful attack on the Congress saying that it indulges in appeasement of Muslims to sustain and strengthen its vote bank and this greatly appealed to the upper caste middle class Hindus and they began voting for the BJP. The impression was given as if the BJP does not cultivate any vote bank and only the Congress does by ‘appeasing’ the Muslims.
In fact caste and community vote banks are an important consideration for all political parties. And the BJP has created its own powerful vote bank among the upper castes and also has successfully wooed backward caste and class Hindus by raising the religious issue like the Ramjanambhoomi and rode to power by demolishing Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

It is unfortunate fact of our political life even in the 21st century that such vandalism be it of Babri Masjid, or of Wali Gujrati’s mausoleum in Ahmedabad or of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune are resorted to for political power struggle and such acts are defended shamelessly. Such vandalism is not monopoly of any single caste or community. We must learn painfully that human interests play much greater role in power politics than values and issues.

In all such attacks politicians gain and innocent human lives or rich cultural heritage loose out. This has been the history of thousands of years and nothing has changed even in the twenty first century.


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