Rioting in Pune — over narrative cracks

Both when it confronts foreign cultures in the real world and when it confronts imaginary cultures (compare “Celebrating the Aztecs”), the Minneapolis Star Tribune is simply incapable of reporting essential background with sufficient depth to make the story comprehensible. Today the Star Tribune runs a story by higher ed reporter Mary Jane Smetanka that requires a bit more than she is able to bring to it, but that is nevertheless worthy of serious consideration: “Macalester professor’s book incites a riot a world away.”
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Let’s take a look: “Macalester College religious studies Prof. Jim Laine thought his little book on Shivaji, a 17th-century Indian king who established a small Hindu kingdom between two Muslim powers, was an interesting addition to his research. ‘I didn’t want it to be bland,’ he said Thursday. ‘But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine people rampaging through the streets.’
“The thin volume apparently helped spur a riot Monday in Pune, India, when Hindu extremists stormed the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, where Laine had done his research. According to a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, more than 150 people armed with bats and chains forced their way into the well-known institute, tearing pages from rare Sanskrit manuscripts, smashing a statue, breaking windows and destroying ancient writings on palm leaves. Officials said at least 25 rare old manuscripts were stolen.
“Allegedly at the heart of the dispute is Laine, who this week was working in his quiet office 8,000 miles away on a St. Paul campus deserted during winter break. He said he was ‘heartbroken’ at the thought of the damage that has been done. ‘But as a friend of mine says, religion is a contact sport,’ he said. ‘We in this country tend to think of it as a tea-room discussion, but many people around the world take this very seriously.’
“Laine has built his career and in many ways his life around Pune, a city of 2.5 million people south of Bombay. As a graduate student, he lived there for a year in 1980, writing his dissertation. He met his wife there. He’s been back a dozen times, staying as long as six months to translate Sanskrit documents at the now-vandalized institute. His book ‘Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India,’ was published a year ago by Oxford University Press. The slight 144-page volume spurred a few laudatory e-mails from colleagues and interested Indians around the world. The first sign of trouble, Laine said, came about a month ago, when he began getting e-mails from people calling on him to apologize ‘for shameful things I’d written.’ He got a notice from the publisher that the book had been pulled from the Indian market.
“Then, members of a right-wing Hindu party called Shiv Sena attacked one of Laine’s colleagues in his office at the institute, painting his face with tar. In the preface of his book, Laine had thanked the man for his help. Laine immediately faxed a letter to Indian newspapers, apologizing for offending anyone and urging people to recognize that he alone was responsible for the book. He said he thought things were calming down until this week’s assault on the institute.
“Shivaji is revered as a symbol of Hindu independence and power in the region around Pune. The king established a separate Hindu kingdom in 1674 between two Muslim powers and it survived as an important Hindu power until the British took over, Laine said. The controversy about the book apparently stems from the last chapter, which raises questions about what Laine calls ‘the cracks in the narrative’ about Shivaji. One issue Laine explores is the fact that the king’s parents did not live together for much of his life and that his father moved south and had another family. [The photo above by Tom Sweeney depicts Prof. Laine with an effigy of King Shivaji.]
“‘That’s the [chapter] that caused all the controversy,’ Laine said. He said some people consider that chapter disrespectful to the mythic character Shivaji has become. Rumors have spread on the Internet that Laine’s book claims Shivaji had a different biological father. The book does not say that, Laine said. He said extremists are using his book as an excuse for violence.
“‘This is just a hijacking of my scholarship,’ he said. ‘Nobody’s reading my book. I apologized and it wasn’t enough — they don’t want it to end, they are using it to continue their cause.’ His friends in Pune are under police protection. He said he hopes to return to do more work at the institute, ‘but certainly I’m not going next week.’
“‘Maybe next year things will look a lot different,’ Laine said. ‘It’s the area of India where I’ve done all my work, all my research. All my friends are there; it’s a wonderful place. It’s a peculiar situation with the political forces at work. If I’d written this 10 years ago, no one would have noticed.'”

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