Reading James Laine: Allegations and Reality

Mr. Venkatesan’s post motivated me enough to read James Laine’s book on Shivaji over the weekend. While recognizing that I am no historian and my previous knowledge of the late king is pretty much limited to the high school history text, I am inclined to believe that his work is based on considerable research, remains quite modest in its scope and undoubtedly merits respect rather than the contemptuous outrage that it has unwittingly managed to elicit.
The author was well aware of the sensitivities involved and he stated as much when he laid out in the beginning what he intends to achieve (p.8):

“Whereas the explicit purpose of Shivaji’s early biographers – the chroniclers, panegyrists, and balladeers – was to celebrate his feats and victories, and the explicit purpose of twentieth-century historians was to find the historical Shivaji, the implicit purpose of all of them was to construct a coherent narrative not only of his life, but also of the cultural history of Hindu Maharashtra. This narrative of cultural identity is almost seamless, almost taken for granted, almost fully consistent with the virtues and ideals informing the accounts of how Maharashtra, and India, came to be what we are today, and how eternal principles of good and evil have contended in that deceptively coherent story. The textbook serves as a reminder to me that any narrative held within it clues to the rules of its formation, and that besides the questions of what it was Shivaji really did and did not do was the question of what he came to mean for Maharashtrians as a hero, as a Hindu, and as a nationalist freedom fighter.

…The task that I have set myself is not that of providing a more accurate account of Shivaji’s life by stripping away the legends attributed to him by worshipful myth makers or misguided ideologues, but rather to be a disturber of the tranquility with which synthetic accounts of Shivaji’s life are accepted, mindful that the recording and retaining of any memory of Shivaji is interested knowledge.”

Throughout the narrative he sticks faithfully to this limited objective. The book has a whole chapter on ‘the political readings of Hindu identity in the tales of Shivaji’. He provides numerous examples all along of how ‘the many biographies of Shivaji that were composed over the last hundred and fifty years [are] expressions of a host of different political and cultural interests, each reflecting the particular concerns of its author’ (p.64). This was partly because Shivaji fitted well into both the Hindu revivalist and the liberal/progressive ideological projects (which predate Savarkar):

“Thus the British might jail those who, like Tilak and Savarkar, saw Shivaji as their model for Hindu revival and revolution, or they might celebrate with those who, like Shahu, saw their enlightened government as a reminder of Shivaji’s progressive initiatives in religion, military technology, and government administration. But both sides contributed to a standard mythic narrative that celebrated Shivaji as both a hero and a nation builder”(p.80).

He raises some questions because “beneath the surface of the taken-for-granted narrative, one can detect, however, a few traces of concern about the coherence of the story, places where the authors played a role in buttressing their account against the cracks that might form across its gleaming surface”(p.88). He is in fact quite deferential in his approach and states unambiguously that presenting the ‘true’ picture of Shivaji is not his intention:

“…I do not mean to present a kind of debunker’s portrait of Shivaji, warts and all. I have no intention of showing that he was unchivalrous, was a religious bigot, or oppressed the peasants. I have no intention of being a latter-day Grant Duff, revealing the “real” Shivaji to be a violent marauder”(p.90). He also explains the purpose of his examination:

“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. 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). Unfortunately, that is where the problem began.

Some of his comments that are considered controversial relate to how particular biographers and commentators depicted him and his conquests. The Indian Express provided statements/phrases from three of the four paragraphs that the SC has asked him to withdraw.

As can be seen, the first two of those are Laine’s judgement of how other writers viewed the significance of Shivaji’s conquests. The first objection (para 2) was to this remark (p.25): “Looking back from the coronation in 1674, the killing of Afzal Khan in 1659 was not simply an act of courage, it was premeditated violence in the service of the brahmanic world order”. If one reads his quotation from Paramanda’s Sivabharata which preceded this sentence (click here to read the relevant paragraphs), his brahmanical prejudices are plainly evident – the evil-Muslim-versus-good-caste-cow-and-brahmin-loving-Hindu theme looks very much like a 17th century version of the VHP playbook. That conclusion was simply a statement of the obvious, i.e., of what Paramanda felt, not Laine’s own sentiment about the act.

The second objection (para 5) was to the quote: “In other words, Shivaji’s secularism can only be assured if we see him as motivated less by patriotism than by simple quest of power.” Here again, in all the preceding sentences and paragraphs (click here for relevant paragraphs) he was talking of Justice M.G.Ranade’s work, the ‘enormously influential’ Rise of the Maratha Power. The sentence referred to a problem that people like Ranade who were committed to social reform and secularism faced in dealing with Shivaji:

“…Thus Ranade and Keluskar could not escape a certain cultural logic made explicit by Tilak: If Shivaji was the father of the nation, he was a Hindu nationalist, a religious nationalist, and not really a secularist. There is an irony here, for Shivaji may have been far more secular and pragmatic than he could be potrayed by Chitnis or Mahapati. The modern writer, even if he is a committed secularist reformer like Ranade, cannot strip away the religious mythification of Shivaji’s life without endangering much of what makes his life heroic, what makes his biography a patriotic narrative. In other words, Shivaji’s secularism can only be assured if we see him as motivated less by patriotism than by simple quest for power.” Again, this is primarily a judgment about how others saw Shivaji, not of what he (Laine) thought of him.

The third passage was where Laine mentioned Shivaji’s absentee father. The sentence reads (p.93): “The repressed awareness that Shivaji had an absentee father is also revealed by the fact that Maharashtrians tell jokes naughtily suggesting that his guardian Dadaji Konddev was his biological father”. Here, through that and its preceding paragraph, Laine was trying to make the point that Maharashtrians are acutely aware of how the absence of a father must have affected Shivaji. Read in context (click here for the relevant paragraphs), it is clear that this is one piece of evidence that he presents as part of his analysis of the Maharashtrian psyche and he was definitely not hinting at Jijabai’s (Shivaji’s mother) infidelity.

I do not know what the fourth paragraph is. But looking at how these three turned out, it is a mystery to me how ‘the interest of justice would be best served’ by deleting them. The SC was clearly wrong to come up with this proposal. J. Pasayat’s past record in the Clemenceau case provides little comfort for it suggests that he does not think much of the freedom of speech in any case. While I hope that the court recognizes its error, I would therefore not bet on it.

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  • Dear Dilip,
    Good post! I’m equally inspired to read the book. I wish Justice Pasayat read it before suggesting those deletions to the author.

  • Mr Dilip wrote:

    “If one reads his quotation from Paramanda’s Sivabharata which preceded this sentence (click here to read the relevant paragraphs), his brahmanical prejudices are plainly evident – the evil-Muslim-versus-good-caste-cow-and-brahmin-loving-Hindu theme looks very much like a 17th century version of the VHP playbook.”

    Not unless the quotation is read with 21st century political preferences and prejudices. For instance, in the translation of Paramanda, Laine uses the hyphenated word, ‘caste-dharma’. Why the conjoining of the English ‘caste’ with Sanskrit ‘dharma’? So that the result supports the caste-cow-brahmin theory that Laine is hinting at? “Caste” today is a very loaded word — what was it in Paramananda’s original? Moreover, the last stanza seems a paraphrasing (perhaps even a direct quotation) of Bhagavad Gita: did Laine get the translation right? Is he attributing quotes by Praramanda of Hindu scriptures to Paramanda himself?

    Gandhi belived in cow protection too, and believed in varnashrama-dharma (not “caste-dharma”) as well. Does that make his independence struggle a quest for the restoration of “brahmanical order”?

    I do not attribute any mala fides to Laine, and I also believe that the honourable judges erred in asking him to delete the afore-mentioned passages. (Pratap Bhanu Mehta has an excellent article on this issue in Indian Express today.) However, I do suspect Laine applied his own skewed and conditioned understanding of India and Hinduism to his book on Shivaji, rather than a truly open-mided, ideology-free exploration of his life and times.

  • Dear “ot”,
    Thanks for your comment.
    Firstly, the word dharma is often used in the sense of ‘duty’ which is what I think it means here when used with ‘caste’ – in the Hindu scriptures, protection of Brahmins is enjoined upon other castes, particularly kshatriyas,as a religious duty. Though I have not read the original non-English version, I have no reason to suspect any agenda on Laine’s behalf in stating so. Secondly, the significance of caste in political terms may be different today (‘loaded’ as you call it) but I do not believe the meaning of the term itself has changed at all – it still refers to an endogamous class of people bound by ties of their traditional occupation.

    Thirdly, Gandhiji played two prominent roles, one as a political leader leading the independence movement and the other as a social reformer fighting untouchability. Whatever one thinks of his social views, I do not believe it taints his leadership of the independence struggle.

    Gandhiji, as you point out, did believe in protecting cows and the varnashrama dharma but he did not approve of the hierarchy of varnas/jaatis or of any step that might abolish those distinctions (such as marriage between them) or even of abolition of that system as a goal of social reform. So, I would say that Gandhiji believed in reforming the brahminical order, not in abolishing it (which is where he differed from Ambedkar and others). So, to answer your question, yes, he did believe in the brahmanical order but not in the form that it existed at that time.

    Though Laine makes occasional comments without substantiation (such as the rarity of coerced religious conversions for which he offers no support either way), the evidence he presents generally supports the inferences he draws. For that reason, I would respectfully disagree. I believe that he has a good understanding of Indian society and conducted his inquiry as an independent and impartial exercise.

  • Dear “ot”,

    I just realized that I probably did not address your first question about Laine’s use of the term caste-dharma as against varnashrama dharma which, as I understand, is what you think is more likely. I assume that the translation has been done diligently but even if it is varna instead of caste, all else remaining same, the tag of ‘brahmanism’ would not be affected.