Moral cowardice

The supreme court’s order lifting the ban on James Laine’s biography of Shivaji is not surprising. There was not much opposition to the book from the academic world and the ban went against the right to free speech. It was clear that the objections raised against the book were motivated by politics and inspired by narrow considerations. The book actually became known because of the protests staged by the members of a little-known organisation, the Sambhaji Brigade, and the Shiv Sena which claimed it had made derogatory references to Chhatrapati Shivaji. The Brigade’s hooligans even vandalised the reputed Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune,  which was not associated with the book, except for the fact that James Laine had worked there for some time. It was the chauvinist politics built around Shivaji, who has been made the symbol of Maratha pride, that triggered the trouble. But it was the Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra that banned the book in 2004. That was competitive chauvinism and moral cowardice.

The responses to the supreme court’s order are equally unsurprising. The Brigade and the Sena men have declared that they will not allow the book to be sold. Chief minister Ashok Chavan and home minister R R Patil, who claim to represent liberal parties, have said that they shared the ‘public sentiments’ about Shivaji and did not agree with the supreme court’s decision. That shows that the claims of respect for freedom of speech and expression are all a sham. It is patently wrong for a government to shy away from its constitutional mandate. The Sena brigade is less hypocritical. They do not claim that they respect free speech. The state government should desist from its move to get around judgment as it is not only bound to be struck down by the court as violative of the constitution but also will show the government as intolerant and chauvinist.
The supreme court said that the legal provision that may allow censorship in cases where religious sentiments are hurt is not applicable in the case of historical figures. History and historical figures are always open to scrutiny and re-assessment. A healthy and democratic society should encourage debate and criticism. Glorification of the past and deification of historical figures will only trap the present in the past and endanger the future.

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