Wednesday, Feb 01, 2023

Shrinking Heroes

Once again we have a display of the insecurities of the Maratha people....

Once again we have a display of the insecurities of the Maratha people. Even after having their own state for fifty years,the leaders of the Marathi speaking people are out agitating against one page of a book written by a foreign scholar on their hero Shivaji. On a previous occasion too,these agitators had already destroyed a jewel of Maharashtrian,indeed,Indian scholarship when they burned down the Bhandarkar Institute’s Library in Pune. This sort of self abuse continues. Now,even the Congress has joined in the demands that despite the Supreme Court judgment,the book be not sold in Maharashtra. The idea that the Constitution guarantees the right of free speech and within that,access to books which are not banned,is beyond the intelligence of Congress chief ministers nowadays. What matters are vote banks and knee-jerk populism.

What do they think they will achieve by this? Books can be bought online these days. People travel and so can buy the book in other areas of India. Of course,fellow thugs of right extremism may demonstrate elsewhere as well but then India is big and I am sure James W Laine’s book will be easy to get. What is more is that criticisms of Shivaji have been around for decades. I recall Jadunath Sarkar’s writing being debated by historians but no one tried to ban them. C.N.Annadurai,the great Tamil writer and politician,wrote a play which criticised Shivaji for surrendering to Brahminical forces and undergoing a shuddhi ceremony before his coronation to make himself a kshatriya. That being in Tamil and before the creation of Maharashtra has escaped everyone’s notice.

The idea that a hero should be above criticism denotes an insecurity of the admirers rather than a problem with the hero himself. When Jaswant Singh’s book on Jinnah came out,Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi banned it from being sold in Gujarat on the flimsy ground that it could instigate riots in Sardar Patel’s native village,Karamsad. Why anyone should have been offended by what was said in the book—which was based on historical facts—is hard to understand (In any case,it boosted the sales of the Jinnah book). Again the fragility was not in Sardar Patel’s reputation but in the mind of Narendra Modi. Or maybe in the minds of all these defenders of some historic inviolability of their hero,there is merely a desire to shout and destroy to attract attention.

Shivaji’s reputation will survive not only any writing by Laine but even the defence of the Congress Chief Minister and his attempt at being the friend of Shiv Sena. It is astonishing that someone who should be an Indian hero is being made into a parochial,Maratha only,hero. The same goes for Sardar Patel. Why should his name be defended by Gujaratis alone—that is if it needs defending? He is after all an Indian hero. The making of linguistic states has had this fragmenting and parochialising effect on the pantheon of Indian heroes. Apart from Gandhi and Nehru,there are no all-India heroes left.

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The same fate has been visited upon Rabindranath Tagore. Rather than an Indian,or even an Asian figure,he has been stubbornly clasped by the Bengalis to their collective bosom. Recently,we had the London showing of a film Life Goes On directed by Sangeeta Datta in which she has sung some poems of Tagore’s set as Rabindra sangeet. She got Javed Akhtar to translate some of them into Hindi while retaining the music. At the premiere,someone objected that she had ruined the poem by having them sung in Hindi. Bengali and Bengali alone would do for Tagore. And thus,someone who throughout the late 19th and early 20th century was an all-India and indeed a global figure,is being reduced to a parochial figure.

Tagore will also survive the attempts to lock him up in some exclusive Bengali box. His work transcended languages—Bengali as well as English . His music and his paintings are of universal appeal. The attempts to claim exclusive possession to Tagore or Shivaji or Sardar Patel do not harm these heroes. They indicate the insecurities of modern India,the shrinkage of the contemporary leaders,the emasculation of the vision of what India can be.

First published on: 18-07-2010 at 03:42 IST
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