All those who value scholarship, and the free exchange of ideas that it entails, will be shocked and shamed by the fate that visited India’s premier institute of oriental studies on Monday. Pune’s Bhandarkar Oriental Institute, founded in 1917 to commemorate the great contribution made by Ramakrishna Gopal Bhandarkar to Indian orientology, houses some of the most invaluable manuscripts in this field. It was this institution that a bunch of hoodlums, calling themselves the Sambhaji Brigade of the Maratha Seva Sangh, chose to target in their politically calibrated anger against British historian James W. Laine’s book, Shivaji: Hindu king in Islamic India.
The book, they claim, dishonours the Maratha warrior king, Shivaji. The Bhandarkar institute come in their range of fire because one of the scholars cited by Laine happens to be a member of the institute’s managing committee. The sheer outrage and ignorance of it all! By vandalising the Bhandarkar institute, these cultural zealots were destroying their own history that an institution like this one had painstakingly endeavoured to preserve. This monkeying around with history for political dividends must be put an end to, once and for all, if India is to be taken seriously in the academic world. To start with, the authorities must ensure that those who perpetrated Monday’s attack meet with swift punishment so that others who are tempted to “correct” the writing of history are made conscious of the dire consequences that follow and deterred from doing so.
The writing of history must be left to historians. Of course, this is a highly contested field for the very reason that historical fact impinges on contemporary identities and attitudes, but those who partake in this debate must be trained to do so. We cannot have the mob write our history for us. Every time we compromise on this principle, every time a publishing house allows itself to recall a book, every time the authorities fail to punish the vandals, every time politicians seize such issues for narrow political gains, every time the barbarian at the gate is accommodated, we fail not just our academics but our historical legacy of open scholarship.