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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 30, July 17, 2010

The Overriding Task


Thursday 22 July 2010, by SC

Last Friday, that is, on July 9, the Supreme Court upheld an order of the Bombay High Court to lift a four-year-old ban imposed by the Maharashtra Government on the publication and circulation of American scholar David Laine’s book, Shivaji: The Hindu King in Muslim India.

Shortly after the verdict, which was hailed by activists as a “boost for freedom of speech”, the advocate representing Laine and the Oxford University Press hoped that henceforth governments would be more circumspect instead of taking such steps like banning publications. But that was not to be.

It may be recalled that in January 2004 Laine’s book had enraged Maharashtra’s chauvinists to such an extent that the so-called Sambhaji Brigade had vandalised the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune where the US scholar did his research. Several rare manuscripts in the Institute were destroyed and scholars harassed. That incident was followed by the ruling Congress/NCP dispensation in the State deciding to ban the book and justifying the measure on the ground that that was what the public “desired”. (One is well aware of the mechanism by which such a public “desire” can be manipulated by vested interests including chauvinists of varied hues.) Now following the July 9 SC verdict, the Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly demanded an apology from the Maharashtra Home Minister for the government’s “failure” to “defend” Shivaji’s honour in the judicial proceedings, whereas the latter as well as the State CM responded to the demand by seeking to enact a new law to prevent the “defamation” of icons of the nation and the State.

In fact the SC judgement has been roundly criticised, if not attacked, by parties across the Maharashtra political spectrum with the Sambhaji Brigade threatening that if the government did not take action by August 15, “we will take action in our style”. Instead of resolving to counter this menace the Congress/NCP Government in the State has only cowtowed to the threat by asserting that its opposition (read hostility) to the book remains as strong as before. The civilisational approach to the problem has thus been dismissed and what we witness in its place is competitive chauvinism in order to placate the ultra-nationalist fringe in society represented by the Senas. This is tragic especially when the central leadership of the Congress adopts the role of a passive onlooker and refrains from actively intervening in the matter in defence of freedom of speech. Laine’s apology from the US has had little effect on his detractors, if at all.

As if this was not enough, the Maharashtra leaders are taking the politics of competitive chauvinism to newer heights with CM Ashok Chavan demanding that Belgaum and 865 Marathi-speaking villages in Karnataka (on the Maharashtra-Karnataka border) be declared a Union Territory till the SC pronounces their status. And this has been accompanied by the Maharashtra Assembly adopting a resolution urging the Centre to revisit the border dispute.

The least that the national leadership of the Congress can do is to rebuff such attempts to whip up chauvinist frenzy with all the strength it commands. However, its handling of crisis situations, especially in the light of the latest events in Kashmir, does not inspire much confidence. The deployment of the Army in Srinagar and its environs as well as the all-party meeting in the J&K capital has helped to somewhat tensions in that State for the present no doubt, but as of now precious little has been done to remove the sense of alienation that has gripped the Kashmiri public in the wake of the sizeable number of deaths of teenagers and children due to the security forces running amok in the Valley.

While External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna’s visit to Pakistan and talks with his Pakistani counterpart focusing on the issue of terror is most welcome particularly when Islamabad too has reacted positively to the same subject in view of the terror attacks Pakistanis themselves are facing today, the domestic situation presents a dismal picture. The Kashmir developments are being blamed by many, including the armed forces, on the incapacity of the local administration to reach out to the people at large. The PM and Union Home Minister’s meeting with the CMs of the Maoist-affected States may have resulted in the decision to set up a unified command for the Central and State police forces to ensure better coordination in the anti-Maoist operations, but it also brought out the differences notably among the CMs of Chhattisgarh and Bihar with Nitish Kumar observing that “enforcement action alone leads to wider alienation” and “Naxals are a part of our society even though they have been misled” even as Raman Singh rejected all efforts at dialogue with the Maoists saying it “will not serve any purpose” and maintaining that as “Naxalism and terrorism are two faces of the same coin” only “decisive battle is necessary” and “there is no alternative except armed resistance” to the Maoist assaults. At the same time the Chhattisgarh Government is continually harassing human rights activists (including one of the country’s best anthropologists) by branding them as “Maoists” thereby provoking the latter to decry its “facist” proclivities.

Against the backdrop of such complexities it is high time the Central leadership adopts a new course to deal with all these problems confronting our polity. This is the overriding task before the Centre today.

July 15 S.C.

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