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Bonfire of cupboard of history
- Pune institute continues to count the losses from attack by Sambhaji Brigade
Satish Sangle among the ruins

Pune, Jan. 18: A bonfire crackles to life as the winter night descends on the cheerless group of policemen guarding the ravaged library at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. Drawn by the sudden flicker, a firefly rushes in.

“That was sad,” says the institute’s Man Friday, Ganesh Bagade, who calls himself assistant pressman, watching the insect perish.

“They tried to snuff out the institute’s life, too,” Bagade says, recalling the Sambhaji Brigade’s attack on January 5.

Marauders belonging to the group, which champions the Maratha cause like the Shiv Sena but was started to counter Bal Thackeray’s outfit, ransacked the library in protest against American historian James Laine’s book, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India.

They believed Laine had indirectly questioned Shivaji’s parenthood in a passage. The institute was targeted because the author had acknowledged the assistance of some historians working there.

The damage to books and furniture has been estimated at Rs 1.5 to 2 crore, but scholars at the institute say each day’s search yields realisation of further loss.

“It will take us about two years just to catalogue and piece together the old books,” says Satish Sangle, the librarian.

“Each of us here cried that day. We felt so violated and abused,” says Bagade as a policeman replenishes the fire with parts of a library cupboard, breaking it with kicks at the joints.

Sanskrit and Pali texts — some of them 500 years old — were stored in that cupboard.

On a visit to Mumbai on Friday, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee condemned the attack and the ban on the book announced by the Congress-led coalition of Maharashtra.

Pune cried as one after the attack. Schoolchildren marched and writers called it the darkest day for a city known for its scholarship and liberalism. A group of ragpickers, mostly children, collected Rs 165 and gave it to the institute.

Their 15-year-old leader said: “We were not privileged to get an education but we know the worth of books.”

The Sambhaji Brigade has shown no remorse. “It is a Brahmin conspiracy to malign Marathas and Shivaji,” says Pravin Gaikwad, the Pune unit president of the Akhil Bharatiya Maratha Mahasangh, the brigade’s parent organisation.

Gaikwad and his organisation are not done yet. Yesterday, he handed over a four-point charter of demands to chief minister Sushil Kumar Shinde.

It’s a “Brahmin conspiracy” because the so-called offending passage says: “Maharashtrians tell jokes naughtily that Shivaji’s biological father was Dadoji Kondeo Kulkarni.”

Kulkarni, Shivaji’s limbless servant, was a Brahmin. The publishers withdrew the book in November, the author sent an apology, but these were not enough to stop the pillaging.

“We will not tolerate it when an American says that Shivaji’s parentage is questionable and that because he was intelligent he couldn’t have been a Maratha and was a Brahmin,” Gaikwad fumes.

Monetary estimates of loss leave the librarian distraught. “How do you calculate the worth of a rare 6th century BC idol of the headless Ganesha. Or the miniature silver photo album gifted by the Nizam of Hyderabad. Or, for that matter, a 1648 AD treatise on the Bhagwad Gita'” Sangle asks.

The institute specialises in ancient history, ancient Indian thought and philosophy. It produced a Bharat Ratna in P.V. Kane who wrote seven volumes of the Dharmashastra. After 50 years of labour, the institute completed the first critical edition of the Mahabharata, with its scholars poring over more than 1,000 manuscripts in different languages.

“We never wrote anything on Shivaji or medieval history,” says M.G. Dhadphade, a former honorary secretary at the institute.

The explanation cuts no ice with the brigade. “We want those who helped Laine to be hanged and a CBI inquiry into the role of organisations and individuals who passed blasphemous information on Shivaji,” Gaikwad says.

The organisation now plans to take out a Shivaji rath yatra across Maharashtra in February, threatening the institute with more “punishment” if its demands are not met.

Apart from the “hanging” and the inquiry, it is demanding the freedom of the 72 activists of the brigade rounded up after the incident.

“The fault is with us,” says Dhadphade. “We have lost our culture’s most precious jewel — pluralism. Unknown to us, the Taliban had been festering in our midst.”

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