Censoring History in India

Roundup: Talking About History

Vaishnavi C. Sekhar, in the Times of London (March 22, 2004):

The next time state BJP leaders want to ban a book, they might want to think about reading it thoroughly. Earlier this week, BJP leader and former deputy chief minister Gopinath Munde had called for a ban on the floor of the assembly on Jawaharlal Nehru's book Discovery of India , alleging that some editions contained disparaging remarks about Shivaji. But noted historian Y D Phadke told this newspaper that the first edition of the book, published in 1945, contains no such derogatory remark.

"The problem is that today's leaders don't bother to read," complains Phadke. In fact, the book's single paragraph on Shivaji is laudatory, describing the Maratha warrior king as an"ideal guerilla leader of hardened mountaineers", a man who was" courageous and possessing high qualities of leadership". The paragraph continues,"He built up the Marathas as a strong unified fighting group, gave them a nationalist background and made them a formidable power which broke up theMughal Empire."

The BJP, in a follow-up to the Maharashtra government's ban onUS scholar James Laine's book on Shivaji,had alleged in the state assembly on Thursday that Nehru's disparaging remarks appeared in the first edition of the book,were subsequently removed and then reintroduced in the 1986 edition.However, neither the first edition—published in 1945 by Signet Press in Calcutta with a cover design by Satyajit Ray—nor the 2003 publication put out by theOxfordUniversity Press contains any such remarks.

However,Munde continues to maintain his stand."I have read the book and can point out the offending para," he told this paper on Saturday over the phone from Beed in Maharashtra, where he was attending a rally at which Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee launched the BJP campaign in the state.

Historians say that there was indeed a controversy in the early part of the last century over Nehru's opinion of Shivaji. But, as Phadke notes, this stemmed from another book, Glimpses of World History, a compilation of letters written by Nehru to his 14-year-old daughter Indira in the 1920s when he was in prison.

Chapter 91 of this book describes the rise of nationalistic, ethnic groups like the Sikhs and Marathas and how they broke theMughal empire. In the first edition of the book, published in 1934, Nehru praises Shivaji as a"gallant" and"brilliant" captain who became the"glory of the Marathas and the terror of the Empire" but also calls him an"adventurer" and suggests that his killing of Bijapur general Afzal Khan was not entirely honourable.

The paras run thus: 'With his enemies he was prepared to adopt any means, good or bad, provided that he gained his end. He killed a general sent against him by Bijapur by treachery..Some of Shivaji's deeds, like the treacherous killing of the Bijapur general, lower him greatly in our estimation. But it seems that in all his warfare he was careful to avoid attack or injury to the common people, to women, to mosques and the like.'

Historians say these remarks were strongly protested shortly after the book was published, and probably deleted in the revised edition of 1939. Says A Jamkhedkar, well-known historian,"Nehru, unfortunately, relied largely on historian Jadunath Sarkar's book on Shivaji, which was more dependent on Persian sources." He suggests that more than any derogatory remark, what people found objectionable was his view of Shivaji as a feudal lord rather than a freedom-fighter.However, he adds,when Sarkar revised his opinion of Shivaji, so did Nehru.

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