NEW DELHI--To the scholar, the pen may be mightier than the sword. But last week a Hindu mob in western India inflicted serious damage on more than a millennium of scholarship by ransacking the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune. In addition to the loss of rare and valuable manuscripts and other artifacts, the unprecedented attack on a prominent research facility is being mourned as the latest example of the country's growing religious intolerance.
The rioters belonged to the Sambhaji Brigade, a right-wing Hindu nationalist organization. According to local police, the attack was carried out in response to "disparaging" remarks about the lineage of a legendary Hindu king, Chhatrapati Shivaji, contained in a 2003 book by James Laine, a professor of religious studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. The book analyzes Hindu-Muslim relations through a look at Shivaji's attempts to reduce the influence of Islam in 17th century India. The mob appears to have targeted the institute because Laine's book thanks senior manager Shrikant Bahulkar and other institute researchers for their help. Laine declined comment.
On the morning of 5 January, according to witnesses, about 150 people barged into the institute, severed the telephone lines, ransacked the cupboards, tore thousands of books, and damaged the writings on palm leaves, rare artifacts, and old photographs in the library. The mob also grabbed several rare books, say police, who have charged 72 persons with trespass, rioting, and arson.
The independent institute, founded in 1917 and with a staff of 50 scholars, has a collection of 120,000 books covering Indian culture, Indus Valley civilization, Sanskrit texts, and writings on the Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of medicine. The damage to the building and equipment is estimated at $250,000, according to trustee M. K. Dhavalkar, but much of the collection is in disarray and may be difficult or impossible to repair. The government has provided $30,000 in relief, and local citizens have already raised $6000.
In November Laine's publisher, Oxford University Press (OUP), apologized for the book and pulled it off the shelves. "It was creating some problems," says OUP's Susan Froud, "so we decided to withdraw it from the Indian market. It's a rather sensitive matter." The book remains available on the publisher's Web site.