It was in 2003-2004 that a minor academic work by the scholar James Laine set off a fierce, orchestrated campaign of political protests that led to the state banning of a book, threats to the author and other Shivaji scholars and the ransacking of the BORI library in Pune by members of the then little-known Sambhaji Brigade.
In the wake of the recent Supreme Court judgement overturning the ban on Laine’s Shivaji, two things are very clear. The first is that the Shivaji case is no longer about free speech, but about complex political reactions. And the second is that the Shivaji case goes beyond just free speech and free expression; at the heart of Laine’s continuing travails is the question of what we’re free to think and explore in contemporary India.

The Supreme Court judgement turns on an apparently minor point: can an act (Section 153A) that invokes the possibility of censorship in cases where religious sentiments may be hurt apply to a great historical figure who is, however, neither a prophet nor a God? The Maharashtra government was forced to admit that Shivaji, however great a Maratha hero he might be, is not a religious figure, and the state ban on the publication of James Laine’s Shivaji was overturned on this technicality.

The judgement has caused a political storm. Various rightwing Hindutva parties have protested and threatened violence; Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan has announced that his party shares “public sentiments” on the sanctity of Shivaji and may not endorse the SC judgment. This is a red herring: given the track record of Indian publishers and booksellers, few of them are likely to demonstrate the moral courage required to put the James Laine book back in stores.

In this debate, free speech is invoked only cursorily; and the phrase “offended sentiments” is reflexively, thoughtlessly invoked—in 2010, the Laine case is all about the political battle, not the censorship issues.

The ostensible reason for the protests and the thuggish violence that led to the 2004 ban on the book was a brief section in Laine’s work that reported the “naughty” tradition of speculation on Shivaji’s parentage. But what was really at work was a question of ownership of the Shivaji legend and franchise. James Laine asks: “Can one imagine a narrative of Shivaji’s life in which, for example: Shivaji had an unhappy family life? Shivaji had a harem? Shivaji was uninterested in the religion of bhakti saints? Shivaji’s personal ambition was to build a kingdom, not liberate a nation?”

These points were pounced upon as evidence that Laine was a “sensationalist” historian, seeking more readers. But when we speak of defending free speech, it is this question that is really at the heart of current free speech and censorship debates in India.

Political parties often frame free speech in strictly negative terms: no one should have the right to offend or harm the sentiments of an (undefined) public. The alternative to this line of thinking would be: “Everyone should have the right to engage in debate, intellectual exploration or questioning, however uncomfortable this process of debate may be, so long as it is not malicious.”

Few political parties in contemporary India have ever thought deeply about the implications of curtailing—or supporting—free speech, which is why we’ve seen a process of death by deification where it comes to understanding the lives and times of our national leaders.

If you look more carefully at Laine’s argument, it gives you a better understanding of the ban, the violence, and the current unrest after the Supreme Court judgement. What Laine, in his naivete, is really asking is this: are we free to step away from a rigid, politically defined way of looking at a great historical figure, be it Shivaji, Nehru, Sardar Patel or Mahatma Gandhi, and examine the more human, and to him, more complex and rich, narrative around that figure?

Gandhi is an exception: in his inconvenient fashion, the Father of the Nation aired his life with such ruthless honesty and such thoroughness that he is impossible to sanitise beyond a certain point. But with other historical figures, especially those being claimed by the Hindu rightwing as Shivaji currently is, the answer to that question is a blunt no. We’re not free to imagine the life of Shivaji within the perspective of his own times, or to see him as a human subject to human biases—because that open narrative is directly threatening to the present-day mythology of Shivaji.

And this is what makes the Laine case so crucial. The Supreme Court has upheld free speech, if on a technicality. Political parties, in contrast, are unlikely to see the importance of allowing the imagination and contemporary scholarship to remain free. Step away from Laine for a moment: the larger question is, are we free to write, or imagine, an honest, questioning history of some of the most important historical figures in India? At present, the answer to that is, unfortunately, no.