NEW DELHI — In India, the world's largest democracy, the freedom to express one's views is enshrined in the Constitution.
Except for jokes. Those can lead to violence.
Just ask James W. Laine, an American professor of religious studies. In his book about a 17th-century Indian warrior king, Chhatrapati Shivaji, Mr. Laine included a few "naughty jokes" told to him by Indians about Shivaji's parentage. The jokes fell flat among Indians who idolize Shivaji as the only Hindu general capable of halting the advance of the invading Muslim Mughal empire.
The book has been banned. Thugs ransacked the Indian institute where Laine did his research, and others attacked one of his former colleagues. Now, a state government in India has asked Interpol to help arrest Laine.
Laine is only the latest in a long string of authors - including Jawaharlal Nehru, Salman Rushdie, Khushwant Singh, and Taslima Nasreen - who have met the violent face of political correctness in a country that takes its heroes quite seriously. While Laine has apologized for any offense to Shivaji's supporters, the controversy has now taken on its own election year momentum.
"This is a kind of resurgence of intolerance taking place in all aspects of Indian life," says Khushwant Singh, a prominent Indian novelist in New Delhi. He notes that Hindu fundamentalists have smashed cameras used by film crews working for Mira Nair, director of Monsoon Wedding. They have also vandalized the work of M.F. Hussein, an Indian painter. "They [even] stopped the selling of Valentine's Day cards - it's a silly holiday, but people should be allowed to do silly things."
"The spirit of intolerance is on the upswing, and if you raise your voice against it, you're condemned, too," he adds.
But in an election year, few public figures are raising their voice in support of Laine. Indeed, every party seems to be getting into the thuggish act. Shiv Sena, a party based on the pro-Hindu nationalist image of Shivaji, attacked a leading Shivaji scholar who assisted Laine and blackened his face as a sign of shame. Another group ransacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) in Pune, where Laine worked. And now, it is the left- leaning secularist Congress Party that is calling for Laine's arrest and extradition. In an election year, it's hip to be hard-line.
To be sure, Laine's book is deliberately provocative, including the title: "Shivaji: a Hindu King in Islamic India." India, many retort, was never Islamic. Though it was ruled by Muslim conquerors for more than 500 years, most of the population remained Hindu. And in any case, Shivaji was the one man who resisted the Mughals, showing Indians that they could and should rule themselves.
The uproar echoes the Muslim mobs that rampaged in Delhi and Bombay over Salman Rushdie's 1988 book "Satanic Verses."
For this reason, Indian politicians are citing a few British-era measures for crowd control, called Sections 153 and 153A. These laws call for the arrest of someone who is "wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot," and "promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc. and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony."
These laws apparently apply to Laine's jokes that Shivaji's busy warrior dad may not have been his biological father. The laws haven't been applied, however, to the mob members who ransacked the BORI institute, nor to the Shambhaji Brigade spokesman, Shrimant Kokate, who threatened to hang BORI's elderly intellectuals.
Shiv Sena parliamentarian Sanjay Nirupam decries the violence against BORI, but says Laine should be "brought to justice."
"It is an attempt to defame our national hero," says Mr. Nirupam, in a phone interview from Bombay. "When the Mughal King Aurangzeb was leading his army to victory from north to south, Shivaji was the only Hindu leader who stopped him in western India - and not only stopped him but established a Hindu kingdom."
Nirupam describes the Shivaji philosophy as that of a benevolent dictator. "He really lived to help the poor people, the downtrodden. In his army, there were lots of Muslims fighting. So this is not a religious thing. Whoever loves India is ours. Whoever is against India is against us."
For his part, Laine has told the press that he is not against India. Reached by the Monitor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., Laine said he would not be able to talk, on the advice of his lawyers. But in previous interviews, Laine has apologized and said he had "foolishly misread the situation in India and figured the book would receive scholarly criticism, not censorship and condemnation."
But in modern Indian politics, Shivaji has become a hero who defends and defines his nation as a land led by Hindus and fed by Hindu values. At the time, however, many of his contemporaries viewed him as just another thug.
"He was a kind of brigand chief, who marauded other states from Gujarat to Bengal," says Ashish Nandy, a social historian at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi.
For Mr. Nandy, the Shivaji controversy has nothing to do with nationalism or even Hindu values. Instead, he says, it is wrapped up in the complex power struggle of different castes, which is now India's main political driving force.
"Shivaji was a Mahratta, and Mahrattas were not Brahmins, they were not the elite," says Nandy. "So all the disparagement of Shivaji is seen by [Shivaji's supporters] today as a kind of Brahminic conspiracy against the lower castes." Many of the BORI institute scholars, he notes, come from the elite Brahmin caste.