The Politics of Shivaji, Caste And History Writing



A bust of Chattrapati Shivaji. Credit: Rahul Bulbule

August 20, 2015 marks the second anniversary of the gunning down of a leading campaigner for rational thinking, Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, in the heart of Pune city. Just a day before that, on August 19, the Maharashtra government conferred the Maharashtra Bhooshan award on Babasaheb Purandare, who has built myths around Shivaji. No two persons could be more unlike.

Purandare has created a larger than life image of Shivaji. For nearly 70 years, the bearded, 93-year-old Purandare has been writing on the Maratha ruler and delivering orations on him which have captivated huge gatherings. It is said that it is almost as if he lives in the 17th century, so obsessed is he with the Shivaji ethos.

The government’s award has created a huge controversy and Dabholkar’s daughter Mukta has put the issue in some perspective. The row was started mainly by the Nationalist Congress Party and Sambhaji Brigade and the main reason for their ire is that Purandare is a Brahmin who is cornering all the limelight, while these organisations see Shivaji mainly as a Maratha caste figure. Ironically, the Shivaji cult has been built by Brahmins, beginning with Lokmanya Tilak in the early 20th century, though later the Marathas in the Congress and the Shiv Sena jumped into the fray and exploited Shivaji for their own political ends.

Mukta Dabholkar says she and other progressive figures are opposing the award not on caste grounds but because Purandare has communalised Shivaji’s life. Communalists have added fuel to fire in many ways, such as displaying gory scenes of Shivaji tearing the stomach of Afzal Khan, the sardar of Aurangzeb, with steel claws after a friendly embrace.

Caste hatred

Maharashtra is now caught between two socially regressive political formations, the Shiv Sena-BJP combine on the one hand and the Sambhaji Brigade types on the other. The Congress has never had the stomach to take on reactionary forces but at least its leaders are not openly communal.

The Sambhaji Brigade and its allies have acquired notoriety for spreading caste hatred and vandalising the hallowed Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute library in Pune in 2004 in the wake of the controversy over the publication of a book on Shivaji by scholar James Laine. One leader has published a venomous booklet, which calls for the raping of Brahmin women. These elements believe that writers like Purandare fed some gossip to Laine, which they find highly offensive.

The NCP is also in the news for corruption of a particularly venal kind. One of its MLAs, Ramesh Kadam was arrested earlier this week for his alleged involvement in a Rs 365 crore scam in the Annabhau Sathe Development Corporation, which is intended to serve the most backward communities, the Maang and Matang. The corporation is named after a radical and prolific Dalit writer who grew up and died in poverty and wrote a famous powada—a kind of Marathi poetic ballad—on the battle of Stalingrad.

As the Brigade’s followers went on a rampage on the streets objecting to the award, the function was held in Raj Bhavan in Mumbai amidst tight security. And here one must give credit to Purandare. For a man of 93, he spoke with extraordinary verve and humour, displaying a good memory and presence of mind.

At the ceremony, he shrewdly made several positive references to Muslims, sensing that he was under attack for his perceived anti-Muslim bias. He spoke of his visit to the mosque at Rohinkhed near Malkapur in Buldana district in Vidarbha where he found the black mosque wall remarkably clean. He asked about that and the attendant wiped the surface on which appeared holy verses from the Quran. This happened each time the surface was wiped. I checked about the mosque from a very knowledgeable historian who has travelled to all districts of the state and he was not aware of it. The district gazetteer of Buldana mentions that this mosque, built in the 15th century, was second in importance only to Mecca. He also paid tributes to Sant Tukaram, the non-Brahmin saint, along with the Brahmin Dnyaneshwar to avoid appearing as if he was tilting towards Brahmins.

Chief Minister Devendra Phadanavis, on his part, could have refrained from talking about throwing the opponents of the award down a cliff, in the style of Shivaji . Shivaji was known to hand out such summary justice. Apart from the implied violence and impropriety on the part of the Chief Minister, a punishment of death for mere verbal opposition is surely most inappropriate.

Romanticising history

At the same time, it is also important that the Left not fall into the trap of romanticising history while defending Shivaji as secular and liberal even as they take on the right wing. Shivaji was recently lauded for respectfully returning the daughter-in-law of the subedar of Kalyan. This is a romantic fable that is very popular in Maharashtra; it is not history. Shivaji is even said to have remarked to the lady in question that had his mother been so beautiful, he too would have been handsome. I have checked with scholars who have researched on Shivaji for decades and they confirm that nothing of the sort ever happened.

Secondly, the point made in the article that Shivaji had a very pro-poor revenue system is also not borne out by available records. In fact, this was one of the precise points made by Prof Pandharinath Ranade, the late history professor and Marxist, that Shivaji’s taxation system was not liberal at all. It is a point on which he took on the Communist leader S.A. Dange more than 40 years ago. Dange, in a eulogistic vein, had argued that Shivaji had actually abolished the watandari system of big land holding, whereas there is no evidence of that. Ranade was very respectful to Shivaji in his article in the tercentenary celebration of Shivaji’s coronation in Maharashtra in 1974. Yet, his contention created a furore and it was only after the intervention of the Indian History Congress that he got back his job in Marathwada University. I was a witness to the controversy.

But history writing establishments behave opportunistically everywhere. “The way history is taught in schools and universities is a whore up for sale to the highest bidder and historians are little better than a gang of whoremongers,” declared the radical French historian Jean Chesneaux. We need modern shahirs (troubadours) like Shahir Amar Shaikh who stirred gatherings of thousands of people in the 1950s with songs of working class struggles and solidarity; and we need a break from the feudal culture so lovingly glorified by Babasaheb Purandare.

Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and commentator based in Mumbai. He has written a book, Transport in the era of Climate Change