A Statue that Shows India Has No Room for its Tired, Huddled Masses

More than a colossal waste of public money, the proposed statue represents the contempt India's rulers have for the people in whose name they govern.

Narendra Modi salutes a statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji. Credit: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Narendra Modi salutes a statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji. Credit: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

They are selfishly marketing Shivaji, said A.H. Salunkhe, a noted scholar in Maharashtra , in 1980. He was referring to the Maratha leaders exploiting Shivaji, turning him into a commodity of the bazaar.

The game continues. It is clear that Prime Minister Narendra Modi laying the foundation for a gigantic and expensive memorial to Shivaji in the Arabian sea near Mumbai on December 24 belongs to the same category.

The only difference now is that the equations are different. Others have entered the market. The marketing of Ram too continues and a suburban railway station in Mumbai was inaugurated on December 22 amidst a war of slogan shouting between supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. Here again, the idea was to claim credit for the station.

In this appropriation of Shivaji, his image needs to be thoroughly cleansed. So Modi declared at Raigad fort in 2014 that Shivaji had not looted Surat, he was looting Mughal property. This is a strange claim even for someone who observed that Ganapati with his elephant head showed the existence of skilled implant surgery in ancient India.

The looting of merchants in Surat by Shivaji’s troops is well documented by several reputed sources. But let me quote Bal Samant, a Marathi writer close to Bal Thackeray, who cannot be considered biased by Hindutva supporters or a traitor. He devotes 21 pages to the chapter on the looting in his highly laudatory book Shivakalyan Raja. He gives details about the looting of several houses and burning of property. Quoting Dutch and English sources, he says the hands of several people were severed and heads broken. Now these things were not uncommon in feudal times. But why do we have to put a gloss on them?

No end to the exaltation

Elsewhere, the exaltation of Shivaji continues. The word Maharaj was added to the name of the Shivaji international airport and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) railway station in Mumbai a few days ago as part of the aggrandising project. Chhatrapati was thought to be not laudatory enough. The fact is that in most history books – including Marathi scholarly books – he is referred to throughout as simply Shivaji. Bal Samant specifically mentions that he has chosen the word Shivaji as one does not address someone you love in the plural. The romanticisation and blind adulation for Shivaji began with the likes of popular narrators like Babasaheb Purandare.

While the rulers exploit Shivaji and history day in and day out, they have utterly neglected the government archives, the historical records dating back to the East India company days, in Elphinstone college, as any history researcher will bear out. This includes valuable papers on Shivaji. Bal Samant had pleaded that the records may fall prey to white ants in the suffocating surroundings and urgently need some exposure to fresh air. No chief minister from Y.B. Chavan to Manohar Joshi has visited the archives, he wrote.

K.K. Chaudhari, a former editor of the Maharashtra government gazetteers and history scholar, is very skeptical of the deification of Shivaji. The king did very little for promoting education, Chaudhari has written in the first volume of the recently released history of modern Maharashtra brought out by the state government. However, his later successor Pratapsing Bhosale of Satara, gave a good contribution to the building of Elphinstone college.

The cult of Shivaji is essentially created by Brahmins to start with at the cultural level – fort climbing, history writing and popular lectures – while the Marathas exploited him politically.

Cynical politics

The current extolling of Shivaji has to be seen against the background of a statewide surge by the Maratha community which bitterly feels sidelined after being in power for decades. The Marathas first felt politically disempowered when A.R. Antulay, a Muslim, became chief minister in 1980 after a long rule of Maratha dominance. A.H. Salunkhe, who hails from the same community, then wrote that the Marathas should see this as a golden opportunity to do some introspection. A good insight into various strands of thinking about Marathas and their problems is offered in the Marathi book Maratha Samaj, edited by Ram Jagtap and Sushil Dhaskate with an introduction by Sadanand More.

The repeated complaint of several writers from the Maratha community is that the richer sections and politicians have ditched the poor in the community. Baba Adhav, a socialist and labour leader, says the better off Marathas conspired with the Brahmins in Brahmin-dominated peths (lanes) in Pune to throw out poorer Marathas from there. They then went to live there themselves.

A point made by some is that a society needs heroes for inspiration. It was also made by Galileo’s disciple in Bertolt Brecht’s famous play Life of Galileo in 1940. To that, Galileo replies that unhappy is the land that needs heroes. A democratically developed society would not need heroes. It is curious that Galileo faced the inquisition for speaking the scientific truth in 1616, exactly 400 years ago, and 14 years before Shivaji’s birth.

Galileo said that of all the hatreds, none is greater than of ignorance against knowledge. What he said very much applies to the present times – when people in power with poor knowledge are seeking to falsify history, condemning honest dissenters as anti-national.

File photo of Congress president Sonia Gandhi wielding a sword at a rally in Maharashtra. Credit: Reuters

File photo of Congress president Sonia Gandhi wielding a sword at a rally in Maharashtra. Credit: Reuters

While swearing by democracy, the leaders love the feudal past and glorify it to justify their feudal ways, neglecting the poor. The hardy Mavlas, the ordinary people,  formed Shivaji’s famed guerrilla fighting force. But their descendants are reduced to landlessness and destitution in their own land in Pune district. The rich are grabbing property in this lake district, building bungalows on hill tops and causing landslides that kill the poor living down below. The Mavla farmers put up a strong resistance – the first recorded satyagraha against displacement under the leadership of Senapati Bapat in the 1920s in Mulshi taluka against the dam built by the Tatas. But they were also major victims of the so-called development. I noticed at the Pavna dam in Mulshi taluka that an ordinary person cannot even sit and get a view, one has to get into a very expensive resort to savour the countryside.

Those who love violence and fascism find Shivaji an attractive symbol. Even Congress leaders think nothing of flashing a sword at election rallies. At their rallies, they present a sword as a mark of honour to Sonia Gandhi and she waves it too. That is what politics is reduced to.

Prabodhankar Thackeray, social reformer, was far better read and enlightened than son Bal. But he rated Shivaji above Arjun. While Arjun , as shown in the Gita, vacillated before war, Shivaji had no compunction in using violence against Afzal Khan, he says. Shivaji vindicated the Gita, not Arjun, he says in his autobiography Majhi Jeevanagatha.

Historian T.S. Shejwalkar got it right way back in 1940 when he wrote that the demon, the baggage of history, is grabbing the neck of Maharashtra. People are distorting, suppressing history, burning  books, there is a whole factory working in this business, he wrote. And this was much before the menace of misusing history that has sprouted in the past few decades.

The Congress solidified the trend with a massive celebration of the 300 years of Shivaji’s coronation in 1974. True, Shivaji had great qualities. But his idolisation has proved to be an irritant. Celebrating the rajyabhishek was inappropriate, scholars point out, as the coronation extolled kingship, the urge to seek sanction for Kshatriya status from Brahmins. And in the ceremony, huge gifts were given to please Brahmins – all this is at such odds with the democratic spirit.

The rulers in their hubris want to create a monument like the Statue of Liberty in the U.S. They need to be reminded of Emma Lazarus’s poem ‘The New Colossus’, which is engraved on the pedestal of the statue. In it, she decries the pomp of heroes of ancient statues and says what the Statue of Liberty is meant to symbolise:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

In that spirit, our ruling class needs to address the needs of the poor. While building equestrian statues, our leaders  need to get down from their high horses and fulfil their mandate of solving ordinary people’s basic problems.

Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist who worked in the Times of India