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Politics of Shivaji

Shivaji is very crucial to the interests of a certain class of politicians in Maharashtra. Especially important is the image of an invincible Shivaji. That is why there was such uproar in the state in response to James Laine's book, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India.

Politics of Shivaji

The James Laine Affair

Shivaji is very crucial to the interests of a certain class of politicians in Maharashtra. Especially important is the image of an invincible Shivaji. That is why there was such uproar in the state in response to James Laine’s book, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India.


he peasants of Pune district and adjoining Ahmednagar revolted in 1875 against increasing deprivation and debt bondage. Hundreds of them seized bonds and decrees from the moneylenders, seldom resorting to violence. Nearly a thousand peasants were arrested in the two districts in just two weeks. This is proportionately a very big number compared with the arrests made throughout the country in nine months during the non-cooperation movement in 1922. The protests were called the maratha uprising in the book Peasant Struggles in India, edited by A R Desai, while the British described them as the Deccan Riots and appointed an inquiry commission of that name. The uprising forced the imperialists to undertake legislation to offer some relief to peasants against usury, points out L Natrajan, in the book. In fact, it was the spreading peasant uprisings in the country, which prompted A O Hume to launch the Indian National Congress to channel the discontent. The maratha uprising took place in the heart of the territory once controlled by Shivaji and now by Sharad Pawar, union agriculture minister, often described as the maratha strongman.

But the peasant protests are forgotten in Maharashtra; they seldom figure even in academic discourse though they are of particular relevance now in the context of the agricultural distress and a spate of suicides. On the other hand, Chhatrapati Shivaji, the 17th century warrior king, has been raised into a larger than life, almost mythical figure. This is not an accident. Shivaji had his own acknowledged strengths. And, Shivaji is also very crucial to the interests of a certain class of politicians in Maharashtra; especially important is the image of an invincible Shivaji. That is why there was such uproar in the state in response to James Laine’s book, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India. The issue was fully exploited by the Nationalist Congress Party, headed by Sharad Pawar, in the run-up to the general elections in 2004.

The Laine Controversy

Reacting to certain passages in the book, about 150 people belonging to the Sambhaji Brigade, named after Shivaji’s son, ransacked the reputed Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune on January 5, 2004. They destroyed 18,000 books and 30,000 rare manuscripts, according to a submission made in the Supreme Court. Seldom has an institution of learning been attacked with such ferocity anywhere else in India. The attack was a way of mobilising political support.

The maratha masses live in misery while the elite strengthens its political and economic power. So there is a growing polarisation. Moreover, the maratha community is not homogeneous. As is well known, there are the 96 maratha clans who are socially a class apart. And there is a large number of kunbis, mostly poor peasants, who are now called marathas, but without a higher status. In the last few years a large section of the community has shifted its loyalty to the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). While the cooperative barons remain in the Congress, they are increasingly attracted to the process of saffronisation. There is a perceptible rise in religiosity in the community.

The Maharashtra government responded to the book with a ban, launched criminal prosecution against Laine, and even issued an Interpol alert for his arrest. But recently, in April 2007, two important judgments restrained the Maharashtra government. The Supreme Court quashed the criminal proceedings while the Mumbai High Court set aside the ban. But the controversy is far from over. On the eve of Maharashtra Day (May 1), Shiv sainiks

Economic and Political Weekly May 19, 2007

stormed the Oxford Bookstore near Mantralaya and forced the management not to sell the book or accept orders for its purchase. (Incidentally, the shop is not affiliated to Oxford University Press, the publishers of the book.)

Subsequently, a medieval form of punishment was meted out to the effigies of Laine. One was hurled from the historic Takmak point on the Raigad fort; the other was blown up from the mouth of a cannon in Kalyan. Bal Thackeray knows how to exploit history. He entered Mantralaya amidst the blowing of trumpets on the anniversary of Shivaji’s coronation soon after the Shiv Sena-BJP won power in Maharashtra in 1995. The coalition rule was loudly proclaimed as Shiva Shahi, in the style of Shivaji, though in effect it left a legacy of a huge debt for the state.

Curiously, on May 1 the Sena daily mouthpiece Saamna, in a three-column headline on page one proclaimed Oxford’s surrender to Shiv Sena, while alongside Bal Thackeray expressed a pious hope of better days for the working class. The party’s theatrical protests are generally aimed at relatively less important issues, not crucial ones affecting the people. Thackeray laments the growth of shopping malls on textile mill lands even as a fancy mall is to come up right opposite the Shiv Sena Bhavan in Dadar on the land of the demolished Kohinoor textile mill. The promoters are none other than the son of Manohar Joshi, former chief minister and right hand man of Thackeray, and Raj Thackeray, the breakaway nephew who formed the Maharashtra Navanirman Sena.

In the Laine controversy, the police in Pune did not even have a copy of the offending book when they registered an FIR (first information report) against James Laine, the professor of religious studies at Macalister College in the US. Soli Sorabjee, the noted lawyer, argued that the police had not read even the one crucial paragraph on which the government’s case rested. Apart from the OUP, the other appellant in the case was the book’s printer in Delhi, Vinod Hansraj Goyal, who was arrested. But a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court comprising justice K G Balakrishnan, justice Lokeshwar Singh Panta and justice D K Jain held that there was no ground to show that the writing would promote enmity between different groups. In the Mumbai High Court, justice A S Oaka, justice V K Tahilramani and justice F I Rebello ordered the release of all the copies of the book forfeited by the government. They were responding to submissions made by two lawyers and prominent democratic rights activists, P A Sebastian and M Adenwala on behalf of the three appellants, Sangharaj Rupawate, a lawyer and Ambedkarite activist, Anand Patwardhan, noted documentary film-maker, and Kunda Pramila, a cultural activist.

Shivaji in the Popular Imagination

The myth of Shivaji, fired as it has the popular imagination, has been exploited for political purposes all along. He was said to have been gifted the Bhavani sword by goddess Bhavani. During his term as chief minister in the early 1980s, A R Antulay promised to bring back the sword from Britain; this was his way of getting the better of rival maratha politicians. Narendra Modi, the Gujarat chief minister, declared on May 10 this year that he would bring the sword back since the marathas had failed to do so. The occasion was the 150th anniversary in Pune of the 1857 uprising.

The classic Prabhat film, Sant Tukaram, the first Indian film to win the top award at Venice in 1937, has a scene in which Shivaji miraculously turns into a hundred figures to escape from the Mughal forces inside a temple. Shivaji has captured the imagination of many, including Rabindranath Tagore who composed a long poem entitled Shivaji’s Festival in 1904. But it is the lines from poet Kavi Bhushan that still find a strong resonance in some minds: “Had Shivaji not been there, we would all have been circumcised”. The popular imagination has been shaped carefully through stories, poems and fiction about Shivaji.

In such a situation, any attempt at a realistic interpretation of Shivaji faces problems, as happened in the case of a Marxist history scholar, Pandharinath Vishnu Ranade after he wrote an article on the cult of Shivaji in a left wing Marathi journal Ranangan in 1974 during the 300th anniversary of the coronation of Shivaji. He lost his job as a lecturer in Marathwada University and faced humiliation and prosecution even though he was quite respectful to Shivaji. But Ranade had dared question, among other things, Shivaji’s revenue system, which was not very easy on the peasantry. Farmers had to part with ‘chauthai’, a fourth of their revenue. Ranade argued that though Shivaji was great in many ways he could not be seen as a modern figure and the coronation ceremony was inconsistent with his image as a man of the masses.

In his analysis he differed in some respects from his mentor S A Dange, former chairman of the Communist Party of India (CPI), who used Shivaji as a prominent symbol from the 1920s in the anti-imperial struggle and the trade union movement. In his well known sarcastic style, Dange made fun of the new inheritors of the Shivaji mantle. On the occasion of the anniversary of the coronation he wrote: “Now, when the Mavlas of this new capitalist Swaraj state assemble at Raigad fort and see the faces of the new aristocracy of sugar kings, cotton magnates, gold smugglers, harijanbaiters, profit mongers and strike-breakers mingling gleefully in the celebrations, will they ask the great Shivaji to rise from the ashes and once again unsheathe his Bhavani Talwar in defence of the new oppressed scheduled castes, a new class struggle of the oppressed toilers for the establishment of a new national democratic state of the Indian people?” (Illustrated Weekly, May 26,1974). Mavlas, which Dange referred to, were the guerrilla soldiers from Pune area drawn from various so-called low castes, known for their sturdiness.

Govind Pansare, general secretary of the CPI in Maharashtra, has also looked at Shivaji as a progressive force in a Marathi booklet, Shivaji Kon Hota (Who was Shivaji?), one of the few publications in the language that sold tens of thousands of copies since 1998. He points out that other maratha chieftains did not accept Shivaji as a true 96 Kuli Maratha.

Maratha Grievance

The Sambhaji Brigade singled out the Bhandarkar Institute for the attack because James Laine carried out his research there and his acknowledgements in the book refer mainly to brahmin scholars, some of them connected with the institute. The attack has to be seen against the background of a grievance long nurtured by a section of the maratha community against the brahmin community because it refused to recognise as kshatriya either Shivaji or the social reformer-ruler Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj of the 20th century. The brahmin community’s dominance in administration, education and knowledge in general, and in employment is also resented.

Maratha politicians have exploited the Shivaji myth since independence but brahmins have substantially built up the cult since much earlier, portraying him as

Economic and Political Weekly May 19, 2007 ‘Go Brahman Pratipalak’ (defender of cows and brahmins). It was because of Lokmanya Tilak’s launching of the Ganapati and Shivaji festivals towards the end of the 19th century and his other activities that author Valentine Chirol labelled him the father of Indian unrest. More recently, Babasaheb Purandare, an almost fanatical devotee of Shivaji, has produced a theatre spectacle on the life of Shivaji with a cast of 200 actors and the use of horses, camels and elephants. The production is called ‘Janata Raja’ (the knowing king). Narendra Modi, Gujarat chief minister, sporting the traditional maratha headgear pagdi, in Ahmedabad in December 2006, sponsored the shows.

Pune has a long history of conflict between the orthodoxy and the nonbrahmin movement, beginning with social reformer Mahatma Jotirao Phule in the 19th century. Pune brahmins have their own biases and superiority complex with their history of Peshwa rule and success in several fields, including information technology in the US. Interestingly, Jabbar Patel’s magnificent theatre production of Vijay Tendulkar’s Ghashiram Kotwal, which portrays the decadent period of Peshwa rule, was accepted by brahmins after initial resistance.

Need of Realistic Interpretation

The opponents of the Laine book should have learnt a lesson from a young scholar Hari Narke who in the 1980s refuted in forceful detail in a booklet the scurrilous writing by Bal Gangal against Mahatma Phule in the pro-Hindutva weekly, Sobat, edited by G V Behere (Hari Narke, ‘Mahatma Phulenchi Badnami – Ek Satyashodhan’, 1989). Phule was a radical who envisioned a broad front of all nonbrahmins whom he uniformly called shudra irrespective of caste distinctions. That is why B R Ambedkar dedicated his book Who Were the Shudras? to Phule whom he called the greatest shudra of modern India who made the lower classes of Hindus conscious of their slavery to the higher classes and who preached the gospel that for India social democracy was more vital than independence from foreign rule. Interestingly, Mayawati uses the symbols of Phule, Ambedkar and Shahu Maharaj.

A section of the marathas, unhappy with saffronisation, proclaimed a new religion called Shiva Dharma in 2005 at a rally in Sindkhedraja, the birthplace of Shivaji’s mother Jijamata. Members are asked to greet each other in the name of Jijamata and brahmins are excluded from the religion. But the experiment has met with little success. Its ideology is shaped by A H Salunkhe, a scholar known for his book analysing the inferior status of women in the Hindu religion.

Those intent on exploiting history in the political realm have little use for the less turbulent or more constructive maratha rule of the Bhosles in Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, which for two centuries saw the flowering of Bharata Natyam dance, literature and music and its court language was Telugu. Some of the dance compositions were by the maratha kings like Serfoji. In the 1970s, Sucheta Bhide Chapekar, the outstanding Bharata Natyam exponent, had pulled out some of these compositions from the dusty texts in the Saraswati Mahal library in Thanjavur and presented them at the Madras Music Academy with Kittappa Pillai’s musical score and choreography (Gowri Ramnayanan in The Hindu, December 14, 2000).

Besides, inconvenient history is always sidetracked. After the debacle in Vietnam Henry Kissinger urged the American people not to waste time debating the past. In France the resistance to the Nazis is now presented as a romantic event without class content. And the war in Algeria is taboo as the French ruling class is involved in a policy of neo-colonialism in that country. (Jean Chesneaux in Pasts and Futures or What Is History for?). In India, a more realistic interpretation of history is needed especially in the year of the birth centenary of D D Kosambi who wrote that the exploitation of the worker in Indian history under a dual burden of caste and class couldn’t long remain buried under vainglorious praise of Indian culture and philosophy.



Economic and Political Weekly May 19, 2007

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