Some concerned citizens have reportedly filed a public interest litigation to stop the highest award of the Maharashtra government, the Maharashtra Bhushan, from going to Babasaheb Purandare. Purandare is known for his works Raja Shiva-Chatrapati and Jaanata Raja (all-knowing king). This is not the first time that there has been such a controversy around Purandare. A few years ago, the Maharashtra government had appointed him as the chairman of the committee that was to plan the building of a statue of Shivaji in the Arabian Sea. The Maratha Mahasangh objected to this appointment on the ground that Shivaji was a Maratha, while Purandare is a Brahmin.
Purandare’s interpretation of Shivaji presents him as one who was devoted to Brahmins and cows (go brahman pritpalak) and one who was against Muslims. This interpretation of Shivaji has been the version most often used by sectarian political groups, as this presents him as the upholder of the supremacy of upper castes on the one hand and, at the same time, looks down upon Muslim kings.
Maharashtra has seen many controversies related to Shivaji. There was an attack on the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (Bori), Pune, a few years ago. The issue at that time was that this institute had helped Western author James Laine in the writing of his book, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India. In the book, Laine had cast aspersions on the character of Shivaji’s mother by mentioning the rumours around her at that time. Maratha-Brahmin politics was at the root of this incident — Bori is regarded as being a Brahminical institute.
In yet another controversy, just before the 2009 assembly elections, a poster of Shivaji killing Afzal Khan with a knife became the provocation for communal violence in the Dhule-Sangli area, during which one person was killed and a tense atmosphere was created. The poster appeared to suggest that Shivaji was the representative of all Hindus while Afzal Khan was standing in for all Muslims. This is fertile ground for hatred to develop, and the consequent violence polarised the communities, which led to the victory of the communal forces
in the election.
One recalls another controversy around Shivaji. That was when human rights activist Teesta Setalvad had prepared a handbook of history for school teachers, in which she narrated the incident of Maharashtra Brahmins refusing to coronate Shivaji as he was a Shudra. A priest from Kashi, Gaga Bhatt, had to be invited. He did coronate him, but with the little toe of the left foot, as that is the organ which, according
to Brahminical norms, is lowest in the body hierarchy.
Local Shiv Sainiks objected to this handbook on the ground that Shivaji was not a Shudra, and no one should dare claim him as such. History has its own truth but emotions operate on a different wavelength. What is true is that Shivaji was a king who reduced the burden of taxation on poor peasants. That is what made him popular among the masses. Also, the legend of Shivaji asking his army to return the Muslim daughter-in-law of Kalyan’s nawab evokes deep respect for him among the people of Maharashtra. The memory of his policies
towards the rayyat (cultivating farmers) also makes him a revered figure in Maharashtra.
Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak was the first to recall Shivaji’s role in history by organising a Shivaji festival. Tilak presented him as a protector of Brahmins and cows. Since then, Shivaji has staged a comeback in the social memory, but acquired an upper-caste orientation. The later popularisation of Shivaji was done by communal forces that centred the narrative on Shivaji’s battles with Aurangzeb and Afzal Khan. These battles with two Muslim kings are highlighted, while Shivaji’s battles with Hindu kings are underplayed or omitted. While his battle with Aurangzeb was for power, the official who came from Aurangzeb’s side was Raja Jai Singh, a major figure in Aurangzeb’s administration. In the case of Afzal Khan, it was Shivaji’s bodyguard — his rustam e zaman — who advised him to carry iron claws. For Afzal Khan, Krishnaji Bhaskar Kulkarni served as his secretary. But these battles for power have now been given religious colour.
Today, Shivaji is being used to sharpen communal (Hindu-Muslim) divides and also to drive a wedge between Brahmins and Marathas. The rational understanding of Shivaji has been excellently presented by the late Govind Pansare in his popular book, Shivaji Kon Hota? (Who was Shivaji?). Panasre’s YouTube video, “Janatecha Raja Shivaji” is also brilliant. The shadow boxing around Shivaji is, in a way, a reflection of underlying communal politics and caste struggle. The real Shivaji needs to be understood so we can undermine these sectarian tendencies.
The writer, formerly with IIT-Mumbai, is associated with various human rights groups.