Who’s your Shivaji? (30 September 2017)

(My column in Mint Lounge, September 30 2017)

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In 1296, when the fearsome Alauddin Khilji—slayer of his royal predecessor, coveter of other men’s wives, and paramour of the warrior eunuch, Malik Kafur—first invaded the Deccan, it was to Devagiri that he marched. He came seeking gold, and indeed there was much treasure he would haul back to Delhi after the success of his campaign: The battle was cleverly won, riches heaped before him. But it was before the principal clash, on the way to wealthy Devagiri, that the sultan confronted real resistance. And it came at a place called Lasur where the local commander had by his side two unusually spirited warriors—two formidable Maratha women who fought, a chronicler would write, “like lionesses”. Their names have dissolved into history since, but their bravery, which impressed even the invader, survived the generations.

Many centuries later, another Maratha lady, descended it is said from Devagiri’s royal house, gave birth to the man who would rewrite the destiny of his people. Shivaji—to celebrate whom yet another statue at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus has been commissioned in Mumbai, besides the colossus by the sea—would embark upon a fascinating career, though like most Indian historical figures, he too has largely been painted in politically motivated colours to propel various interests. In his own day, he was known by many (not always complimentary) names. The English called him “Sevagee the Rebel” who sacked Surat, while the shah of Iran needled Aurangzeb for failing to contain a mere “zamindar like Shiva”. The Mughals snarled that Shivaji was a “wild animal” and a “mountain rat”, and when he eventually died (of natural causes, and not at the end of a Mughal sword), the imperial records issued a sour obituary: “The infidel went to hell.”

The gripping 17th century conflict between Shivaji and the Mughals was a complicated one. But by 1840, British writers like J.W. Massie would state with conviction that it was “a kind of holy war”. This played nicely into the colonial narrative that “Hindu India” and “Muslim India” were perpetually at daggers till the West fired its muskets and shone its light, and it has since played also into the hands of Indian parties that seek historical legitimacy for their own antipathy towards certain citizens of our country. Either way, Shivaji, despite solid statues of bronze and iron, has been transformed into a plastic substance in the hands of motivated interests. He certainly had many remarkable aspects to his life and personality. What is unfortunate is that his actions in various contexts are cleaved wholly out of those contexts to lend force to present-day compulsions—a formula that has been in vogue for quite some time.

Jyotirao Phule, who espoused a radical reinvention of society in India, for instance, saw Shivaji as not only the warrior who stood up to a faraway tyrant but also to the tyranny within Hindu society, exemplified by caste. Phule exhorted his 19th century followers to emulate Shivaji and to resist oppression in all its forms—from the white foreigner to the caste-superior next door. When Phule developed a play in 1869 eulogizing this avatar of Shivaji, it was quickly dismissed by the elite of that time. “The ballad of Raja Chattrapati Shivaji,” sniffs a review (in Vividhadnyan Vistar, a literary journal). “A copy of this has come to us. The author is some Mr Jotirao Govindrao Phule or other. When we read this work we thought that to accept it would bring sheer disgrace upon the great and courageous Shivaji, and upon all Hindu people. We have no idea of the author’s address, so we…are unable to send it back to him.”

While Phule’s revolutionary Shivaji was swiftly retired from public circulation, Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s incarnation received a cheerful embrace, for this version of the king focused solely on the enemy outside, not on reform within. As Maria Misra, a scholar, writes, Tilak’s Shivaji was “an avenging angel of revivalist Hindu militancy whose politics was Tilak’s: culturally aggressive and Brahmin-led…(suggesting) that the great general’s main purpose in life had been the protection of cows.” The reformer M.G. Ranade, meanwhile, impressed with the West’s intellectual advances, sought in his Shivaji a humanist and statesman, a man anxious to reform and who inspired the birth of nationalism in the region. Put together, by the early 20th century, Shivaji was a repository for each man’s ideology and every politician’s ambition.

By the early 1920s, maharaja Shahu of Kolhapur invoked the memory of his illustrous ancestor for his own anti-Brahmin cause. Even as this ruler, among the more enlightened in India, reserved positions for non-Brahmins in his government and opened up education to the masses, he combined rival views on Shivaji, casting him not only as a protector of peasants but also of the non-Brahmin Maratha aristocracy. The Brahmins, who preferred Shivaji as a champion of orthodoxy, retaliated by refusing to perform rituals for the ruler, denying him status as a legitimate Kshatriya.

After independence, feuds between the Brahmin interpreters of Shivaji’s legacy and custodians of his Maratha glory have carried on, all the way down to our own times. The only common feature has been undiluted reverence either way, marked also by a proliferation of statues across Mumbai.

At the end of the day, it is the dramatic, fascinating complexity of the man that is the casualty. Painted in broad strokes in limited colours by all dispensations, the rich details of his life receive only secondary attention—the statue towering over the street and its contemporary battles has become the focus, and the actual man who changed his world subsumed behind obeisance and homage but never the complete, non-partisan analysis that his remarkable legacy deserves.

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