The Wire

Shivaji is an icon claimed by many

(Published in The Wire, August 2015)


When a force as refractory and ungovernable as Maharashtra’s Sambhaji Brigade sets itself against a nonagenarian scholar, more than just the scholar in question need to be concerned. This, after all, is one of our worst prototypes in the business of cultural surveillance and censorship. Notoriety came to the Brigade in 2004 after they destroyed 18,000 books and 30,000 manuscripts at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune. The provocation was a few lines on Shivaji’s parentage in a book by a till-then obscure western scholar, James Laine. And what proceeded involved vandalism, the blackening of faces, and yet another concession of intellectual space to those able to make threats of violence and to carry them into action.

But Babasaheb Purandare, the latest target of this group, is probably aware that the origins of their grievances are hardly contemporary. Purandare is considered one of the foremost historians of Shivaji’s life and work, to the extent that his romanticised renditions have earned him the popular title, Shiv Shahir (‘Shivaji’s bard’). His critics, though, find in his work a heavy pro-Brahmin (and equally contentious anti-Muslim) tilt. This is why the award to him of the Maharashtra Bhushan for his research on the 17th century king has come under fire now.

This heavily contested symbolism of Shivaji has been a battle entrenched enough to directly affect Maharashtra politics—Purandare is simply the most recent excuse for an ominous public display. Within basic parameters of reverence, Shivaji is a plastic concept that is to different people different things. The real issue, then, is about which groups can ‘claim’ his memory with the greatest authority. In this context, the writing of history decides what ironies of the past may be celebrated and what are denied. All so that political contingencies today can be aligned into a linear trajectory of ‘tradition’ and meaning.

With Shivaji, as is the case with all historical Indians of distinction, the ironies are many. So too is the potential for political exploitation.

In 1674, towards the conclusion of his illustrious career, Shivaji sought the one thing he needed to clinch his accomplishments—ritual legitimacy. He had acquired fame and territory, as well as not inconsiderable wealth. But what would he represent for posterity?

As late as 1672, the English knew him as ‘Sevagee the Rebel’. The Shah of Persia sniggered that the Mughals could not contain a mere ‘zamindar like Shiva’, while Aurangzeb’s court chroniclers referred to him as ‘the wild animal’ and ‘that mountain rat’: when he died, they wiped their brows and remarked, ‘The infidel went to hell.’ Warlord, sacker of cities, infidel: Shivaji had achieved much, but he sought an enduring place in history that surpassed these unflattering descriptions, while going beyond mere passing applause as a local rebel hero.

And for this, the warrior leader of the masses turned, ironically, to religion and to the instruments of official piety supplied in India’s social market by Brahmins.

Amalgamating various traditions, Shivaji created a genealogy that exalted his grandfather (a village headman) into a scion of the Sisodias. Overnight, he could trace unbroken lineage to ancient Rajputs. 50,000 Brahmins were feted and honoured. One of these grandees, Gaga Bhat was prevailed upon to declare (with seductive financial incentives) that Shivaji was a purebred Kshatriya.

Sevagee the Rebel now became Shivaji the champion of Hinduism and all things that would justify his upgrade in caste. And herein lay a big paradox. In building up the Maratha state, he had elevated merit over birth, and ability over caste. Yet, at the climax of his career, Shivaji had needed caste rituals to cement the endeavours of his lifetime. This is what would come to assume the political proportions that last to this day.

Six years after his coronation, Shivaji died. But the memory of his remarkable life, for the sheer audacity of its ambition and for the scale of his accomplishments, riveted Marathi society through ballads and songs that made him a folk hero and confirmed his position as the region’s foremost cultural symbol.

What this symbol meant beyond local inspirations was always open to question. British Indologists placed him in history primarily as a Hindu standing up to an Islamic potentate. By 1840 travellers like JW Massie stated with conviction that Shivaji’s was ‘a kind of holy war’ against Islam. But these were largely theoretical explorations. Indeed, it would take an Indian to realise the full power and potential of Shivaji to move the Marathi masses. Shivaji could be (and is still) deployed as Maharashtra’s greatest cultural force.

Jyotirao Phule, a gardener by caste who was fascinated by the founding principles of the United States, espoused a radical view of social change. Shivaji, to him, stood up not only to the tyranny of Aurangzeb that emanated from Agra, but also to the tyranny within Hindu society of its hereditary elite. Phule wanted the ordinary peasant to emulate Shivaji and stand up against every variety of oppression, domestic as well as foreign.

Naturally, Phule’s view was lambasted by the elite, who were by now not only more often than not Brahmin in origin but also English educated. A typical review of his work on Shivaji was blunt in its disapproval: ‘The ballad of Raja Chattrapati Shivaji. 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 afraid we are unable to send it back to him.’

While Phule’s Shivaji was dismissed, Tilak’s was readily embraced by the end of that century since it focussed largely on an outside enemy and did not upset any internal balances. As Maria Misra states, Tilak saw Shivaji as ‘an avenging angel of revivalist Hindu militancy whose politics was the prototype of Tilak’s: culturally aggressive and Brahmin-led…[which] suggested that the great general’s main purpose in life had been the protection of cows.’ If Tilak was the more aggressive Brahmin claimant, Ranade was inspired by the values of the West. He sought in his Shivaji a humanist and a statesman, anxious to reform and who allowed for a nascent sense of nationality to emerge in the region. Shivaji had become a repository for each man’s ideology.

In the early twentieth century, the Maharajah of Kolhapur mixed up some of these rival views to support his own reformism. He looked upon his ancestor as a liberator of not only the peasant but also of Maratha elites from the debilitating shackles of orthodoxy. He even reserved positions in his administration for non-Brahmins (while another Maratha ruler, the Gaekwad of Baroda funded the education of a Dalit called Ambedkar). The Brahmins pettily started performing ceremonies of purification after their audiences with the Maharajah. The message was clear: if in 1674 they ascribed ‘twice born’ status to Shivaji, two centuries later they still had the power to revoke the privilege.

The idea that Brahmins could determine social prestige by sheer virtue of birth, even while the toiling castes and classes enjoyed no such prerogative was frustrating. As one popular song in 1924, went:

Shivaji our king, Marathi our pride
Shivaji protected dharma, defeated our enemies
Saved the life of Hindu dharma, saved the life of the motherland
We worshipped at the feet of Brahmins, and have become slaves
Remember the honour of Shivaji; see the shame of his people
Live your life with honour, cherish your honour. 

After independence, the rise of elements such as the Shiv Sena, with their spectacular nativism and anti-Islamic tendencies, meant that Shivaji’s anti-Mughal character received prominence in the national narrative. But within Maharashtra, the Brahmin faction, the Maratha faction, and other factors continue to fight out what is an endless (and increasingly violent) conflict, one which is playing out currently in the episode of Purandare and his Maharashtra Bhushan award. The Sambhaji Brigade evidently has the support of the NCP. Udayanraje Bhosle, a descendant of Shivaji’s, is a party member. The BJP under Devendra Fadnavis continues to stand by Purandare, and finds his version of history most representative of Shivaji’s legacy—for their agenda, at least.

But while this contest continues, the basic rules are clear to all concerned: Shivaji is sacred. Even Purandare cannot be accused by his worst critics of being anything less than in complete awe of Shivaji. In fact AR Antulay, the only Muslim to have become Chief Minister of Maharashtra, too had to demonstrate his reverence. When he went on Haj to Mecca, he reportedly added a visit to London to his programme to make a claim on a sword there that belonged to Shivaji. Antulay could take no chances when it came to ‘proving’ his commitment to the idea of Shivaji.

So Purandare might be a Brahmin writing about Shivaji in a perspective that favours the Brahmin narrative and incenses the Marathas. But he’s no James Laine, for he doesn’t question the basic sanctity of Shivaji. He might have erred, but he has not committed sacrilege.