Shivaji in ‘secular’ Maharashtra
December 19, 2015
Shivaji in ‘secular’ Maharashtra
Exploring the many dimensions of Shivaji’s rise and rule
Shivaji, valorised in Maharashtrian folklore as a riyasaton ka raja (the king of the smaller kingdoms/landholdings) has in turn been dismissed by contemporary historians and ‘captured’ by the extreme Hindutvawaadi (politically supremacist) right who would obscure the caste dimensions of his rise to power and especially, his coronation.

Within Maharashtra, however renowned historians from Jadunath Sarkar to GS Sardesai have analysed these aspects before comrade SA Dange and Govind Pansare introduced them so effectively in popular discourse. KHOJ, education for a plural India initiative has been democratising the learbing of social studies and history since 1994. We bring to you, here, some of this work that includes making accessible the work of historians.
Shivaji in ‘secular’ Maharashtra

The Shiv Sena threatens to disrupt an experiment at familiarizing school students with a more balanced understanding of Shivaji. Instead of assuring protection to a pioneering institute, the Mumbai police bulldozes the school management into making a written apology when none is due

While the entire country has been privy to an intense debate on the issue of partisan and narrow readings and interpretations of the past (see CC, August September 2001, January 2001, October 1999 ), Maharashtra in western India  at present ruled by the ‘secular’ Congress–NCP combine but shackled by the rabid Shiv Sena – recently saw brazen attempts at intimidation and unreasoned rhetoric over the introduction of a handbook for history teachers that deals with Shivaji in a balanced and rational manner.

The issue is, the introduction, on an experimental basis, of a handbook to enhance the understanding and learning of history, authored by Teesta Setalvad (through KHOJ — the secular education programme running in several schools) in three institutions run by the Don Bosco group of schools in Mumbai. The handbooks were the result of a ten- month long collaboration between history teachers and the author, aimed at re–working and enhancing the syllabus in history.

The section on Shivaji, among other things, also dealt with the caste background of Shivaji and his rise to power and glory despite these restrictive factors. The handbook also deals with the character of Afzal Khan in a balanced manner. These are the sections that have raised the hackles of the self–styled
custodians of our common history.

The experiment was being conducted with the full knowledge and consent of the parent–teacher associations in two of the three schools since June this year. But in the third school, Don Bosco’s, Borivali, some parents, clearly unhappy with the rational and logical reasoning in the handbook, approached the local shakha of the Shiv Sena after failing to intimidate the principal at a parents’ meeting, into withdrawing the book. Predictably, the Shiv Sena was more than happy to step in!

Shivaji, a Maharashtrian figure, has been selectively valorised by a parochial and downright communal element in Maharashtra, especially over the past two and a half decades. These elements have consistently used threats, bullying and intimidation tactics to stall any effort to improve upon the orientation of the official textbooks. Even the attempt of the Maharashtra State Text Book Board to re–work the history textbooks in tune with the New Education Policy of 1986 was subverted.

The narrow worldview that these forces represent would prefer to hide the bitter struggle of Shivaji with the entrenched Brahminical hierarchy of the time. The story of his coronation detailed by eminent historians (see boxes) is a sorry tale of how even a man who gained such tremendous success and popularity in his lifetime had to find a Brahmin priest from Benaras to perform the ‘purification’ and thread ceremony necessary to legitimise his coronation. The services of the Brahmin priest who consented to perform the ritual had to be compensated with significant monetary largesse.

In recent years, sectarian and divisive outfits like the Hindu Mahasabha, the RSS and the Shiv Sena have frequently resorted to intimidation to gloss over these historical facts. But a rich, alternate tradition in Maharashtra has, through the works of Jayant Gadkari, NR Pathak, Govind Pansare and Sharad Patil, periodically resurrected the real Shivaji. As far back as the late 1950s, [1]veteran trade unionist, SA Dange’s famous lecture Tyanche Shivaji, Aamche Shivaji delivered to workers, protested against the manipulation of Shivaji into a ‘Hindu’ ruler, deliberately ignoring significant efforts made by him within his kingdom to give equal status to persons of different religious persuasions.

For the Shiv Sena, through it’s crude but popular audio cassettes of Marathi povadas (folk songs), the battle between Shivaji and Afzal Khan is a metaphor for (and justification of) their current politics – demonisation of the Muslim minority and legitimisation of the violence used against them. Every time individuals and groups have challenged this parochial rendering of the past to suit crude present-day political ends, intimidation and threats have been used to nip such attempts in the bud.

In the light of this background, it is particularly educative to see how the organs of the state — both the police and the state education department — functioned after the SS delivered its threat to the Don Bosco school management recently.

On the morning of September 17, 2001 after one or two parents had failed to intimidate the school into withdrawing the handbooks — a Shiv Sena Board displayed outside the school threatened a morcha to protest against the ‘derogatory remarks against Shivaji by calling him a Shudra’ and hurting Hindu religious sentiments!

The moment the school contacted me, the author of the handbook, I said we should offer to refer the ‘controversial’ part to a committee of experts but that intimidation and threats to the school should be withdrawn. At the same time, given the violent antecedents of the SS, I approached the police on September 18, requesting protection to the school.

However, instead of supporting the reasonable stand for dialogue and rationality taken by the school management, the local police led by the zonal DCP put relentless pressure on the school management to apologise and withdraw the handbook in order to pre-empt the Sena’s protest. The result: on the morning of the threatened protest, September 19, local Shiv Sainiks assembled in front of the school and publicly distributed xeroxed copies of the apology letter the DCP had forced out of the school management before dispersing in a ‘victorious’ mood. Only the police can tell us how a letter from the school addressed to the police got into the hands of the Shiv Sainiks. If this is not police complicity, English dictionaries would need revision.

No less interesting is the role played by the state education department under a ‘secular’ combine on that day. Representatives of the department descended on the school and extracted an immediate assurance that the handbook would be withdrawn.

Two major issues related to the conduct of public servants arise from the controversy and both have become the subject matter of complaints by the management and the author before the Maharashtra State Human Rights Commission and Maharashtra State Minorities Commission.
One is the conduct of the police, both visible and behind the scenes. Second, is the action of the state education department in seeking to control alternate and dynamic renderings of history.

Throughout the day on Monday, September 17, despite repeated efforts by the school management to contact the local police station for protection from the Shiv Sena, zonal DCP SS Khemkar did not respond. The matter cannot be seen in isolation without considering the fear and terror that an outfit like the SS generates in Mumbai.

Only weeks before this incident, Shiv Sainiks showed their true colours, completely destroying the only hospital of its kind in neighbouring Thane. But for the hospital doctors who did all they could to save patients, several of whom were on life support systems, there is no saying how many may have died in addition to the two patients who could not survive the ordeal. The provocation? The Thane chief of the Sena, Anand Dighe, admitted to the hospital following a road accident, had died due to a massive heart failure. The Thane police commissioner and his police force are now facing an enquiry before the State’s Human Rights Commission for their failure to act against the Sainiks who reduced Rs 9 crore worth of hospital property and equipment to rubble in next to no time. The hospital has since closed down and several hundreds of its employees rendered jobless.

These were the immediate antecedents of the outfit, the Shiv Sena which was threatening Don Bosco, Borivali, with an agitation. Even as the Don Bosco agitation was hanging fire, women Shiv Sainiks had stormed into the chambers of the Mumbai municipal commissioner and roughed him up.
What does the police do in these circumstances to reassure a school management which assumes responsibility for hundreds of young children?

Despite it being made repeatedly clear, by the school management and the author, that the issue was open for dialogue and discussion, the Borivali police through the local DCP SS Khemkar brought enormous pressure on the school to withdraw the handbook completely . Worse still was the conduct of the city’s commissioner of police, MN Singh, whom I contacted on his mobile phone at 9 am on Tuesday, September 18, after trying in vain to get through to him the day before.

The result of the call to the commissioner was the conduct of DCP Khemkar, intimidation and threats made to the school. Behind the scenes, Singh used the Christian connections of former supercop, Julio Ribeiro, to advise the school to "steer clear of controversies".

At the time, Section 142 (order against assembly with weapons) was in force due to the tensions following the terror attacks in the USA. In view of the sensitive situation and the antecedents of the Shiv Sena, the law and order machinery would have been well within its powers to assume a no-nonsense attitude vis–à–vis the SS. Instead, the commissioner, through DCP SS Khemkar, chose to bulldoze the management of a premier and pioneering educational institution into penning a here–and–now apology and withdrawal of the handbook.

The same approach was followed by the second state institution that entered the picture, the state education department. Under law and the codes governing the SSC school board, there is nothing to prevent schools from using educational material to enhance the syllabus; yet the state government responds to the SS intimidation with uncharacteristic promptness.

Maharashtra, like other states in the country, has seen the mushrooming of several thousand institutions run by the RSS/VHP that freely use supplementary texts that, simply put, spread hatred and division. Does the state government, even under ‘secular’ dispensations, ever ‘dare’ to make any inquiries? Why is it that efforts to rationalise history learning and cleanse it of the cobwebs of bigotry and hatred are such a challenge to our institutions, and not those that blatantly promote bigotry and stereotypes?

The matter presently lies before the Maharashtra State Human Rights Commission. The next date for hearing is November 29. Meanwhile, in a parallel move, the Borivali police station has instituted an investigation under section 153 c (hurting the religious sentiments of a section) against the author of the book. 

(Archived from the October 2001 issue of Communalism Combat)
[1] Shivaji: Tyancha ani Amcha, Amar Hind Mandal, Dadar, May 3,1959
Reason, emotion and history

(In March 1994, as part of our campaign to track the parochial processes that deter even ‘secular’ governments from fair explorations into history, we had interviewed Dr Arvind Deshpande, then chairman of the Maharshtra State Text Book Board. We reproduce excerpts from that exchange)

Since its inception in 1980–81, the main objective before the Maharashtra State Text Book Bureau that we were part of was that the ‘secular element should be jousted up in our history books…’ Shivaji, for example, has always been depicted as a Hindu hero. But the moment you do this, unknowingly, unconsciously, the bias creeps in.

For the first four to five years we were extremely conscious of this. So we did our utmost to remove these biases in order to prevent their creeping into the curriculum. Soon enough, we were faced with the consequences — opposition either from the minority or the majority community.
This was our bitter experience with a Std. IV textbook. In 1986, with the introduction of the New Education Policy, the entire syllabus was revised. In history, too, new elements were added: Regional History, Indian Culture and Civics. In preparing and publishing textbooks, we are severely restricted by the cost factor. As they have to be affordable for lakhs of SSC students throughout the state, the books are restricted to 96 pages. Now, while looking at the Std. IV history textbook, we found that 80 of these 96 pages dealt with Shivaji alone. This left little room for any other element that we wanted to

In keeping with our objective of introducing a new value system, in the revised draft we had to rewrite portions of it, reduce the section on Shivaji. Professor Bhosale (RR Bhosale, another bureau member) also agreed. Paragraphs were changed, some re–drafted. Meanwhile, someone leaked information to the press. Even before the re–drafted book was released or published, merely on surmises and guesswork, we had to face a vicious media campaign led by Kesari (Marathi daily). We were charged with “removing the inspiring part of history and making it insipid.” Until then, we had only had a trial reading of the book for three days with 60 teachers, two from each district in Maharashtra. During this, no one seemed to have any objection. But suddenly, after the vicious campaigns in the press, the same government that had entrusted us with the task of “jousting the secular and humanist element in history” completely backed out.

This was in 1991, when the Sudhakarrao Naik–led minority government was in power. Defending our work on the floor of the house, the state education minister said that we were only trying to de–individualise history, that all of Indian history had been personality-oriented, that history should focus attention on the social forces at work and not only on individual personalities. But the chief minister succumbed and promised the agitated legislators, who cut across all party lines, that not one word in the 25–year–old textbook would be changed. As a result, the communal overtones remain; the incitement to violence is still there. All the work that we had put in for the revised draft is lost forever. We were all asked to surrender our copies to the government.

The key question is, why are issues of history being raked up again and again? 

(Dr Deshpande spoke to co-editor Communalism Combat, Teesta Setalvad in 1994; this account has been archived from the earlier editions of Communalism Combat, March 1994 and October, 2001)
The Evils of Caste

We reproduce below excerpts from the work of one of the oldest authorities on the Marathas, historian Jadunath Sarkar. In two books on the issue, the historian has dealt with the ticklish issue of caste which affected Shivaji’s acceptance as a formal ruler.

A deep study of Maratha society, indeed of society throughout India, reveals some facts which it is considered patriotism to ignore. We realise that the greatest obstacles to Shivaji’s success were not Mughals or Adil Shahis, Siddis or Feringis, but his own countrymen. First, we cannot be blind to the truth that the dominant factor in Indian life — even today, no less than in the seventeenth century — is caste, and neither religion nor country. By caste must not be understood the four broad divisions of the Hindus which exist only in the textbooks and the airy philosophical generalisations delivered from platforms. The caste that really counts, the division that is a living force, is the sub–division and sub–sub–division into innumerable small groups called shakhas or branches (more correctly twigs or I should say, leaves, they are so many!) into which each caste is split up and within which alone marrying and giving in marriage, eating and drinking together take place…
And each of these smallest sub–divisions of the Brahman caste is separated from the other sub–divisions as completely as it is from an altogether different caste like the Vaishya or Shudra, e.g., the Kanyakubja and Sarayupari Brahmans of northern India, the Konkanastha and Deshastha of Maharashtra.
Personal Jealousy Hindering Shivaji

Shivaji was not contented with all his conquests of territory and vaults full of looted treasure, so long as he was not recognised as a Kshatriya entitled to wear the sacred thread and to have the Vedic hymns chanted at his domestic rites. The Brahmans alone could give him such recognition, and though they swallowed the sacred thread they boggled at the Vedokta! The result was a rupture… Whichever side had the rights of the case, one thing is certain, namely, that this internally torn community had not the sine qua non of a nation. 
Nor did Maharashtra acquire that sine qua non ever after. The Peshwas were Brahmans from Konkan, and the Brahmans of the upland (Desh) despised them as less pure in blood. The result was that the state policy of Maharashtra under the Peshwas, instead of being directed to national ends, was now degraded into upholding the prestige of one family or social sub–division.

Shivaji had, besides, almost to the end of his days, to struggle against the jealousy, scorn, indifference and even opposition of certain Maratha families, his equals in caste sub-division and once in fortune and social position, whom he had now outdistanced. The Bhonsle Savants of Vadi, the Jadavs of Sindhkhed, the Mores of Javli, and (to a lesser extent) the Nimbalkars, despised and kept aloof from the upstart grandson of that Maloji whom some old men still living remembered to have seen tilling his fields like a Kunbi! Shivaji’s own brother Vyankoji fought against him during the Mughal invasion of Bijapur in 1666.

Shivaji’s religious toleration and equal treatment of all subjects
He stands on a lofty pedestal in the hall of the worthies of history, not because he was a Hindu champion, but because he was an ideal householder, an ideal king, and an unrivalled nation-builder. He was devoted to his mother, loving to his children, true to his wives, and scrupulously pure in his relations with other women. Even the most beautiful female captive of war was addressed by him as his mother. Free from all vices and indolence in his private life, he displayed the highest genius as a king and as an organizer. In that age of religious bigotry, he followed a policy of the most liberal toleration for all creeds.

The letter which he wrote to Aurangzeb, protesting against the imposition of the poll–tax on the Hindus, is a masterpiece of clear logic, calm persuasion, and political wisdom. Though he was himself a devout Hindu, he could recognise true sanctity in a Musalman, and therefore he endowed a Muhammadan holy man named Baba Yaqut with land and money and installed him at Keleshi. All creeds had equal opportunities in his service and he employed a Muslim secretary named Qazi Haidar, who, after Shivaji’s death, went over to Delhi and rose to be chief justice of the Mughal Empire.

There were many Muhammadan captains in Shivaji’s army and his chief admiral was an Abyssinian named Siddi Misri. His Maratha soldiers had strict orders not to molest any woman or rob any Muhammadan saint’s tomb or hermitage. Copies of the Quran which were seized in the course of their campaigns were ordered to be carefully preserved and then handed over respectfully to some Muhammadan.”
(From Jadunath Sarkar’s book, ‘House of Shivaji’).

The Coronation of Shivaji And After (1674-1676)

Why Shivaji wanted to be crowned

Shivaji and his ministers had long felt the practical disadvantages of his not being a crowned king. True, he had conquered many lands and gathered much wealth: he had a strong army and navy and exercised powers of life and death over men, like an independent sovereign. But theoretically his position was that of a subject; to the Mughal Emperor, he was a mere zamindar. He could not claim equality of political status with any king.

Then again, so long as he was a mere private subject, he could not, with all his real power, claim the loyalty and devotion of the people over whom he ruled. His promises could not have the sanctity and continuity of the public engagements of the head of a State. He could sign no treaty, grant no land with legal validity and an assurance of permanence. The territories conquered by his sword could not become his lawful property, however undisturbed his possession over them might be in practice. The people living under his sway or serving under his banners could not renounce their allegiance to the former sovereign of the land, nor be sure that they were exempt from the charge of treason for their obedience to him. The permanence of his political creation required that it should be validated as the act of a sovereign.

Shivaji recognized by Gaga Bhatta as a Kshatriya
But there was one curious hindrance to the realization of this ideal. According to the ancient Hindu scriptures, only a member of the Kshatriya caste can be legally crowned as king and claim the homage of Hindu subjects. The Bhonsles were popularly known to be neither Kshatriyas, nor of any other twice-born caste, but mere tillers of the soil, as Shivaji’s great–grandfather was still remembered to have been. How could an upstart sprung from such a Shudra (plebeian) stock aspire to the rights and honours due to a Kshatriya? The Brahmans of all parts of India would attend and bless the coronation of Shivaji, only if he could be authoritatively declared a Kshatriya.

It was, therefore, necessary first to secure the support of a pandit, whose reputation for scholarship would silence all opposition to the views he might propound. Such a man was found in Vishweshwar, nicknamed Gaga Bhatta, of Benares, the greatest Sanskrit theologian and controversialist then alive, a master of the four Vedas, the six philosophies, and all the scriptures of the Hindus, and popularly known as the Brahma–deva and Vyas of the age. 

After holding out for some time, he became compliant, accepted the Bhonsle pedigree as fabricated by the clever secretary Balaji Avji and other agents of Shiva, and declared that Rajah was a Kshatriya of the purest breed, descended in unbroken line from the Maharanas of Udaipur, the sole representatives of the solar line of the mythical hero-god Ramchandra. His audacious but courtierly ethnological theory was rewarded with a huge fee, and he was entreated to visit Maharashtra and officiate as high priest at the coronation of Shiva. He agreed, and on his arrival was welcomed like a crowned head, Shiva and all his officers advancing many miles from Satara to receive him on the way.

(From ‘Shivaji And His Times’ by Jadunath Sarkar).
(Archived from the October 2001 issue of Communalism Combat)
The Story of Shivaji’s Coronation

(Apart from Jadunath Sarkar, historian Govind Sakharam Sardesai’s New History of the Marathas, too, notes the ticklish issues surrounding Shivaji’s coronation).

The Coronation …

“By the beginning of 1673 the idea of a public coronation began to materialize, and when preparations were fully completed, the event took place at fort Raigad, on Saturday 5 June 1674, the day of the sun’s entering the constellation Leo.

The orthodox Brahman opinion was not favourable to Shivaji’s claim to be recognised as a Kshatriya by blood, although he had proved this claim by action. More than a thousand years had passed since such a ceremony was last performed, and on that account men’s memories had been entirely dimmed. All ancient learning of the Deccan had migrated to Benares after the invasion of Ala–ud–din Khilji and the Muslim conquest of the Deccan.

Ancient families noted for hereditary learning like the Devs, the Dharmadhikaris, the Sheshas, the Bhattas, the Maunis, had left their hearths and homes at Paithan, with all their sacred books, and opened their new university of letters on the bank of the holy Ganges. The ignorant unthinking folks of Paithan had now no voice of authority left in them. Benares now began to dominate Hindu thought and learning. So Shivaji had to negotiate with Gaga Bhatt of Benares, a learned representative of that school of Hindu law–givers. He was invited to Raigad to arrange the details in such a way as to suit the needs of the present moment as much as to conform to ancient usage.”

(New History of The Marathas, Govind Sakharam Sardesai). 
(Archived from the October 2001 issue of Communalism Combat)