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The Politics of Shivaji , Caste And History Writing

By Vidyadhar Date

20 August, 2015

This day, August 20, marks the second anniversary of the gunning down of a leading campaigner for rational thinking Dr Narendra Dabholkar in the heart of Pune city. The previous day the Maharashtra government conferred the Maharashtra bhooshan award on Babasaheb Purandare who has built myths around Shivaji . No two persons could be more unlike each other.

Purandare has created a larger than life image of Shivaji, the Maratha ruler. For nearly 70 years, the bearded, 93 year old Purandare has been writing on Shivaji and delivering orations on him captivating huge gatherings. It is said that it is as if he lives in the 17th century, so obsessed he is with the Shivaji ethos.

The award has created a huge controversy and Dabholkar’s daughter Mukta has put the issue in some perspective. The row was started mainly by the Nationalist Congress party and Samhaji Brigade and the main reason for its ire is that he is a Brahmin who is cornering all the limelight while they see Shivaji mainly as a Maratha caste figure. Ironically, the Shivaji cult has been built by Brahmins starting with Lokmanya Tilak in the early 20the century but later the Marathas in the Congress and the Shiv Sena jumped into the fray and exploited Shivaji for their own political ends.

Mukta Dabholkar said she and other progressive figures are opposing the award not on caste grounds but because Purandare has communalized Shivaji’s life. Communalists have added fuel to the fire by such ways as displaying gory scenes of Shivaji tearing the stomach of Afzal Khan, the sardar of Aurangzeb with steel claws after a friendly embrace.

So Maharashtra is now caught between two socially regressive political formations, the Shiv Sena BJP combine on the one hand and the Sambhaji Brigade types on the other hand. The Congress has never had the stomach to take on fascist forces but at least its leaders are not openly communal.

The Sambhaji Brigade and its allies have acquired notoriety for spreading caste hatred and vandalizing the hallowed Bhandarkar oriental research Institute library in Pune in 2004 in the wake of the controversy over the publication of a book on Shivaji by James Laine. One leader has published a venomous booklet which calls for raping of Brahmin women.

The NCP is also in the news for corruption of a particularly venal kind.. Its MLA Ramesh Kadam was arrested earlier this week for alleged involvement in a Rs 365 crore scam in the Annabhau Sathe development corporation which is intended to serve the most backward community of Maang and Matang. It is named after a radical and prolific dalit writer who grew up and died in poverty and wrote the famous powada of the battle of Stalingrad.

As the brigade followers went on a rampage on the streets on the award issue, the function was held in Raj Bhavan in Mumbai amidst tight security. And here one must give credit to Mr Purandare. For a man of 93 he spoke with extraordinary verve, with humour, good memory and a high presence of mind.

He was also very shrewd. He made several positive references to Muslims sensing that he was under attack for his perceived anti-Muslim bias. He spoke of his visit to the mosque at Rohinkhed near Malkapur in Buldana district in Vidarbha. He found the black mosque wall remarkably clean. He asked the attendant who showed him why. He wiped the surface and there appeared holy verses from the Koran. And this happened every time he did the wiping. This also shows the extraordinary reach of wanderers and researchers like him of the olden days. You won’t find this among many of today’s well paid scholars in India who are confined mainly to libraries. I checked about the mosque from a very knowledgeable history scholar who has travelled to all the districts and he was not aware of it. The district gazetteer of Buldana mentions that this mosque, built in the 15th century, was second in importance only to Mecca. This could be so in those days for the Muslim rulers in India.

He recalled the excellent role played by Faiyyaz as Shivaji’s mother in the spectacular play Janata Raja which used horses and an elephant. He also paid tributes to Sant Tukaram, the non-Brahmin saint, along with the Brahmin Dnyaneshwar so that he does not appear biased towards Brahmins.

Chief minister Devendra Phadanavis should have avoided talking of throwing the opponents in the controversy down a cliff in the style of Shivaji . Shivaji was known to hand out such summary justice. Apart from the violence and impropriety, a punishment of death for mere verbal opposition or even rioting is most inappropriate.

It is also necessary to for the Left not to fall into the trap of romanticizing of history while defending Shivaji as secular and liberal while they take on the right wing, Shivaji was recently lauded for respectfully returning the daughter-in-law of the subhedar of Kalyan. This is a romantic fable, very popular in Maharashtra and it is not history. Shivaji is even said to have remarked to the lady that had his mother been so beautiful, he would have been handsome too. Nothing of the sort happened.

I have checked his with scholars who have done research for decades on Shivaji and history in general. One of them was the late Setu Madhavrao Pagdi, who had the unique advantage of knowing Persian and Urdu and he was a family friend. He had served as a bureaucrat in Hyderabad so he knew the culture of the Deccan extremely well. He was also the editor of the gazetteer department of Maharashtra, a biographer of Shivaji and a prolific writer of history. He was also an excellent and popular speaker, a much more scholarly version of Babasaheb Purandare, the centre of the present controversy.

Secondly, the point made in the article that Shivaji had a very pro-poor revenue system is also not borne out by available records. In fact, this was one of the precise points made by Prof Pandharinath Ranade, the late history professor and a Marxist, that Shivaji’s taxation was not liberal and in this he took on the Communist leader S.A. Dange. This was more than 40 years ago. Dange, while eulogizing Shivaji, had argued that Shivaji had actually abolished zamindari. Ranade was very respectful to Shivaji in his article in the terecentenary celebration of Shivaji’s coronation in Maharashtra in 1974. Yet, it created a furore and the Indian History Congress finally intervened and he got back his job in Marathwada of university. I was a witness to the controversy. The points are also corroborated by Mr K.K. Chaudhari, a history scholar and former editor of the department gazetteers.

But history writing establishments behave opportunistically everywhere. The way history is taught in schools and universities is a whore up for sale to the highest bidder and historians are little better than a gang of whoremongers, declared the radical French historian Jean Chesneaux. He said in the past French Communist intellectuals had turned their backs on the poisoned delights of an academic career following the example of such militant Communist party writers as Politzer and Jacques Decour who died in the struggle against Nazism after years of obscure activity in working class organizations.

(Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of the book Transport in the era of climate change. Walking, cycling, public transport need priority).


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