India's Right Wing Can't Bury the History of a National Hero's Religious Tolerance


On February 19,  the Maharashtra government in western India celebrated Shiv Jayanti, the anniversary of the birthday of the legendary 17th-century Maratha warrior “Chhatrapati Shivaji (Bhonsale) Maharaj,” with much fanfare. This year is special in a way, as in the next few months construction will begin on the long-awaited “Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Memorial” in the Arabian Sea off Mumbai. The first phase of the memorial is estimated to cost Rs 2,500 crore (around $400 million). Costs for the second phase will be worked out later.

“Historic day it is! 15 long years’ wait is over... Maharashtra and our nation have waited for 15 years for this monument of pride for every Indian,” Maharashtra’s chief minister Devendra Fadnavis tweeted March 1 after ceremonially handing over the Letter of Acceptance to top officials of the infrastructure major, Larsen & Toubro. The Mumbai international airport has been named Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, and Mumbai’s iconic Victoria Terminus (VT) railway station has been renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT).

Shivaji is undoubtedly among the most revered icons for right-wing Hindus. Here is how one website describes the 17th-century ruler:

“History is yet to produce another hero who can be ably compared with the bravest of the Marata warrior Chatrapati Shivaji. Thinking of Shivaji’s name, the concept of Swaraj [self-rule] reverberates in our ears. Shivaji’s relentless war against foreign invasions [read: Muslim rulers in the country] helped establish the supremacy of Hindu Swaraj over a vast territory which was eventually upheld by some of his successors.”

Put differently, communal Hindus perceive and project Shivaji as an “anti-Muslim Hindu ruler” who defied the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and other Muslim kings and commanders.

According to the late Govind Pansare (about whom more later), the widespread perception among Hindu masses about Shivaji is as follows:

“Shivaji was anti-Muslim.

His Life Mission was to oppose the Muslim Religion.

He was a Hindu Emperor (Hindu Padpatshah).

He was a protector of cows and Brahmins (Go-Brahmin Pratipalaka).” (page 22)

Until recently, the image of Shivaji as an “anti-Muslim” king was just as familiar among Muslims as with Hindus. How these lessons are imprinted on young minds in both communities has been vividly recounted by a Muslim journalist from Maharashtra, Naushad Usman. In a YouTube video, Usman described how his history teacher read aloud from a book an account of Shivaji’s encounter with Afzal Khan—a commander who served the Adil Shahi (Muslim) dynasty—in which the latter is killed by the former. “I am the only Muslim in the classroom. As the teacher reads out the lesson, all my Hindu classmates have their eyes locked on me.” His class reacted as if Usman were a direct descendant of Afzal Khan and all his Hindu classmates descendants of Shivaji.

If Shivaji was indeed anti-Muslim as the Hindu right would have us believe, and Muslims thought so too, why have Muslims of Maharashtra been going out of their way in recent years, embracing the Maratha ruler, celebrating Shiv Jayanti with as much zeal as their Hindu compatriots?    

The answer lies in the fact that the Shivaji who emerges from the scholarly works of secular historians is that of an unbiased, pro-people king. In today’s communally charged India where Muslims feel increasingly insecure, Shiv Jayanti presents them with an opportunity to honor the memory of the “real Shivaji” and in the process counter the politics of Muslim hatred in the name of a fair ruler.

But divorcing the story of Shivaji from its anti-Muslim roots can be life-threatening. Some years ago, a leader of the Communist Party of India, Govind Pansare (referred to above) published a booklet titled Who Was Shivaji? The original in Marathi has sold well over 100,000 copies (very impressive by Indian standards), and subsequent translations of the booklet in English and other Indian languages have also done exceedingly well. Before this, veteran communist trade unionist, S.A. Dange, gave this historic deconstruction of Shivaji as a pro-people, pluralist ruler, being manipulated by the Hindu right. His iconic speech, “Tyaanche Shivaji, Aamche Shivaji” (Their Shivaji, Our Shivaji), was delivered to workers outside the Calico Mills in Bombay, India’s textile hub in the 1950s. This speech finds a place in the collection of speeches of the veteran trade unionist.

This writer, in her work with widening the horizons of social studies and history teaching in Indian schools through KHOJ, an educational project for a plural India, has constructed teacher training manuals on early medieval history where portions on Shivaji, especially his subaltern caste background, have made her more enemies with the present regime. For those sworn to an exclusivist vision of rewriting history, and erroneously legitimizing ‘upper’-caste hegemony, to even allude to Shivaji’s peasant caste background is blasphemy.

This writer’s work with schools, education and syllabi has taken her to the works of historians like Jadunath Sarkar, who is recognized as “one of the oldest authorities on the Marathas,” as I wrote in the Indian Express. “[W]ith two meticulously researched books on Shivaji, the historian has dealt with the tricky issue of how caste affected Shivaji’s acceptance as a formal (anointed by Brahmins) ruler despite his successful military campaigns and massive popularity.”

Sarkar writes:

“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… 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 a 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.”

Shivaji, to gain this ‘caste legitimacy,’ had to pay an obscene sum of 40 lakh gold coins as ‘inducement’ to a set of Brahmin priests to anoint him with the thread.

Rational deconstruction sits uneasily with the thought processes of the right. Sarkar further elaborates how Shivaji’s main identity was not that of a ‘Hindu king.’ Sarkar writes of Shivaji’s religious toleration and equal treatment of all subjects in “House of Shivaji”:

“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.”

It’s not surprising, then, that those who put forward this interpretation of Shivaji became an enemy of the Hindu right. For the communal Hindus, Pansare, with his huge reach and popularity in hinterland Maharashtra, was a particular threat. What irked them in particular was the fact that written in simple language, in the language of the masses, Pansare’s message was reaching out to large numbers. What’s more, the communist leader addressed numerous public gatherings all over Maharashtra exposing the communal Hindu agenda of projecting Shivaji as a Muslim-hater. Several videos of Pansare posted on YouTube increased his reach further. For the Hindu right, here was a dangerous man who somehow had to be silenced. And silenced he was: Shot by gun-wielding assailants on the morning of February 16, 2015, he succumbed to his injuries four days later.

Three years on, the killers are yet to be nabbed by the investigators. Megha, daughter-in-law of Pansare, who has petitioned the Bombay High Court in search of justice, recently stated, “Three years is a long duration. We are hearing that the investigation is on the right track for many months. Police have lost the initial crucial period by carrying out a shoddy investigation. Now, police have claimed in the high court that they have located more number of people in the case. However, already many are absconding.”

Here is the picture that emerges from a reading of Pansare’s Who Was Shivaji? and other secular historians:

Question: Who was the man in charge of Shivaji’s artillery, his military hardware?

Answer: Ibrahim Khan, a Muslim.

Question: Shivaji is known as the ‘father of Indian navy.’ Who was his naval chief?

Answer: Daulat Khan, a Muslim.

Question: What was the name of Shivaji’s chief secretary?

Answer: Qazi Haider, a Muslim.

Question: Name Shivaji’s military adviser who saved his life by insisting that his king must stealthily carry iron claws for his meeting with Afzal Khan, as the latter was not trustworthy.

Answer: Rustom-e-Zamaan, a Muslim.

Question: Name two important generals from Shivaji’s army.

Answer: Noor Khan and Shama Khan; both Muslims.

Question: Name Shivaji’s bodyguard who was with him in Emperor Aurangzeb’s jail in Agra and who risked his life in plotting the Shivaji’s successful escape from prison.

Answer: Madari Mehtar, a Muslim.

Question: Name the military commander who sacrificed his life in Shivaji’s battle with Rustom Zamaan (different from the one named above) and Fazil Khan.

Answer: Siddi Halal, a Muslim.

Question: Who were Shivaji’s bodyguards, his inner security ring?

Answer: There were 21 of them, of which 10 were Muslims.

And so it goes on. When many Pathan fighters approached Shivaji after deserting his rival Adil Shah, the Maratha ruler promptly absorbed them into his army.

Historian Khafi Khan, otherwise known as a bitter critic of Shivaji, was also constrained to note, and is quoted as having written in his history of the Mughal period, Muntakhab-ul-Lubab: “Shivaji had always striven to maintain the honor of the people in his territories and was careful to maintain the honor of the women and children of Muhammadans when they fell into his hands. His injunctions upon this point were very strict.”

Here is an oft-quoted incident that “created universal admiration for Shivaji’s character”:

“During the raid on Kalyan (October 1667), the Bijapuri governor Mulla Ahmed’s young daughter-in-law, who was extremely beautiful, fell in the hands of a Maratha officer Abaji Sondev. Abaji sent the lady with a suitable escort to Poona thinking that she would be an acceptable present for his young master, but Shivaji, on her arrival exclaimed, ‘Oh, how nice would it have been if my mother were as fair as you are,’ implying that in that case, he too would have been equally fair, and at once sent her to her home with apologies for her capture. He also issued a stern warning that in future, during raids and war with the enemy, women on no account should be made to suffer or treated as booty.”

Vikram Damodar Savarkar—the man who coined the word Hindutva, founded the communal outfit Hindu Mahasabha, and was implicated in the plot to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi—was highly critical of such respect for women shown by Shivaji and other Hindu rulers:

“Is it not strange that, when they did so, neither Shivaji Maharaj nor Chimaji Appa [who dealt similarly with the the Portuguese wife of the governor of Bassein] should ever remember, the atrocities and the rapes and the molestation, perpetrated by Mahmud of Ghazni, Muhammad Ghori, Allauddin Khalji and others, on thousands of Hindu ladies and girls…”

“The souls of those millions of aggrieved women might have perhaps said ‘Do not forget, O Your Majesty Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and O! Your Excellency Chimaji Appa, the unutterable atrocities and oppression and outrage committed on us by the sultans and Muslim noblemen and thousands of others, big and small.

“Let these sultans and their peers take a pledge that in the event of a Hindu victory our molestation and detestable lot shall be avenged on the Muslim women. Once they are haunted with this dreadful apprehension that the Muslim women too, stand in the same predicament in case the Hindus win, the future Muslim conquerors will never dare to think of such molestation of Hindu women.”

For Savarkar, a highly revered leader of the Hindu right, rape was a political tool. In a convoluted sort of way he saw “virtue” in the Muslim molestation and worse of Hindu women. Such conduct, as Ajaz Ashraf writes, “was not ‘Muslim madness,’ for it had a distinct design—to increase the ‘Muslim population with special regard to unavoidable laws of nature.’”

Hindus like Shivaji, wrote Savarkar, “had a perverted idea of women-chivalry” that came in the way of increasing Hindu population through the forced impregnation of Muslim women captives.

In light of the facts that emerge from his rule, it is difficult to sustain the propaganda of Shivaji as an enemy of Muslims. Pansare died in his effort to bring the real Shivaji to the masses. Not surprisingly, Maharashtra’s Muslims are today eager to embrace the Maratha ruler. Especially so given their current state of legitimate fear and insecurity.

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