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Shivaji and the Marathas

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Shivaji & Politics of History









Shivaji and the Politics of History

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In recent years, with the advent to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party in national politics, and of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, the stock of Shivaji Bhonsle (1627-1680), the Maratha leader, has once again risen high. One hundred years ago, the Indian nationalist Bal Gangadhar Tilak succeeded to a considerable extent in reviving the political memory of Shivaji, and early nationalists, in search of martial heroes, raised him to the eminence of a “freedom fighter”. Tilak’s contemporary, the Indian nationalist Lala Lajpat Rai, nicknamed the “Lion of the Punjab”, published a biography of Shivaji in Urdu (1896), and commended him to the attention of the youth with the observation that “Shivaji protected his own religion, saved the cow and the Brahmin but he did not disrespect any other religion. This is the highest praise that can be bestowed on a Hindu hero like Shivaji in the days of Aurangzeb.”

Shivaji has assumed over the course of the last few years an extraordinary importance in the debates over the Indian past. To visit Maharashtra, particularly Pune, is to come to the awareness that a great many public institutions and buildings have been named after him. Victoria Terminus in Bombay, one of the preeminent landmarks of European colonialism in what was Britain’s foremost colony, is now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, and one would imagine that Maharashtra, home to great saints, writers, and such nationalist leaders as the scholar Gopal Krishna Gokhale, was bereft of any other commanding personality. Even in Delhi the gigantic Interstate Bus Terminal (ISBT), which services the needs of millions of people every year, has recently been renamed the Chhatrapati Shivaji Bus Terminal. It is presumed that Shivaji was one of the earliest exponents of the idea of a Hindu nation, who kept the torch of Hindu resistance alive during the days of Muslim rule (generally characterized as ‘Muslim tyranny’). Lala Lajpat Rai, whom we have quoted previously, took the view that Shivaji’s life demonstrated that “during any [sic] time in Muslim rule Hindus did not lose any opportunity to show their valour and attain freedom nor did they quietly suffer oppression.” So long as Indian nationalists persisted in portraying Shivaji as a Hindu leader who withstood Aurangzeb’s military campaigns and religious fanaticism, they were given no hindrance by the British; but when Tilak invoked Shivaji’s name and courage to rouse Indians to resistance against British rule, he was convicted of sedition. The emergence of Gandhi, and the adoption by the Indian National Congress of non-violence as its official policy, did little to erode the popularity in which Shivaji was held. His name was kept alive by armed revolutionaries and by a nation, stung by charges that it was effete and incapable of offering resistance, eager to flaunt a martial past; and the emergence of communalism in the 1920s, leading eventually to demands for the creation of a Muslim state, again made it possible to urge resistance to Muslim demands in the name of Shivaji.

With the creation in 1960 of the new state of Maharashtra, carved out of the old Bombay Presidency, Shivaji became canonized as the creator of the Marathi nation, and the celebration in 1974 of the 300th anniversary of his coronation was to furnish ripe opportunities for consolidating the view that he was even a ‘national’ leader. To take any other view was to invite retribution, as one Marathi historian at Marathwada University found out in 1974 when he was dismissed from his position for disputing the hagiographic view of Shivaji. One volume of contributions, mainly by historians, was entitled Chhatrapati Shivaji: Architect of Freedom (1975). Its editor states that Shivaji “laid the foundation of a nation-state, the state of the Marathas, on a firm, secular basis.” But what is this nation-state of the Marathas, and of what “freedom” was Shivaji the architect? Doubtless, the Marathas were the dominant power in the Deccan for much of the eighteenth century, but the argument for Maratha sovereignty, and a Maratha nation-state, cannot so easily be sustained. Shivaji’s successors, taking advantage of the weakness of the later Mughals, would play more the role of plunderers and marauders than kings while still acting as the tax-collectors for the Mughal emperors; by the second half of the eighteenth century, they were also contending with the military strength of the East India Company’s forces, though they were nonetheless able to capture Delhi and Agra, the nerve centers of the Mughal empire, in 1770-71.

Similarly, it is only possible to characterize Shivaji as the “architect of freedom” on the presumption that Hindus were laboring under severe disadvantages and were suffocated by Muslim tyranny before Shivaji freed them from their woes. One historian, taking this view, put the matter rather dramatically in another volume commemorating the tercentenary of Shivaji’s coronation when he described Shivaji as having liberated the Marathas from three centuries of “alien rule” which had “turned the natives fatalistic”: “It was Shivaji who emancipated them from this terrific mental torpidity. He created in them self-confidence . . . He gave them back their dearly loved religious freedom.” Yet this assessment appears almost moderate, when we consider R. C. Majumdar’s opinion that in the whole history of India, there was no Hindu other than Shivaji “who made such a pious resolve in his mind to save his country and religion from foreign yoke and oppression.” Dismissing with utter contempt the position of “modern Hindu politicians and pseudo-historians” [a reference to Nehru among others] who insist on “a complete assimilation between the Hindus and Muslims after the first fury of intolerance and oppression was over”, Majumdar remarked: “But Shivaji was in any case free from such ideas. He looked upon the Muslims as oppressive rulers and the Hindus as long-suffering subject peoples.”

To substantiate the Hindu communalist reading of Shivaji as the architect of Hindu freedom requires that Hindu-Muslim conflict be seen as the backdrop of his own times, just as it turns him into an inveterate foe of Muslims. Yet Shivaji employed Muslims in his army, among them 700 Pathans who had once worked for the Bijapur Sultan, and he forged alliances with Muslim rulers, in one case to wage a campaign against his own half-brother. It is not at all clear why the conflict between Shivaji and Aurangzeb should necessarily be viewed as a Hindu-Muslim conflict, rather than as a contest over power, resources, and sovereignty. Moreover, there is little documentary evidence to warrant the conclusion that Hindus in the Deccan were being systematically persecuted before Shivaji arrived to free them from their yoke. Indeed, quite to the contrary, at least some of the evidence points to the fact that many Muslim dynasties in the south (mainly Shiite) retained a catholic attitude towards Hinduism. Few historians in the 1970s, as communalism was becoming an important force in the writing of Indian history, were prepared to reflect on how far it is possible to infer from Shivaji’s encounters with Afzal Khan and Aurangzeb that people belonging to various social strata similarly felt their lives to be bounded by oppositional religious feelings. Yet, just as Aurangzeb and Akbar had become symbolic figures in the emerging dispute between secularists and communalists, so Shivaji was to become an iconic figure in the struggle to define the ‘authentic’ history of India.

With the rise to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party at the national level, and earlier of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, the quest for a martial Hindu past has received a new impetus, and since the conflict has moved to the domain of history as well, it seems certain that Shivaji will continue to be viewed not merely as a chieftain and even Maratha leader, which he doubtless was, but – altogether erroneously – as the supreme figure in the “Hindu struggle for freedom” from Muslim tyranny and as the inspirational figure for Indian independence. Shivaji’s acolytes, in recent years, have embraced tactics of intimidation and terror that certainly do no credit to Shivaji himself. The scholar James Laine, author of Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), was placed under a death sentence for the expression of views considered detrimental to Shivaji, and Oxford University Press was compelled to withdraw the book from sale in India. One of Professor Laine’s local informants, a scholar at the venerable Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI), was publicly humiliated by hoodlums claiming to act in the name of venerating Shivaji’s memory, and the institute itself was sacked. Any intellectual history of how Shivaji’s name survives in India will thus have to contend not only with such obvious phenomena as the rise of the Shiv Sena, but also the strategies deployed to silence those who question the received versions of the history of Shivaji.

[See also the companion biographical piece on Shivaji.]

Further Reading:

Apte, B. K., ed. Chhatrapati Shivaji: Coronation Tercentenary Commemoration Volume (Bombay: University of Bombay, 1974-75). See especially the introduction by Apte.

Kulkarnee, Narayan H., ed. Chhatrapati Shivaji: Architect of Freedom (Delhi: Chhatrapati Shivaji Smarak Samiti, 1975). See especially the article by J. C. Srivastava, "Lala Lajpatrai’s Urdu Biography of Shivaji", and R. C. Majumdar, "Shivaji’s Relevance to Modern Times".

Mukhia, Harbans. "Medieval Indian History and the Communal Approach", in Romila Thapar, Harbans Mukhia, and Bipan Chandra, Communalism and the Writing of Indian History (New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1969).


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