A review of the Marathi book ‘Shivaji KoN Hota’ which says that instead of a hollow invocation of Shivaji, it would bode well if we understood his life, his achievements and his struggles.
Possibly because they can no longer speak for themselves, historically important individuals are susceptible to massive distortions of their thoughts, actions and lives. This process of weaving myths around a historical figure holds particularly true in the case of Shivaji Shahji Bhonsle, the 17th century warrior king who went on to establish a formidable Maratha empire. It is with this aim of decoupling history from the prevalent demigod image of Shivaji that the CPI leader Govind Pansare gave a speech Shivaji KoN Hota? (Who was Shivaji?) way back in 1987. This was later published as a book and has been a Marathi super hit—the 38th edition of the book was released recently.
This book puts the life and times of Shivaji under perspective. The work is not as much a biography of Shivaji as it is an attempt to debunk the myths surrounding Shivaji. It begins with the question—of what relevance is the life of a feudal king in a democracy? Pansare says that although Shivaji was essentially a part of the 17th century feudal society, it was his vision that set him apart from the other rulers. First and foremost, Shivaji was a great state builder. Starting from a small paragana around Pune, he created a formidable political rule that extended throughout Maharashtra and beyond. Second, Shivaji was an administrative reformer. He modified rules of the tilling system in order to benefit the ordinary peasant. Unlike other rulers, he was able to break the traditional control of the Deshmukhs (highest local authority in a village), the Patils (a title for village chiefs), the Kulkarnis (village record keepers) and other dominant classes. Because he was able to break this nexus, he introduced land reforms that put an end to the discretionary exploitation by the village power elite.
In an interesting section of the book, Pansare debunks the myth of an idyllic 17th century village. He contends that before Shivaji’s rule, the king had no control or an interest in the operations of the village as long as the share of taxes duly reached the state coffers. The village economy was largely self-sufficient and exploitative. Under Shivaji’s rule however, the administration was centralised. Taxes reached the state first and were then devolved to the village levels. Moreover, the 17th century was particularly miserable for women. Physical exploitation was common and there was no appellate mechanism against the village elite. This changed in Shivaji’s administration. Pansare cites an instance where, for the first time a landlord was punished for the rape of a village woman. There was also a prevalent practice of women being employed as concubines for the soldiers of a travelling army. Shivaji prohibited that practice, disbanded a standing army and encouraged soldiers to take up other part-time occupations in order to retain stronger family ties.
The author’s take on the destruction of temples by invading armies merits particular attention. The conventional revenue earnings for armies came as a proportion of the loot. Hence, armies had an inbuilt incentive for maximum pillage while conducting raids. Naturally, temples which also functioned as wealth banks came under attack during such raids. Destruction of temples also served as a demoralising weapon—if the ‘God’ could not protect itself from an invading army, of what use was resisting such a powerful force? It was for these reasons that, regardless of religion, both Hindu and Muslim armies targeted temples. This is quite the opposite of the present day narrative where a few rulers have been singled out for destruction of temples. The author gives the instance of the Sharda Sringeri Temple which was in fact destroyed by the ‘Hindu’ Maratha army and was rebuilt by the ‘Muslim’ Tipu Sultan. What Pansare says is that the basis for statecraft was a conquest for rajya, and notdharma. Once the conquests were completed, there were several instances of kings rebuilding temples in order to assuage their subjects. The author says that even Aurangzeb rebuilt the Jagannath temple in Gujarat besides other important worshipping sites in Mathura and Benaras.
In recent times, the totem of Shivaji has been raised by many Hindu extremist outfits, calling him a Hindu ruler who stood up to the Muslim Mughals. Slotting Shivaji in neat compartments of religious dichotomy is factually incorrect. The book has excerpts of letters by Shivaji which are rich in Persian/Urdu words — like julum, farman, mulaaqat etc. Shivaji also issued ordinances disallowing destruction of mosques and temples.There were many Muslims who were happy with his rule just like many Hindu kings who collaborated to undermine his rule. Again, the message is that the basis for statecraft was a conquest for rajya, and not dharma.
The author rues that today, a cult of Shivaji has formed. Groups of people formed along caste and religious lines calling themselves shivbhakts are not difficult to spot in Maharashtra. However, what is conveniently forgotten is that Shivaji faced severe opposition from caste groups (96 kulis), who refused to be ruled by a person belonging to a caste ‘lesser’ than their own. But today, in their quest for narrative dominance, Shivaji was first appropriated by Hindu nationalists, then he was appropriated by various Maratha groups and then as a Gobrahman Pratipalak— the protector of the cow and the brahmin.
The problem with this competition for appropriation of Shivaji’s legacy by a religion, region and caste has been that while Shivaji was a very popular figure in many neighbouring states 50 years ago, his legacy has now been confined to Maharashtra. Pansare says that it is important that we distinguish the real shivbhakts from fake ones. Transforming a human to a god figure is easy because once a human is made a god, one disposes himself of the responsibility of changing his own behaviour. How can one emulate God, people ask. This is what we should be wary of. Instead of a hollow invocation of Shivaji, it would bode well if we understood his life, his achievements and his struggles. The lesson for all of us is that any nationalism obsessed with exclusion finds it difficult to limit the extent of the exclusion.
After all, history and mythology are separated by a thin, semi-permeable membrane. History enters the domain of the myth when historical figures are transformed into demigods, armed with superpowers. At a latter point, reason, as a means to gauge their power becomes dispensable and their lives attain an axiomatic character—beyond enquiry and too great to be analysed logically. We need to be extremely wary of this process which prohibits us from the spirit of questioning.
P.S.: Govind Pansare was killed by unidentified assailants in Feb, 2015
This article first appeared on The BroadMind blog.