‘Shivaji’s swaraj was not for Hindus alone” (Book Review)

Title: Who was Shivaji? Author: Govind Pansare; Publisher: LeftWord Books; Pages: 110; Price: Rs.150

Who was Shivaji? A medieval ruler (1627-80) who embraced what is known today as Hindutva politics and was bitterly anti-Muslim? Or was he an able king who did not discriminate on the basis of religion and constantly worked to better the lives of peasants and other oppressed communities?

This is the book – the outcome of a speech delivered in May 1987 – that probably cost CPI leader Govind Pansare, 67, his life. Two gunmen on a motorcycle shot him when he was on a morning walk with his wife in Kolhapur in Maharashtra on February 16, 2015. He died in Mumbai. The killers were never caught.

Read the racy and hugely informative book, and it is clear that Pansare was most probably killed for portraying Shivaji in a rare new light – based on sound research. It is no wonder the book has been printed in eight languages and is seen as a counter to Shivaji’s image portrayed by dominant Hindu nationalist discourse.

Shivaji was a hugely popular king because he reined in feudal lords and introduced rules and regulations regarding what the Jagirdars, Deshmukhs, Vatandars (landholders), Patils and Kulkarnis should do and should not. Shivaji’s state punished guilty feudal bosses, a dramatic development in the life of peasants who immediately identified themselves with the king and willingly took part in his military expeditions.

Shivaji maintained low rates for rent and taxes on land, severely punished rapists, took the administration close to the ordinary folks by doing work in Marathi, told his soldiers never to loot from peasants or torment women, and led a life of personal morality.

Contrary to popular perception, Shivaji had many Muslims working under him. They held very important positions in his army and administration. His naval chief was Darya Sarang Daulat Khan, a personal bodyguard was a young Muslim, and the head of infantry was Noor Khan Beg. Around 1649, about 500-700 Pathans from the Vijaypur Army joined Shivaji.

“Shivaji’s lieutenants, soldiers and chieftains were not Hindus alone. They were Muslims as well. If Shivaji had undertaken the task of eliminating Islam, these Muslims would certainly not have joined him. (However) Shivaji had set out to demolish the despotic and exploitative rule of Muslim rulers.”

Shivaji was no doubt religious and proud of being a Hindu. But he fought the Marathas as well. When Mughal warlord Shaista Khan invaded Shivaji’s dominion, many Hindu noblemen accompanied Khan, including four of Shivaji’s relatives. And in 1665, Shivaji had to concede defeat to Mirza Raja Jai Singh, a satrap of Emperor Aurangzeb, leading to the humiliating treaty of Purandar that led him to surrender his forts, money and son Sambhaji to the Mughal regime. And to oppose Shivaji, some Brahmins in his kingdom performed a ‘Kot Chandi Yajna’ on behalf of Raja Jai Singh.

Sadly, Pansare says, modern history presents Shivaji as virulently anti-Muslim – which the late author says he was not. “Shivaji’s Swaraj was not for Hindus alone. It was equally for the Muslims in Maharashtra.” Shivaji, Pansare tells us, was “a man of his times” — “neither a Hindu fundamentalist nor a secular socialist”.

(29.02.2016 – M.R. Narayan Swamy can be reached on narayan.swamy@ians.in)

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