Sunday, December 7, 2003

Off The Shelf
An image that might be disturbing
V.N. Datta

Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India
by James W. Laine. Oxford University Press, New Delhi. Rs 295. Pages 127.

Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India

THE reputation of leaders rises and falls like share prices. Heroes of yesterday become the villains of today and vice-versa and so it is with Shivaji, who is being subjected now to fierce controversies by politicians and academicians in this country. To his admirers, Shivaji was a nation-builder, a constructive genius and a brilliant military general, who had crumbled the Mughal Empire in the most trying circumstances weighted against him.

He is also credited with inspiring his countrymen with a fiery spirit of patriotism and religious tolerance, but to his enemies, Shivaji remains a "mountain rat", a guerrilla of the hills and a narrow-minded fanatic Hindu rebel who, animated by vaulting ambitions and animus, had indulged recklessly in plunder for the gratification of his vanity.

The net result of his nefarious activities, his critics argue, was anarchy and disintegration of the country, and paving the way for the British colonial rule. James W. Laine addresses himself to answering these two opposing views. Lane has two objects-to understand the 17th century Shivaji, the kind of hero he was in the context of the Maharashtrian culture, and to examine critically the growth of his legend as it relates to narratives of the Maharashtrian, Hindu and Indian cultures.

The author focuses himself primarily on the second object of reconstructing the Shivaji legend on the basis of various types of evidence such as ballads, poems, fiction, and some historical works. In other words, this work is of historigraphical nature, which examines the legend of Shivaji that has grown during the last 300 years.

The book is divided into five chapters with an appendix and notes. Laine begins his story by showing how Shivaji after his defeat against the Mughal army led by Mirza Raja Jai Singh became a Mughal vassal and went to the Agra fort to enroll his son, Sambhaji, in the Imperial service. Due to his own tactical skills, he escaped from the Agra fort. Three years after the death of Jai Singh, he took the fort of Simhagarh.

The author questions the general view that Shivaji's Maratha Hindu nationalism was at war with the Muslims in the 17th century India. According to Laine, Shivaji had employed pan-Indian symbols, not the regional ones; and further, identities were fluid then and not crystallised as separate. Sufis and Hindu saints walked a common ground, and there was not a distance between the Hindus and the Muslims.

Only some Muslim rulers did create ethnic trouble. The author asserts that pre-modern Marathas did not understand identities and allegiances in terms of Hinduism and Islam. Hence, Laine concludes, that to regard Shivaji as an Indian is absolutely wrong and that myths woven round him give a distorted picture of the reality.

The 17th century Maratha ballad writers based the heroic legend of Shivaji as a heroic Chhatrapati of an independent Hindu kingdom on his escape from the Agra fort, his killing of Afzal Khan, his encounter with Shaista Khan, his conquest of Simhagarh, his coronation in 1674 and his dedication to his patron Goddess, Bhivani. Laine argues that the ballad writers had deliberately skipped Shivaji's military service under Adil Shah, his defeat against the Mughals, his loss of Poona, his surrender to Aurangzeb, his readiness to become a Mughal vassal with the aspiration of being designated Viceroy of the Deccan and enlisting his son in the Mughal army. These omissions give a false image of Shivaji, the author maintains.

Shivaji's image of an epic hero is further buttressed by another Ballad writer, Permanand, who by tracing some genealogical evidence, projects him a kshatriya of the Sisodia clan of the Rajputs. Laine shows how the chronicles, the Bhakars, relate Shivaji's commitment to Vaishnavism to Hinduism and his close association with the 17th century saints, Tukaram and Ramdas. On the contrary, the author thinks that the role of Maharashtra saints was more significant in the 18th rather than the 17th century and that Ramdas was never Shivaji's spiritual guide.

Despite Jotirao Phule's emphasis on Shivaji's low-caste heritage, the ballads composed between 1869-2001 put Shivaji in a different category. Except Grant Duff, who in his History of the Mahratta, described Shivaji a plunderer and a freebooter, most Indian historians and writers, including justice M.I. Ranade and B.G. Tikak, laud him as the father of Indian nationalism and a liberationist. Ranade portrays Shivaji as the architect of Maratha independence, who promoted religious tolerance and the egalitarian status of women.

In justification of Shivaji's actions, Tilak cites Arjuna's example from The Mahabharata. Tilak comments that great men are exempted from following the strict standard of conventional morality. Indian leaders such as Lala Lajpat Rai, Tilak, Annie Besant, Aurobindo Ghosh and poet Tagore have paid eloquent tributes to Shivaji as a great national leader and the builder of the country. The author treats such views as flippant.

In the last chapter, the author acknowledges that there are different ways of reading and writing the biography of Shivaji. History writing is not a one-point programme; it is an interim report. Nor is it wise to be a debunker. Laine maintains that there is no standard biography of Shivaji. Rightly, the author asserts that the primordial view that the Hindus and the Muslims were pitted against each other and ever fighting is false.

It is regretted that despite inner inconsistencies, the narratives of Shivaji' s life represent him in the BJP regime as a grand nationalist Hindu symbol and ideology. Regrettably, the line between fact and fiction is blurred. The fact is that Shivaji had lived in a cosmopolitan Islamic world where identity formations were in the making but not crystallised. This intellectually stimulating and neatly textured book is disturbing. It questions the commonly held views and opens a new ground for fresh thinking and research.