Tuesday, September 8, 2015

On the Maharashtra Bhushan Controversy

Rahul Vaidya


The recent controversy regarding ‘Maharashtra Bhushan’ award given by Maharashtra government to Babasaheb Purandare and the furore and debate it generated is very important and critical in Maharashtra’s cultural and social life.

To understand and appreciate the true import and significance of this; we need to put this issue in some historical perspective; understand the present political manifestations of it and how and why progressive intervention in this cultural politics is important at this hour.

First, the brief context: Babasaheb Purandare is famously known as ‘Shiv-Shahir’ or ‘Shivaji’s Bard’ for his devotion to the cause of digging out details and historical archives from the period of Shivaji, his wanderings in the nooks and corners of Maharashtra’s forts, villages for archival documents, etc. as well as his popular works like novels on Shivaji, lecture series on Shivaji and a grand staged performance ‘Janata Raja’ depicting popular themes in Shivaji’s life-which ran over 800 shows in India and abroad since 1985. (terming this as theatre is not correct; performance happens in open air for sure, but it matches the scale and scheme of a circus) His books and lectures, have been part of popular Marathi canon of literature, which belongs largely and furthers the viewpoints of mainly the upper caste, middle class sections of literate people. The critical role Purandare and his likes played to shape this canon into a legitimising of communal view of history and polity is well known. Furthermore, Purandare never claimed that he is a historian and always enjoyed ‘creative liberties’ to shy away from factual inaccuracies and to shield the communal overtones in the garb of popular imagery. He is known to be close to Bal Thackeray and assisted him in formative years of Shiv Sena. Several Hindutva organisations used his play ‘Janata Raja’ for their mobilisations.

However, this popular communal view of history and its propagator Purandare met challenge from seemingly unlikely quarters of late. This challenge came mainly from Maratha caste organisations like Sambhaji Brigade, Maratha Seva Sangh, Jijau Brigade etc. The main contesting point has been the brahmanical bias Purandare and his likes displayed in the portraying of Shivaji. These organisations accuse Purandare of favouring Brahmins such as Dadoji Kondadev or Saint Ramdas as Shivaji’s mentors while downplaying role the role of Shivaji’s father Shahaji and even assassinating character of Shivaji’s mother Jijabai (This was main issue of conflict in the James Laine controversy and Sambhaji Brigade’s attack on Bhandarkar institute of Oriental studies in 2004-they in fact accused that Laine was just following the instructions of Brahmin Historians like Purandare).

These organisations’ antagonism to Purandare has a long history of non-Brahmin movement of Phule, Shahu and Ambedkar; which however, they have increasingly left behind its emancipatory, anti-Brahminical, caste annihilation premises and has rather focussed on pride of the Maratha community vis-a-vis Brahmins; a reaction which increasingly grew especially after the riots against Brahmins in the wake of Gandhi’s assassination by a Marathi brahmin Godse.

Hence, since the government announced its decision to award ‘Maharashtra Bhushan’ for this year to Babasaheb Purandare; these organisations have aggressively gone on war footing calling for militant protests against this ‘Brahminical’ plot to hijack Shivaji and held several meetings which evoked enthusiastic response across various parts in Maharashtra.

As various narratives regarding the present controversy have shown, Shivaji and appropriation of his legacy has been the mainstay of all political formations in Maharashtra for quite long time. His legacy has become a political terrain which aptly reveals caste-class and religious tensions of our society, with Shivaji as the extrapolation point. It is for this reason, that progressive sections need to engage with this issue more proactively, understand the tactics of opposition, and then reflect on our responses, our errors and mistakes, if any. It is my endeavour to flag certain of these issues here. 

Caste question

The brahminical camp, with its enthusiastic recruits like Raj Thackeray, have claimed that opposition to Purandare is purely a caste politics, a vote-bank politics and cheap tactics of Sharad Pawar and NCP. The clear trap is the Brahminical camp wants to portray itself as ‘forward minded’ and done away of caste-belief. In fact, Hindutva agenda is a logical culmination of this clever ploy to forge a coalition and its desperate attempt to collectively undergo a ‘caste-erasing’ mind game; without having to do anything about it in practical terms. Now to counter this Brahminical agenda, if there is opposition in terms of Maratha pride, it actually is like playing into the hands of the brahminical camp. And the problem is, both major sides want it to be seen as‘Maratha vs Brahmin' controversy, to suit their own purposes.

The progressive, Left organisations are aware of this danger and hence they have taken a stand of keeping equal distance from both warring camps; which largely reads like ‘opposition to Communal views of Purandare and Right wing camp’ as well as ‘opposition to Sambhaji Brigade’s Maratha-centric politics’. The moot question here is: what is the political meaning of this equidistance approach? Has this approach helped to shape the ongoing debate differently? Or does this position just fulfill the demands of political correctness and morality? Further, there is no visible attempt to use this morality as capitalising point for political mobilisation either.

On the other hand, what is notable is the silence of the Dalit movement, and Dalit writers. How does one read this silence? One possible reading, (not the only one) is ‘this battle is between Brahmins and Marathas, the powerful camps which are equally evil, casteist and oppressors. Why should we intervene and take sides? Hence, Left, progressive and dailt position on the issue is that of keeping a distance and not get entangled in this ‘needless’ controversy. Their implicit understanding is ‘our fight is different from this meaningless battle-we better focus on burning issues of the day. We would fight about the drought situation, caste atrocities etc. socio-economic issues or even the saffronisation of education in FTII, or Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle; but don't get us entangled in this popular history, cultural politics’. 

The issue is certainly not about blindly supporting or subscribing the politics of Sambhaji brigade or Sharad Pawar; or not even just judging the ‘lesser evil’. The issue is to take position and join the debate. The strength of progressives, of setting terms of political debate weakened significantly with the Namantar Andolan as last major intervention. And that meant a long self-inflicted hibernation which smelt of confusion and weak political strength. The politics of caste is not always played around atrocities, reservations and such issues of ‘immediate’ ‘practical’ attention. Caste is crucial in cultural politics as well. The progressive sections, which claim the legacy of caste annihilation movement, claim Shahu-Phule-Ambedkar as their icons, have much more meaningful to say and shape the present controversy of claiming the legacy of Shivaji as ‘Maratha or Hindu’. Such cultural politics, interventions will only help build a counter-culture and render its practical politics relevant; not vice versa.

Reading History:

How to 'read' history itself is a political dispute which is crux of the whole matter. I had my share of reading Purandare's writing and when I look back, it strikes me nothing but a mythical and communal portrayal of history.

 Now to begin with, one word of caution-the word 'communal' has become coterminous with its outer limits of the word i.e. direct action, pogrom, open threats of violence etc. Certainly, one must distinguish between communalism of Sena mouthpiece ‘Samana’ or communalism practiced in everyday behaviour of reinforcing ghettos and clever extrapolations of present communal conflicts into the past as done by Purandare. Nonetheless, these are all reinforcing things and bracketed under the same tab of ‘communalism’, no matter how non-threatening they may sound.

Coming to the point of ‘reading’ history and reading ‘communalisminto Purandare’s version; let me begin with the beginning of Purandare’s magnum opus ‘Raja Shiv Chhatrapati’. The pre-Shivaji era in Maharashtra is portrayed as dark period of 350 years. What is the rationale? The ‘Hindu’ Yadav empire and Vijaynagar empire fell to ‘foreign invasion’ of Muslim rulers of different dynasties. All the temples from Somnath, Kashi were looted, the timid, non-harming ‘Hindus’ were thoroughly overpowered and in dire need for a messiah, err, an Avatar to rid them from this ‘Sultani’. And there came our Avatar with all mythical tales of Tulajabhavani, her sword, Kalyan Subhedar’s daughter-in-law story (refuted by eminent historians like Pagadi) not to mention the actual conflicts with ‘Muslims’ with constant undertones of ‘traitors’ such as Chandrarao More, Jedhe, Jadhav, Khopade et al.

The part about Shivaji’s equitable treatment of religions is well documented and Purandare rightly explains it. The problem is, he treats this as a novel thing unique to a great Hindu king vis-à-vis Muslim tyrants who were en masse imposing Jizia etc To debunk this, Shivaji’s one famous letter to Aurangzeb is enough where he recounted the admirable tolerant practices of previous Mughal emperors like Akbar, Jehangir etc.

In short, Purandare’s narration (like many others such as Riyasatkar Sardesai ) emanates from the very British (James Mill inspired) periodisation of history into ancient as Hindu, Medieval as Muslim and Modern as British. Added to this communal colorisation of history (as against the mode of production as basis of correctly understanding the social relations of society i.e. Asiatic, feudal, colonial or capitalist) we have a problematic account of ‘invasion of Hindu Rashtra’ as a pet whipping theme of RSS and its ilk. The entire Aryan origin debate is a desperate attempt of RSS to prove Aryans’ claim of belonging to this ‘Hindu’ nation by origin. Be that as it may; but the whole popular theme of ‘Muslim invasion’ on India and its servitude to foreigners has been a diversion by RSS and others from anti-colonial struggle against British colonialism, projecting Muslims as the bigger and original invaders. Purandare is following in the same footsteps. There’s a small problem. The modern notions of ‘nation’ and ‘religion’ are radically different from the way they were used earlier. The RSS’ favourite dream of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ as stretching from Afghanistan to Assam, and from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, became possible only under British India. So the theory that common people ardently wanted to fight the ‘foreign invasion’ of Muslims is a fantasy simply because this theory ignores the ground reality of how Indian feudalism and caste system operated autonomously from a Central State structure. The Maratha campaigns of 18th century for loot had earned so much anger and antipathy which partially resulted in their complete isolation from even Rajputs though there was no strong Mughal emperor-there was no common cause of Crusades as Purandare and RSS would have us believe.

The major problem of this entire effort of the communalisation is the success it has achieved in popularising the notion of ‘Mool Niwasi’ (original resident) as the rightful claimant of the historical legacy as well as present fortunes of the nation-state. This notion has become primordial of sorts for political mobilisations: both Brahminical, RSS variant as well as non-Brahminical ones ranging from Maratha organisations to Bahujan Samaj Party sorts. In that context, it becomes understandable why the Dalit-Progressive movements and sections have remained aloof from this controversy as they view this as a trap to distract attention from issues of class, caste towards issues of imaginary lineages and pride. But as we have already seen, this silence and aloofness is more dangerous and potential walkover to regressive tendencies. There is dire need to recognise this and come up with urgent political interventions.

Ahistorical History, & politics:

No matter what the liberal establishment believes, this dispute about Purandares version of history will never be settled by citing sources and references of objections by historians about his narration. Because, he conveniently uses the trope of ‘fictional art’ and ‘bard’ to escape from such objective enquiries to shield his agenda. & The agenda is certainly political. It eventually culminates into extrapolation of our present conflicts and circling around this ahistorical‘two-nation theory’ of RSS in implicit manner. This culture is never innocent, and more than willing to play the foot solider of Hindutva as seen in the past when his circus, ‘Janata Raja’began in 1985-86 and was quickly used as a political mobilisation ground by Hindu Right. The people recall the impact of televised Ramayana & Mahabharata in the Hindutva’s meteoric rise in late 1980s. At state level, ‘Janata Raja’ played a similar role. So Purandare’s history is ‘scientific’ or not is not the question; he settled it by its ‘real’ application in political practice. Our response, then logically needs to go beyond the level of objective refuting and needs to set up counter-narratives of history.

‘Kulwadi Bhushan’ ‘Peasants’ Pride’ Shivaji & Nationality Question:

Hence, to engage politically with this regressive cultural politics, our response needs to focus and revolve around the Shivaji as peasant’s pride which was put forth by Mahatma Phule & Comrade Pansare. In 17th century, the terms ‘nation’ or ‘religion’ were not used in the sense we use them now. When we then assess the birth of Maharashtra as nationality in nascent forms during Shivaji’s times, we have to place it in the context of production relations in those times, Shivaji’s reforms regarding land taxes and his benevolent policies towards peasants and his political battles with landed sections which represented the interests of established sultanates. If we ignore this and focus mainly on his ‘Hindu’ or ‘cow-Brahmin protector’ images as popularised by likes of Purandare; we miss a key question as to why such Hindu Nationalism didn't arise under Rajputs, who were staunch Hindus. The nationality that arose in Maharashtra was admittedly nascent in character, had its limitations. However, this nation survived the oppressive regime of Peshwas, and held on to the memory of Shivaji precisely due to his distinct nature of rule. Now, that doesn't warrant us to go to the extent of celebrating him as ‘Lenin of Maharashtra’ (on similar lines, Historian V.K. Rajwade had called Saint Ramdas as ‘Hegel of Maharashtra’ for his cunning insights and exposition of ‘Maharashtra Dharma’ and what constituted the state) However, if we wish to counter the clever and shrewd Brahminical camp who takes pride in its purposeful amnesia of caste and celebrates it as sign of progressiveness; we cannot resort to exposing the oppressive nature of caste system and accounts of caste atrocities alone-we need to complement this with the class relations in history as well. It is greatness of Mahatma Phule who recognised this and used the term ‘Kulwadi Bhushan’ for Shivaji-This term was a ‘signifier of broad sections of non-Brahmin castes as well as indicated the class relations along with it’. Ultimately, sub-nationality of Maharashtra today is deeply ingrained with legacy of Shivaji. Just by blaming regressive forces, we cannot wish that away. Our present production relations, caste equations are expressed in a particular manner, and for that, nationality plays an important role. Comrade Dange, Comrade Pansare recognised this identity of Shivaji as symbol of Maharashtrian nationality; and they put forth a frank appraisal of Shivaji as a people’s king in the similar vein of Phule while countering the communal attempts to usurp Shivaji’s legacy. Maharashtra is certainly Maharashtra of ‘Phule, Shahu and Ambedkar’, but Shivaji and Maharashtra is also a fundamental equation-we need to give sufficient importance to that.

The popular campaign of Fascism that progressive forces are against nationalism is somewhere a result of fault in our definition of nationalism and failure to distinctly make it stand in contradiction to Fascist narrow version of nationalism. This failure leads either to a faulty understanding among progressives such as ‘all nationalisms are evil and we won't have anything to do with them’ or otherwise it leads to ‘acceptance of Left, progressive position on economic issues and submission to Regressive positions on cultural matters’. 

According to my knowledge, Vidyadhar Date, in his article on countercurrents.org, has argued ‘we don't need to claim Shivaji as a secular, radical king doing land reforms as his land policies were not radical, and ultimately didn't transform the production relations, or secularism didn't exist in the day and Shivaji merely followed the tolerance practiced by many kings of the day’.

The problem here is, no Left forces have claimed Shivaji as radical or a revolutionary. But then if we do not acknowledge his state policies about land; then how do we read the relations between ‘Shivaji and Maharashtra as a nation’? It is certainly dangerous to always read historical developments from the lens of base-superstructure; but without this, reading often becomes meaningless. It is one thing to say that we should not extrapolate our notions of revolution and radicalness on a feudal king; however, we can make sense of the history as Shivaji’s popularity, only by explaining the political relations he had with the landed interests, the battles he fought against the landlords. Unless we are able to clearly demonstrate and embrace a counter-history with reading of production relations and their direct impact on our present vis-a-vis the popular versions of divisive communal imaginations; we will never be able to have our cultural symbols as effective mobilising points for our present politics.

Finally, the retreat of progressive thought in popular culture is nothing new. Comrade Pansare’s martyrdom is the most glaring example of the same. We have a Fadnavis government running at the behest of Reshimbag (RSS Headquarters in Nagpur) which turns a blind eye to murder of Comrade Pansare on one hand, and awards the ‘Maharashtra Bhushan’ to Babasaheb Purandare on the other; is not a contradiction. There is a clear political message of consistent cultural assault. The real meaning of Comrade Pansare’s brilliant book ‘Who was Shivaji’ is sustained political opposition to this saffronisation of history, culture by the Brahminical RSS camp. This battle against brahminical camp cannot be won merely by using banners, posters, or shouting slogans of ‘insulting the pride of Marathas’-Brahminical camp has more than enough funds, time, patience, cunning and Purandares. How to counter that is the real question. And for that, intervention of progressive-Left-Dalit movements is critical. Hence, it is necessary to give up this policy of ‘equal distance’ and as G.P. Deshpande used to say, ‘Join the debate!’


The author is an independent researcher based in Delhi.

1 comment:

  1. Mr Rahul Vaidya, First off, I need to congratulate you for writing such a brilliant thought provocative article. However, I would like to take exception to many claims that your article makes.

    What is your defence if I say you are promoting your version of history; i.e. one that suits your anti-Brahaman views? Instead of getting into controversies which will never be resolved, why do you want to make them complicated further?

    Is Great Shivaji alive physically to explain his thoughts and clarify his political orientation?
    Do you have all documents that support or reject claims of any of the camps? In your lingo pro brahaman / por-maratha, Left or dalit?

    In pre- digitalisation era, monarchs and kings used to greatly influence historians to re-write or re-script the history. This is exactly why you get so many versions of the same event. Therefore, instead of eliminating all these non-productive discussions, why don't you propose to eliminate caste-based census and religion based counting of people of this "democratic and Secular" country? This might go long way in addressing the real issue of destroying camps that divide people based on castes and religions.

    When a person himself has not clarified his position explicitly (whether he was pro-hindu, "secular " etc.) you can just speculate and satisfy your intellectual ego by fueling the fire.

    As remains the question of few people using history as a tool to build their political careers; you need to be tackled this issue by asking them compelling questions in today's context. I mean suppose somebody says Santa Ramdas influenced Shivaji Maharaj to.......; then you ask them it might have been ; but that doesn't give any brahaman any edge over people of other casts today. In this context Brahamans might take a pride about history but that doesn't give them automatic license to run an ideological camp.

    One more point; in my view, as you said, dalit writers are silent about this issue ( I personally have no idea though); it might be because such debates are not going to address the real issue; their inclusion.

    I think roots of inequality in today's times are not based on caste demographics; they are primarily based on inequitable distribution of resources ( Now for God sake, please don't say such distribution is because of cast system). Do you mean, only Dalits are poor or only Muslims are poor? You empower them..it is their right but don't paint yourself "secular" prudent and unbiased" in that attempt. You are equally biased; your camp is the only difference. .

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