Was Shivaji really a Hindutva icon?

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Shivaji has become a Hindutva icon in recent times due to his battles with Aurangzeb. But deeper analysis of how he ran his own state tells us a different story. In his latest book, ‘Shivaji’, Vaibhav Purandare explores – 

So what kind of state was Shivaji trying to establish? Was it a secular state, as some have asserted, or was it Hindu, as some others have declared? Or was it simply a Maratha empire? The answer I have arrived at is that Shivaji was not out to establish a secular or non-religious kingdom, nor was he bent on founding a Hindu theocratic state. He was establishing a Hindu polity – one that was broadly inclusive, tolerant and all-encompassing and at the same time drank deep of the fountain of Hindu culture and civilization. His deep sense of his own religion and its spirituality made him regard Hindus and Muslims as equal, and he saw religious discrimination as abhorrent, immoral and unacceptable. Shivaji recruited Muslims in his army, just as he recruited Marathas and other Hindus, and two of his navy admirals, Darya Sarang Ventjee and Daulat Khan, were Muhammadans. One of his bitterest critics, the official Mughal chronicler Khafi Khan, who called him a ‘hell-dog’, put it in writing that Shivaji had strictly instructed his soldiers to treat with the greatest respect the Muslim holy book, the Quran, if they came across it.

The element of Hindu identity, though, is inescapable in Shivaji’s life and courses through his career right from the beginning. Evidently the Islamic conquest of India, and of the Deccan in particular in the late thirteenth century, had ramifications for the lives of the vast majority of the region’s population. Shivaji noticed that despite the rise of the Marathas as accomplished soldiers of rank, the highest military ranks were still denied to them. The Adil Shahi, the dominant power in the western Deccan, had been tolerant, even pluralistic, in the sixteenth century, but things had changed in the seventeenth century. And once Aurangzeb sat on the Mughal throne when Shivaji was in his twenties, the empire turned increasingly hostile towards Hindus. From the 1660s onwards, Aurangzeb began a reign of social and economic repression, making Hindus pay customs duties which Muslims were exempted from paying, and ultimately imposing the discriminatory jaziya tax on ‘unbelievers’, in response to which Shivaji wrote his famous letter to the emperor. Renaming of places in the Deccan by the Islamic powers was also rampant during this period; all seals of the state and its officials were issued in Persian in contrast to the earlier tradition of Hindu rajas, including those from the Deccan, to use either Sanskrit or the local languages.

Shivaji’s actions show he was responding to what he was seeing all around him. His father’s and mother’s own seals were in Persian. But Shivaji, at the age of sixteen itself, chose Sanskrit as the language of his seal, making an unequivocal statement in the Persianate Age. Many Deccani kings who were Hindu – among them Pratapa Rudra and Kapaya Nayaka – had taken, from the time of the Delhi Sultanate’s invasions from the north, the title of Sultan for themselves. Shivaji took the title Chhatrapati after the word ‘chhatra’ of Hindu rajas of the past.

Tagore was thus accurate in saying in an article in the Modern Review in 1911 that Shivaji had ‘in his mind the ideal of setting up a Hindu Empire’, as did Tilak and B.C. Pal. Jawaharlal Nehru too accepted in his Discovery of India that Shivaji ‘was the symbol of a resurgent Hindu nationalism’. But Shivaji’s Hindu state was for Hindus and non-Hindus alike and did not conceive of any difference in treatment between the two.

Read more about Shivaji and the life that made him the icon he is in ‘Shivaji‘ by Vaibhav Purandare – out now!


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