Communalizing History: Shivaji and Afzal Khan

By Ram Puniyani,

The assembly elections have been declared in Maharashtra, and with this the atmosphere is heating up politically. In this state there have been substantial number of farmer’s suicides, all over there are serious issues related to rising prices, unemployment and other problems of daily life. But it seems that some political parties in Maharashtra are not much concerned about these core issues of society and seem to be more interested in the identity issues emerging from the past. Recently (September 3rd, 2009) tension developed in Miraj, Sangli and neighboring areas during Ganesh festival. This is the major festival of the state. During the festival trouble began with the erection of an arch on the route of Ganesh Visarjan, this arch depicted the slaying of Afzal Khan by Shivaji. Anticipating trouble due to the communal polarization around Shivaji and Afzal Khan, to maintain peace, the police removed the arch. Protesting against this removal of the arch some Ganesh Mandals decided not to immerse the Ganpati idols till the arch was restored. This is what led to the violence in due course, in which one person died and five got injured.

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BJP leadership condemned the Governments’ step of removing the arch. Shiv Sena leader asserted that they will put posters of Shivaji slaying Afzal Khan all over the state and stated that had Shivaji been not there all of us would have been reading Namaz! The state administration did control the situation but since by now lot of emotive appeal has been generated around Shivaji it was an easy job. Few years ago during the previous Parliamentary elections, the same parties had tried to organize the procession to demolish the tomb of Afzal Khan. Fortunately at that time it was brought to people’s notice that this tomb was built by Shivaji himself and the matters came to a rest, but not before it created lot of bad blood. The matters related to Shivaji are very sensitive in Maharashtra, the state administration has even planned to construct the statue of Shivaji in the Arabain sea, costing thousands of crores, from public exchequer, at the cost other public necessities.

As a matter of fact, Shivaji is popular amongst people, not because he was anti Muslim or worshipper of Cows and Brahmins, but because he reduced the taxation on the poor peasants. Shivaji adopted humane policy in all the aspects of his administration, which did not base itself on the religion. In the recruitment of his soldiers and officers for army and navy, religion was no criterion and more than one third of his army consisted of Muslims. The supreme command of his navy was with Siddi Sambal, and Muslim Siddis were in navy in large numbers. Interestingly his major battles were fought against the Rajput army lead by Raja Jaisingh, who was in the administration of Aurangzeb. When Shivaji was detained at Agra forte, of the two men on whom he relied for his eventual escape, one was a Muslim called Madari Mehtar. His confidential secretary was Maulana Haider Ali and the chief of his cannon division was Ibrahim Gardi. Rustom-e-Jamaan was his bodyguard.

His respect for other religions was very clear and he respected the holy seers like ‘Hazarat Baba Yaqut bahut Thorwale’, whom he gave the life pension and also he helped Father Ambrose, whose church was under attack in Gujarat. At his capital Raigad, he erected a special mosque for Muslim devotees in front of his palace in the same way that he built the Jagadishwar temple for his own daily worship.

During his military campaigns Shivaji had issued strict instructions to his men and officers that Muslim women and children should not be subjected to maltreatment. Mosques and Dargah’s were given due protection. He also ordered that whenever a copy of Koran came into the hands of his men, they should show proper respect to the book and hand it over to a Muslim. The story of his bowing to the daughter-in-law of Bassein’s Nawab is well known to all. When she was brought as a part of the loot and offered to him, he respectfully begged her pardon and asked his soldiers to reach her back from the place from where she was forcibly brought in. Shivaji was in no way actuated by any hatred towards people of other religions.

As a matter of fact he had great respect for holy people of all religions. All this goes on to show the values of communal harmony which Shivaji pursued, and that his primary goal was to establish his own kingdom with maximum possible geographical area. To project him as anti-Muslim and anti-Islam is travesty of truth. Neither was Afzal Khan an anti Hindu king. When Shivaji killed Afzal Khan, Afzal Khan’s secretary Krishnaji Bhasker Kulkarni attacked Shivaji with a sword.

Today communal forces are out to ‘use’ Shivaji issue, to communalize the same for their political goals. In Maharashtra, Shivaji Afzal Khan have been projected as Hindu and Muslim kings. From amongst all the possible pictures of Shivaji, why is the one related to Afzal Khan is chosen? One can also show the pictures of his Pratapgadh fort with Afzal Khans tomb in that, one can show Shivaji paying respect to the Mazar of Madari Mehtar, a Muslim prince, who helped him to escape from Agra? The very selection of this picture is to divide the communities along religious lines. Communal interpretation of History, Communal historiography has been the major tool in the arsenal of communal forces. Minorities should not react to such things and try to call for peace with all the communities all the time. Now we are witnessing this pattern of history being used to communalize the society, to create sectarian divides in society. What is needed is to overcome these communal angles, to undermine identity issues, to build the Indian nation. We need to look at historical icons, as kings ruling for power, rather then the representatives of a particular religion.