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).
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. 
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 Co
mmunal 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 equ
idistance 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 vi
sible 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 shou
ld we intervene and
take sides?
Hence, Left,
progressive and dailt position on the i
ssue is that of keeping a distance and not get entangled in this
‘needless’ controversy. Their i
mplicit 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 Ci
rcle; 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 br
igade 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 si
gnificantly 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 a
lways 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 ‘Mar
atha 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 commu
nal 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
‘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 di
fferent 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
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 fe
udalism and caste system operated autonomously from a Central State
structure. The Maratha campaigns of 18
th century for loot had earned so much anger and
antipathy which partially r
esulted in their
complete isolation from even Rajputs though there was no strong Mughal emp
eror-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 histo
rical 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 r
ecall 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 Shiv
aji’s times, we have to place it in
the context of production relations in those times, Shivaji’s r
eforms 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 cu
nning 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 se
ctions 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
onality; 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
nly Maharashtra of ‘Phule, Shahu and
Ambedkar’, but Shivaji and Maharashtra is also a fund
amental 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 contradi
ction 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 b
etween ‘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 me
aningless. It is one thing to say that we should not
extrapolate our notions of revolution and rad
icalness 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 ve
rsions 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 a
ssault. The real meaning of Comrade Pansare’s brilliant book ‘Who was
Shivaji’ is sustained p
olitical 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 thought on “On the Maharashtra Bhushan Controversy”

  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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