Appropriating a Braveheart: The Shivaji Legend as Political Tool

Why do netas insist on using the name of the legendary warrior for their political gains?

4 min read
Craftsmen prepare a statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji, revered by many in western India as a Hindu warrior king who fought the Mughal empire and annexed land from its Muslim rulers in the 17th century, at a metal casting workshop in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad July 1, 2008

(This story was first published on 7 June 2015 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives on the birth anniversary of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.)

In the otherwise miserably fractured polity and society in Maharashtra, there is cultural and psychological unity only on one issue – the iconic and semi-God like status of Shivaji Maharaj.

Coronated as a King or rather as Chhatrapati on 6 June 1674, Shivaji continues to inspire the people and hide the political fault lines. It is sociologically paradoxical that various caste-communities and therefore political parties, fight bitterly if not violently, with each other in claiming the glorious legacy of the Legend. Nearly four centuries later, Shivaji continues to unite the Marathi spirit and yet divide the societal body.

Statues Indicating Naming Ceremony of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj in a Museum, Derwan, Chiplun, Ratnagiri, Maharashtra, India. 
Statues Indicating Naming Ceremony of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj in a Museum, Derwan, Chiplun, Ratnagiri, Maharashtra, India. 

His birth anniversary or celebration of his coronation day invariably become festivals and heated polemical debates among historians and self-styled leaders. They attack each other with such vehemence that the glory of the Legend gets grounded in the divisive socio-political reality. Why does the image of Shivaji inspire the young and old, women and children? Surely, much of that festive euphoria is simulated, hugely whipped up and organised. Now even the corporates and small business contribute to the celebrations, either out of affection and respect for Shivaji Maharaj or fear of extortion.

It is not as if Shivaji worship began soon after his death in 1680. Of course, the stories of his valour and his devotion to the people, his smart diplomacy and his organisational abilities to confront the otherwise invincible Mughals had become part of folklore already. But the halo around him began to enlarge only in the mid-19th century.

A Symbol to Unite and Inspire the People

Appropriating a Braveheart: The Shivaji Legend as Political Tool
(Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

The emerging middle class leadership which wanted to challenge the oppressive rule of East India Company in the 1850s wanted a symbol to unite and inspire the people. According to records, the first ever “Shivaji Festival” was organised by the peasant leader, Jyotiba Phule, who himself became an icon later. Indeed, Jyotiba Phule himself, who had organised the celebration then came to be known as the “Mahatma”. When Gandhiji was first addressed by that “title” of “Mahatma”, he had said that he was embarrassed to be equated with Jyotiba Phule, the great leader of the oppressed castes and classes.

A few decades later, Lokmanya Tilak announced that the “Shivjayanti Festivals” will be a part of political awareness campaigns. The British administrators could not stop the organisation of those events because they were considered to be semi-religious and semi-traditional occasions. Having learnt in 1857 how hurting the sentiments, rooted in religion and faith, could spread into a widespread revolt, they allowed or rather tolerated the Shivaji celebrations. The people quickly grasped the underlying message that the very idol, even picture or slogan related to Shivaji can be used as a tool for political mobilisation.

Later, the name of Shivaji became an instrument of protest mobilisation against the Congress, when Pandit Nehru refused initially to carve out Maharashtra state on linguistic lines. The Samyukta Maharashtra Movement was led and dominated by communists and socialists, the then representatives of the working class and the peasantry. The formation of the state gave a huge impetus to the glorification of Shivaji.

Shivaji - Great Maratha Warrior

Pratapgad Fort
Pratapgad Fort
(Photo Courtesy: iStock)

The forts which he had conquered and the strategies he had adopted to fight the armies of Aurangzeb became household stories. Though Shivaji Maharaj had support from the Muslims, who were also part his various teams, in later years the Sangh Parivar catapulted his name as a symbol of anti-Muslim sentiment. The Shiv Sena turned the image of Shivaji into a Great Maratha warrior. The Maratha caste and Maratha Congress leaders appropriated him as their first warrior leader in history.

As a result, Shivaji is a leader of Marathas as well as “Marathis”, icon of Hindus as well as of Congress, which highlights the secular governance of the ruler, who established the very first Swaraj in colonial India! The legend which has acquired a God-like status, is now a socio-cultural-political tool, a Braveheart warrior reincarnated for today’s political ends.

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