• The Shivaji Legend

    Introduction to Govind Pansare's Shivaji by Anirudh Deshpande published by LeftWord Books

    Anirudh Deshpande

    November 7, 2015




    This little book has a remarkable history.

    Titled Shivaji Kon Hota? in the original Marathi, Who was Shivaji? is based on a popular speech delivered by one of Maharashtra’s foremost Communist leaders, the late Govind Pansare, in Kolhapur – an important centre of Maharashtra’s anti-Brahman movement, on 11 May 1987. In his speech, Pansare attempted to put forward a rational understanding of both the facts and the myths around Shivaji’s persona and regime from a contemporary, secular and progressive standpoint. It took Pansare eleven months to prepare the book while that memorable speech was recorded and popularized at several places in Maharashtra by the activists of the All India Students Federation (AISF) – the student body of the Communist Party of India (CPI).

    Three thousand copies of the book were published in mid-April 1988 and the first edition sold out within a month! While the book was under preparation, Pansare spoke on Shivaji at numerous places in Maharashtra including Nagpur, the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and Yavatmal, where the Shiv Sena tried to stop him from delivering his speech in vain .
    In Nagpur, the public response was overwhelming. Pansare spoke on two days to a packed hall. The impression he made on audiences in those days can be gauged by the fact tickets had to be sold in large numbers for the Nagpur speeches. Following these sterling public appearances he was flooded with letters which asked questions about, as well as, information on Shivaji. This information, he gracefully admitted in the preface to the book, was used in the subsequent editions of the book. This means that Shivaji Kon Hota? is as much his book as it is a collective effort he inspired in 1988. By the end of 1988 the author had also read, and learnt from, another important book published in the same year called Shetkaryancha Raja Shivaji (Shivaji the Peasant-King), written by Sharad Joshi, Anil Gote and Rajiv Basargekar — leaders of the Shetkari Sangathana, a well-known peasant organization of Maharashtra.

    The unpretentious logical prose of Shivaji Kon Hota? partially explains its immense popularity in Maharashtra. Between 1988 and 2010 numerous editions and several thousand copies of the text had to be published in Marathi to meet the enormous demand for it. In 1988 alone, 11,000 copies were sold in three quick re-prints! Between 1989 and 2010 – a year in which 10,000 copies were sold -, no less than 81,000 copies were sold. To date, over 200,000 copies of the book have been sold in eight languages, including over 40,000 after Pansare’s assassination. Let us also note, in passing, that the years from 1988 to the present coincide with the unprecedented rise of communal politics and the Sangh Parivar in India. Needless to add, the creation, existence and longevity of this modest book has posed a grave challenge to the mythology woven around Shivaji by Hindu nationalism.

    In most countries which become nations in history, the great men (and, occasionally, women) of their ancient and medieval past are found standing at the cross roads of fact and legend in the collective consciousness and the larger imagination of the people. This collective historical consciousness is forged over time by writers, poets, historians, philosophers and a media dedicated to nationalism. Ramses, Alexander, Ashoka, Caesar, Changez, Akbar – all of them overshadow the modern historical consciousness as living statues made of myth and reality. They have all been made representatives of civilizations by the ideologies of nationalism in the course of history and its recording by intellectuals. In time, and due to generations of collected memories fashioned by vested interests and ideology, fact and fiction become inseparable in our love for our heroes and our hatred for our villains. In the haste to identify with the heroes of our history and alienate the villains from this process of identification we forget that love and hatred both can be, and often are, irrational. Alexander becomes a champion of Hellenic and Western civilization whereas Changez Khan is portrayed as a blood thirsty marauder in the dominant narratives of history which condition our minds from a tender age.

    Shivaji, the founder of the medieval “Maratha” kingdom in the seventeenth century and the repository and radiator of the dominant Maharashtrian historical imagination since the nineteenth century, is not an exception to the tendency of nationalist history, which must seek heroes to justify itself against the enemies of the nation. The copious references to this remarkable man — for a man he was, as Govind Pansare did well to remind us — in the seventeenth century Mughal, Portuguese and English sources suggest that he was seen as a formidable leader in South Western India during his lifetime by his friends and foes alike. Since then his name became synonymous with a “Maratha” power whose rebelliousness against any super-ordinate authority was difficult, if not impossible, to suppress. By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, Shivaji’s name had become the generic name of the Marathi speakers who opposed rising English power on the Western coast of Maharashtra, though Shivaji himself never fought the English, and one of the best descriptions of his coronation is present in the testimony of an Englishman who was a guest at the occasion. English Bombay Presidency records of the late seventeenth century describe the ships and crews of the Maratha navies which challenged the East Indian Company’s naval power as “Shivajees”. Hence, long before Shivaji was transformed into an icon of Hindu nationalism by his savarna biographers, he had come to occupy an important place in the observations of the Company officers stationed in Bombay and Surat — a city he sacked twice with lightening speed. By the time the British soldier, administrator and self-taught scholar James Grant Duff published the first comprehensive history of the Marathas in 1826, Shivaji was already a household legend in Maharashtra if not the whole of India.1

    Shivaji was made an icon of pan-Indian Hindu nationalism by the nationalist historiography and movement which developed in reaction to colonialism and its apologists who asserted that India, unlike Britain, was not in the past, and therefore could never be, a nation in the modern sense of the term. By the time Justice Ranade’s nationalist submission on Maratha history was published posthumously in 1900, three distinct perspectives on Shivaji had risen to prominence.2 The colonial official narrative portrayed him as an opportunist Hindu warrior who flourished in the seventeenth century more because of the weaknesses of his enemies than anything else. The Indian nationalist historians saw him as the founder of the Maratha, and thereby Indian, nation. The Hindutva interpretation of Shivaji is essentially derived from this position. The third narrative on Shivaji was developed by the lower caste reformer-intellectuals of Maharashtra like Mahatma Jotirao Phule who portrayed Shivaji as a ruler dedicated to the upliftment of the shudras in contradistinction to his appropriation as a nationalist by the Brahman scholars.

    It can be confidently asserted that after 1826 the name of Shivaji entered the formal pedagogy of colonial education in India designed to promote the “divide and rule” policy of the British. The invention of Shivaji as a Hindu warrior-ruler who had developed a deep-seated hatred for the Muslims in his early life must be credited to the Orientalist colonial imagination of Grant Duff. After this postulate that Shivaji hated the Muslims was laid down, most of Maratha historiography and Marathi historical fiction which developed in the nineteenth and twentieth century, in the words of Stewart Gordon, can be seen as a “gloss” on Duff’s master narrative.3

    Although this is largely true, we must dilate a little on an important departure from this trend in the context of Pansare’s Shivaji Kon Hota? (Who was Shivaji?). In 1869 Jotirao Phule inserted a discordant note in the Brahmanical interpretation of Shivaji’s achievements by writing a powada (Marathi ballad) on Shivaji which celebrated his achievements as a Kshatriya Raja in the tradition of a Marathi shahir.4Phule’s Chhatrapati Shivajiraje Bhosle Yancha Powada describes Shivaji as an ideal king who lived in the saddle and fought both the Yavanas and the traitors within Maharashtra. Though Phule’s powada calls Aurangzeb a “sachcha harami shaitan” (“a real devil”) more because of what he did to his brothers and father and less because he was Muslim, it can be read alongside his larger treatise on the caste system Gulamgiri (Slavery) which was published in 1873. The anti-savarna imagination of Shivaji as a sovereign who suppressed the Brahmanical descendants of the Yavanas and elevated the social status of the dalit-bahujans crafted by Phule and his followers active in the Dalit-Bahujan movements in the twentieth century provides a part of the epistemological context of Pansare’s Who was Shivaji?

    In Pansare’s terse and admirable book, readers will find a delectable amalgam of the Marxist and Dalit-Bahujan perspectives on medieval Indian history, though the late Communist possibly did not share Phule’s perception of Shivaji as an anti-Yavana warrior if the word Yavana is understood to mean Muslim. On the other hand, if Phule’s use of the term Yavana is interpreted as a reference to the savarna Aryan outsiders who were the real oppressors of the shudras, then it would not be wrong to consider Pansare in agreement with him. From this mixture of Marxist and Bahujan historiography, Shivaji emerges as an organic ruler of the common people of Maharashtra, broadly called the peasantry or the shudras. Pansare’s intellectual debt to Phule is illustrated in the following quote:

    Shivaji turned the commoners into great people. They, in turn, made him a great king. Both came together to fulfill a tremendous task.

    Shivaji Kon Hota? questions the Hindu communal appropriation of Shivaji as an anti-Muslim Hindu Raja not by portraying Shivaji as a modern secular ruler, but by underlining the fact that Shivaji was a Hindu Raja but being a Hindu Raja in the nineteenth century did not necessarily mean being a Hindu communal ruler dedicated to the destruction of Islam. How else is the employment of Muslims in large numbers by Shivaji in his navy and other services to be explained? If Shivaji was committed to the extirpation of Islam in India why did he get Afzal Khan buried with full military honors after slaying him in 1659 and sanction funds for the upkeep of his tomb? Shivaji treated Muslims and Islam with respect and was not averse to establishing relations with those Hindus who had converted to Islam and wished to re-convert to Hinduism; no Nazi-style final solutions to the fluidity and co-existence of religious identities were to be found in the seventeenth century. Religion was important to pre-colonial Indians like it was to all pre-modern societies in general, but unlike sixteenth-century Europe, the religion wars were not to be found in India.

    There are numerous questions which make the annexation of the memory of Shivaji by communal historiography to the cause of communal politics problematic. Conceptually, if communalism was absent in medieval India, how could the majority of Indian rulers have been communal? Shivaji’s attitude even towards the Europeans was not governed by a frog-in-the-well approach which is the hallmark of religious nationalism. He was happy to take Portuguese assistance when it came to developing his artillery and building his forts. Even the sword which he is said to have used regularly was forged by the Portuguese whose military reputation in India during the seventeenth century was quite high; Pansare dilates a little on this in the context of the Goddess Bhavani myth associated with Shivaji’s sword. In the light of these facts it is perhaps apt to describe Shivaji as a kind of “equal opportunity employer” in the seventeenth century.

    In matters of statecraft Shivaji can be compared with Frederick the Great of Prussia who once famously declared that he would welcome the Turks and build them their mosques if they proved valuable to the Prussian State. Many questions arise in relation to the Maratha-Muslim military and administrative relations which were important to the history of the Deccan in the eighteenth century. Muslims fought in large numbers in the Maratha armies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries only to be exiled from Maratha history due to the painstaking efforts of the modern historians of Maharashtra during the colonial period. The Shaniwarwada, the intrigue ridden palace of the Peshwas in Pune, was garrisoned by the Gardis — the European trained Afghan Guard Battalion. The Marathas fought and negotiated with the Nizam over the subedari of the Deccan without speaking of establishing a Hindu Pad-Padshahi in the region. The Maratha-Muslim military co-operation continued in the nineteenth century and was demonstrated in the desperate resistance offered to the British by the Afghans in the service of the Rani of Jhansi from within the besieged Jhansi fort in 1857. Shivaji Kon Hota? recounts the role which numerous Muslim commanders played in Shivaji’s armed forces. There were at least 13 major Muslim commanders or soldiers in Shivaji’s army: Siddhi Hilal, Daulat Khan, Ibrahim Khan, Kazi Haider, Siddi Ibrahim, Siddi Wahwah, Noorkhan Beg, Shama Khan, Hussain Khan Miyani, Siddi Mistri, Sultan Khan, Dawood Khan and Madari Mehetar.

    Shivaji Kon Hota? questions the way in which dominant Maratha historiography has enforced modern, i.e., colonial and post-colonial, religious categories on a past where people lived and did things differently as compared to the age of modernity. Readers will not fail to notice the ease and humility with which the late Govind Pansare has raised and answered these questions. He does not claim originality, but only the ability to rationally re-interpret the facts of Shivaji’s career, for facts do exist despite the claims of contemporary intellectual fashion to the contrary. Shivaji Kon Hota? shows how, with the help of reason, anyone can interrogate the past. We need not be scientists and historians to discover and understand ourselves by questioning the familiar tropes of history.

    What made the book such a bestseller? It addresses an important issue of Maratha history. It tries to, and perhaps successfully does, understand the causes of Shivaji’s immense popularity in Maharashtra. It combines Marxist class analysis with the interpretation of Shivaji developed by Phule mentioned above to explain the popularity of Shivaji. The popularity of Shivaji endured in the eighteenth century and left the Brahman Peshwas with no choice but to derive political legitimacy from his descendants in Satara — all new Peshwas had to travel to Satara to get their appointment and the robes. The Peshwa was the de facto head of the Maratha state in the eighteenth century, but despite the enormous concentration of financial and military powers in his hands, could not dare become the de jure ruler of the state. Why did this state of affairs come to prevail in Maharashtra? The answer to this question must be sought in the way Shivaji dealt with the class and caste contradictions in seventeenth-century Maharashtra. Shivaji belonged to an elite military family but his power rested on various sections of the peasantry whose affections he gained by curbing the power of the saranjamshahi jagirdari feudal ruling class of Maharashtra — the oppressor-in-chief of the peasants. Shivaji took several steps to reduce the power of the Patils and Deshmukhs and other sections of the watandar and inamdar class and enhance the sovereignty of his state in the overall interest of the oppressed in Maharashtra. In sum, he was politically wise and became a king dedicated to the welfare of his subaltern subjects. This may sound a little romantic but in the light of the facts presented in Pansare’s book we are compelled to place Shivaji in the line of many medieval rulers who took the welfare of their common subjects seriously. These rulers were alert to the fundamental principle of paternal sovereignty which resided in the affection of their common subjects. Shivaji Kon Hota? reiterates that the Brahmans of Maharashtra, and even the so-called 96 kuli (clan) blue-blooded Marathas, refused to recognize Shivaji and the Bhonsle clan either as Maratha or Kshatriya. This refusal to accord Shivaji the political legitimacy rightfully claimed by him brought into Maratha history the role of the Paithani Brahman Gaga Bhatt who provided Shivaji the Mewar genealogy and came all the way from Varanasi to perform the rituals for the Raja’s coronation as a Chhatrapati. The colonial and post-colonial appropriation of Shivaji and his legacy by the intellectual descendants of the saranjamshahi class are presented in relief against these facts by Pansare in a language shorn of academic verbiage.

    The list of the lower castes whose support was essential to Shivaji’s rise to political sovereignty is long. Right from the time when Shivaji began mixing with the wiry enterprising hill folk of the Sahyadari mountains in his youth and started his military adventures, a number of shudra and ati-shudra jatis supported him. The Navis, Berads, Ramoshis, Kolis, Sonkolis, Bhandari, and even large numbers of lower-caste Muslim converts formed the social base of Shivaji’s political independence from the refractory watandars. We also know that the Kunbis and Gujjars flocked to his standard in large numbers; one of his famous generals was Kudtoji Gujar renamed Prataprao Gujar by him. Prataprao’s daughter was married to Shivaji’s second son Rajaram after the general’s death in a fatal cavalry charge in February 1674. Would popular support have come his way had Shivaji reconciled himself to the life of a saranjamshahi jagirdar living off the fat of the land? Many of the lower castes, and especially the Ramoshis who supported Shivaji were the ones who suffered the most in a Maharashtra ruled by the Brahman Peshwa in the eighteenth century. The increased marginalization of some of these castes under the shastric rule imposed on the region by the Peshwai most probably forced them into a life of crime, making it easy for the Peshwa administration, and later the British, to categorize them as criminal tribes deserving of stern treatment. Testimonies collected from some Ramoshi Naiks by Britsh ethnographers in the early nineteenth century speak of the Ramoshi association with Shivaji and their subsequent degradation by the Peshwas.5The Ramoshis claimed to have handed over several forts to Shivaji during the early phase of his career — a good turn the future Chhatrapati did not forget.

    Unfortunately for the lower castes, the state established by Shivaji did not last very long after his death and the jagirdari class he had suppressed reasserted its power during the period of the Peshwai. In fact the Peshwai undid what Shivaji had accomplished in the seventeenth century and re-established the dominance of the saranjamshahi class in Maharashtra with great force. From Shivaji Kon Hota? we come to know that the state set up by Shivaji created numerous opportunities for the upward social mobility of the lower castes denied them by the traditional caste system of India. Consequently these acts of Shivaji became part of Maharashtra’s folklore, which was often submerged in the din of nationalism which resounded in the modern middle class narratives of medieval India.

    More than a century after Phule first questioned the Brahman appropriation of Shivaji to the cause of a largely savarna hegemonic nationalism, Pansare wrote Shivaji Kon Hota? to separate the facts from the fictive biographies of Shivaji which comprise the dominant narrative of that admirable seventeenth century ruler. This book is a Marxist deconstruction of the dominant narrative of Shivaji to which most Indians have become accustomed to since the nineteenth century. The strength and popularity of Shivaji Kon Hota? must be perceived in it not being a product of professional history. It is a modern text not tainted by the historical imagination of nationalism. The book’s lasting relevance, readers will realize, lies in its unostentatious application of reason and the historical method of Marx to a highly emotive subject of Indian history.
    Govind Pansare has fallen in the line of duty, victim of an assassin’s bullets, but his text, a blazing testimony to the power of reason and rationality, will live long.


    1.James Grant Duff, History of the Marathas, Volumes I and II, Bombay, 1878. The first London edition of this book was published in 1826.

    2.Rise of the Maratha Power, 1900, reprinted New Delhi, 1961.

    3.Stewart Gordon, The Marathas 1600-1818, CUP, New Delhi, 2009.

    4.http://marathitheva.blogspot.in/2012/03/powada-on-chhatrapati-shivaji-maharaj.html (accessed on 8.7.15).

    5.For more on this see Alexander Mackintosh, An Account of the Origin and Present Condition of the Tribe of the Ramoossies Including the Life of the Chief Omiah Naik, Bombay, 1833, and P. W. Bradbeer, ‘The Role of the Kingdom of Satara in Suppressing Deccan Bunds, 1812-1832’, in A. R. Kulkarni and N. K. Wagle (eds.), Region, Nationality and Religion, Popular Prakashan, Mumbai, 1999, pp. 58-68.

    Anirudh Deshpande is Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Delhi, Delhi. He is co-editor, along with Partha Sarathi Gupta, of The British Raj and its Indian Armed Forces, 1857-1939 (2002), and author of British Military Policy in India 1900-1945: Colonial Constraints and Declining Power (2005), Class, Power and Consciousness in Indian Cinema and Television (2009), A Spring of Despair: Mutiny, Rebellion and Death in India, 1946 and Cinema Aur Itihaas – Kuch Paraspar Sambandh (both forthcoming). 

    Donate to the Indian Writers' Forum, a public trust that belongs to all of us.