It has been 380 years since the birth of Chhatrapati Shivaji, and a proposed statue of his is set to become the world’s tallest, at a cost of half a billion dollars. It has been called “colossal and absurdly expensive” extravagance in a country with millions living in dire poverty. The reason is not difficult to decipher – he is popular with Hindu nationalists who believe that he fought against an Islamic Mughal empire and established an “ideal Hindu kingdom”. Centuries after his death, Lokmaya Tilak, one of the nationalists of the freedom struggle, is credited with raising Shivaji, a Maratha chieftain, to the status of a national icon.
The narrative always placed him in contrast to Aurangzeb – the most controversial Mughal emperor. Aurangzeb is vilified for ending the patronage of arts started by his grandfather Akbar, re-imposing the Jizya tax on non-Muslims and the alleged wanton destruction of temples.
However, history tells us that the realities of identity are not as black and white. Shivaji began his career as a raider from a small dynasty of three generations. He was not averse to an alliance with the Mughals against the kingdom of Bijapur – who were once his own patrons. His final empire, which spanned 4.1 percent of the subcontinent (80,0467 square kilometers) relied on heavy taxes and extortion money called Chauth.
Aurangzeb inherited a financial situation that demanded fiscal rebalance – through the imposition of taxes, de-patronage of arts and borrowing of money (from Jain bankers). Shivaji’s story begins two generations before his birth, with several pots of gold.
The beginningTo trace the story of an Indian emperor is often to go back centuries of claimed descent. Aurangzeb alone would take you as far back as Genghis Khan (though one in 200 worldwide today can claim the same). But as far as inheriting power goes, Shivaji’s story begins with his grandfather, Māloji Bhonsle – a village chieftain whose story is a mix of rags-to-riches, audacity, and serendipity.
As the legend goes, Māloji Bhonsle and his friend were a pair of unemployed youth who found little hope of agriculture fulfilling their material needs. They approached the local noble of the Nizami elite, Jādav Rao – and got jobs as basic foot soldiers. One festive evening, he brought his son Shahji to Jādav’s house. Jādav had a daughter named Jijā Bāi, and in jest, placed her next to Shāji and remarked on what an excellent match they’d be.
That a peasant’s son could be betrothed to a nobleman’s was then unlikely, but Māloji threw his hands up in the air and joyfully proclaimed that Jādav had wedded his daughter to his son. It didn’t run well – and he was fired from his job. He returned to his village and a life of agriculture, tilling fields for two years. Like many, he subscribed to the belief that snakes guard hidden treasures below the earth. When he saw a large snake leave its hole, he played his luck and dug it up – and found seven pots of gold.
With this, he raised an army of mercenaries and joined a bandit gang. Rather than fight them, the corrupt Nizam-Shahi government enrolled them – and made them as good as noblemen. This wasn’t uncommon in the Mughal Empire, where potential usurps were bribed with armies and even kingdoms in order to keep the peace.
Māloji could now marry his son to Jādav’s daughter – setting the stage for a chain of events that leads to the collapse of the Mughal Empire and the building of the world’s largest statue today off the coast of Mumbai. The trigger was his grandson – Shivaji.
The economics of rulingMany of Aurangzeb’s biggest faults can be attributed to financial factors. The ‘Great Firm’ theory suggests that the empire’s decline was linked to a lack of confidence by its greatest investors – Jain and Brahmin-dominated moneylenders and banks.
Shivaji’s many raids on the empire reduced investor confidence in Mughal rule – the attack on Surat, in particular, led to merchants and bankers fleeing for safer economic climates such as Poona – one of the capitals of the Maratha empire.
Aurangzeb was forced to cut costs elsewhere, and the arts were an easy target. From a policy perspective, in reinstating the Jizya tax, Aurangzeb was trying to refill the state’s coffers – through taxing a community that held a monopoly on finance. Nonetheless, his adherence to religion guided a lot of his policies.
Meanwhile, Shivaji’s tax policies were also extractive. He took a third of all revenues, and of that, ten percent went straight to him – a form of tax to the king called Sardeshmukhi. Asides from this, he charged settlements on the peripheries of his empire a quarter of their revenue – a form of protection money called Chauth, paid to stave off an invasion.
It was a significant chunk out of Aurangzeb’s revenue – and the capture of the Mughal Empire’s greatest port, Surat, was a severe economic blow. It was also the main port through which Hajj pilgrims connected to Makkah – a symbolic capture for a Hindu king, who funded the travel of two ships each year.
Aurangzeb’s troubles didn’t end with Shivaji – he also had to contend with rebellions from the Rajputs, Sikhs and a series of family tussles for power. His war of succession was in part successful because he had funds – courtesy the Jain bankers of the time.
At the peak of Shivaji’s successful raids in the 1680’s, Aurangzeb’s revenues dropped sharply as Zamindars tested just how far the emperor was really emperor – why pay taxes when he couldn’t control a mountain bandit from the Deccan?
No country for new controversiesWhen American Professor James Laine released his book, ‘Shivaji – Hindu king in Islamic India’, he had expected it to be a contribution towards rethinking narratives on Shivaji – the underlying question being who told what stories and why. A single sentence that mentioned a joke about Shāji not being Shivaji’s father triggered unprecedented outrage.
The Pune-based Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute he mentioned in his acknowledgement was ransacked – with 18,000 books and 30,000 manuscripts destroyed. Shrikant Bahulkar, a scholar mentioned in the acknowledgements by James Laine was assaulted – his face blackened by Shiv Sena activists. It was by far the worst incident of cultural annihilation in Independent India – made doubly ironic by the fact that BOSE scholars were among those who had earlier called for the book’s ban.
Other prominent retellings of Shivaji’s life include Jadunath Sarkar’s “Shivaji and his Times”. Though he was counted among the foremost historians of the early twentieth century, his legacy and pendant for objectivity were to annoy both nationalist and Marxist historians. A lack of understanding for the importance of identity is often cited as his flaw.
Identity in contemporary India cannot be removed from a discussion of history – a mistake both Sarkar and Laine made, ostensibly at the altar of objectivity. The same objectivity tells us that the proposed statue of Shivaji could fund irrigation projects in a state suffering its worst drought in a century, build roads in rural areas that have some of the highest suicide rates in the country, or provide affordable education and health care services for the poor. But in the nation’s capital city, already host to the world’s most expensive apartments – an identity of disparity is becoming a part of the cultural fabric.
The building of the Taj Mahal was a luxury by Shah Jahan – one that his son Aurangzeb could not afford. It is a similar hope for history to remember them better that drives the campaign behind the Shivaji statue. One only wonders whether their successors will survive bearing the cost.
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