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Cultural memory and the politics of intolerance in Maharashtra

How should the scholar or historian negotiate a community’s cultural memory, and public outrage against perceived misrepresentations of its icons such as Shivaji? The liberal perspective is quick to spot the threat posed by chauvinist forces to freedom of expression. But how is such freedom to be reconciled with the imperative of respecting popular sentiment, asks Mangesh Kulkarni

The concept of cultural memory comprises that body of re-usable texts, images, and rituals specific to each society in each epoch, whose “cultivation” serves to stabilise and convey that society's self-image. -- Jan Assman

Tolerance is first and foremost for the sake of the heretics… Heresy by itself, however, is no token of truth. -- Herbert Marcuse

Communities are to be distinguished not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined. -- Benedict Anderson

In 1973, a professor of history at the Marathwada University (Aurangabad) was compelled to resign following the public furore generated by one of his polemical pieces; a young woman studying English literature at the University of Bombay was prosecuted for her purportedly incendiary essay published by a popular periodical in 1993; the Pune-based Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute -- a venerable centre of Indological research -- was vandalised by activists of the Sambhaji Brigade in 2004 for its alleged complicity in the writing of a controversial book authored by an American academic. What is common to these acts of ‘intolerance’ that mark the chequered trajectory of cultural politics in contemporary Maharashtra?

The short answer is that they all sprang from a sense of outrage triggered by supposedly flagrant misrepresentations of Chhatrapati Shivaji Raje Bhosle (1627/30-1680) -- the legendary warrior-king of Maratha (1) history and an iconic figure in the Maharashtrian collective consciousness. A more elaborate answer would require a closer look at each of the episodes mentioned above.

The predicament of the professor of history, Pandharinath Ranade, was occasioned by his article entitled ‘Maharashtrateel Shivaji Stom’ (‘The Shivaji Hype/Cult in Maharashtra’ would be a rough translation) in the August 1, 1973 issue of Ranangan (meaning ‘battleground’) -- a Marathi left-wing periodical published from Pune. Ranade sought to dispel the aura surrounding Shivaji and his government by invoking a rather orthodox Marxist understanding of feudalism. Accordingly, he emphasised the similarity between the Mughal and Maratha ruling classes, arguing that both lived on the surplus extorted from the toiling masses. This denial of the distinctiveness of Shivaji’s rule provoked a public outcry and governmental pressure targeting the author of the article as well as the editor of Ranangan, Anil Barve. Ranade had no choice but to resign his university post. However, his colleagues in the Indian History Congress -- the largest professional and academic body of Indian historians, founded in 1935 -- rallied in his support. During its winter session that year, the Congress adopted a motion defending the historian’s right and obligation to publicise his findings, however unpalatable they might seem. It also pleaded for Ranade’s reinstatement. The plea did not fall on deaf ears and the latter soon resumed his post.

At the centre of the second episode lay Nancy Adajania’s article entitled ‘Myth and Supermyth’, which appeared in the April 10-16, 1993, issue of The Illustrated Weekly of India -- a periodical published by the Mumbai-based Times of India Group. The author’s intention was to expose the ‘nationalist’ parties’ opportunistic homogenisation of historical figures into superhuman symbols. Her specific argument included the following unsavoury, though not entirely original, contentions: Shivaji sought legitimacy by manufacturing a genealogy, his administrative infrastructure was borrowed from the Mughal rulers, and the empire he created was based on extortion. A report condemning the article and its author appeared in the Marathi newspaper Kesari, triggering a volley of protests, withdrawal of the issue from the market, a public apology from the editor of the Weekly, and the registration of a criminal case against the publisher and the author for promoting communal enmity. A defiant Adajania refused to apologise in the face of imminent arrest; but she was adjudged innocent by Justice Michael Saldanha of the Bombay High Court, who described the action contemplated by the government as “misdirected”.

The vandalisation of the Bhandarkar Institute on January 4, 2004, by the Sambhaji Brigade -- a militant maratha organisation named after Shivaji’s elder son -- sprang from the perception that the Institute’s librarian and some scholars (many of them were brahmans) associated with it, who had helped American professor James Laine to write Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India (Oxford University Press, 2003), were responsible for the book’s reckless reference to an insidious joke about Shivaji’s parentage. In the wake of critical comments on the book, carried by two periodicals, Rangataranga and Chitralekha, a campaign against Laine and his native informants gathered momentum. By late-2003, Oxford University Press was compelled to withdraw the book, and one of the scholars accused of collaborating with Laine had his face blackened by activists of the Shiv Sena. After the attack on the Bhandarkar Institute, a criminal case was registered against the author and the publisher for posing a threat to social harmony, and the book itself was banned, though Laine had issued a statement apologising for inadvertently hurting people’s sensibilities. The ban was finally lifted by the Supreme Court in July 2010; but as far as Maharashtra is concerned, it remains in force for all practical purposes.


It is possible to view these cases in the familiar liberal perspective as instances of the threat posed by chauvinist forces to freedom of expression. One may debate as to how such freedom can be reconciled with the imperative of respecting popular sentiment, especially in the face of deep-rooted contention between communities. This would then lead to a larger preoccupation with the contradictions endemic to ‘imperfectly modernised’ societies which subject individual rights to the overbearing pressures of democratic politics. Though such concerns are legitimate, they often find expression in well-rehearsed arguments that tend to be excessively abstract and move monotonously in worn-out grooves. It would be more instructive to locate the above-mentioned controversies vis-à-vis the cultural politics of Maratha history in modern Maharashtra. The latter comprises certain key constructs of Shivaji, which offer different interpretations of the precise nature and long-term significance of his career. For the sake of analytical convenience they have been divided into four broad categories (2).

1 Bahujan: This construct was first articulated by the 19th century public intellectual and social reformer Jotiba Phule alias Mahatma Jotirao Phule (1827-1890) who founded the non-brahman bahujan (literally meaning ‘majority’; but the reference here is to the numerous ‘lower’ castes) movement in Maharashtra. In his famous ballad (powada) on Shivaji, published in 1869, Phule described the latter as kulwadibhushan -- a shudra king in whom the peasant masses could take pride. In the magnum opus, Sarvajanik Satya Dharma Pustaka (1891), he deplored the influence that the brahman saint-poet Sant Ramdas (1608-1682) exercised over Shivaji. Phule himself belonged to the intermediate malicaste; but his countercultural intervention envisioned an inclusive alternative to the brahmanical order. His understanding of Shivaji was anchored in this larger project. However, subsequently, bahujan maratha leaders such as V R alias Maharshi Shinde (1873-1944) began to emphasise Shivaji’s -- and as his descendants, their own -- kshatriya status to counter the tendency of brahmans to treat them as shudras.

2 Nationalist: The locus classicus of this construct is Rise of the Maratha Power (1900) -- a historical tract penned by the renowned liberal leader, judge and scholar Mahadev Govind Ranade (1842-1901). Ranade refuted the charge of British historians like James Grant Duff (1789-1858) that Shivaji was an unscrupulous adventurer. He argued that the great Maratha king’s rule had a strong popular base and a spiritual foundation; it thus heralded the emergence of a national consciousness. To him, the Bhakti movement propelled by the medieval saint-poets had prepared the ground for Shivaji’s rise to power. Unlike Phule, Ranade saw Ramdas in a positive light and described him as Shivaji’s “chief adviser”. The Shivaji public festival, launched as an anti-colonial platform by the renowned nationalist leader B G alias Lokamanya Tilak (1856-1920) in the mid-1890s, had already pre-figured this construct, even as it provided space to elements of the Hindutva-centric construct discussed below.

3 Hindutva-centric: The roots of the construct may be traced to the writings of the celebrated historian V K Rajwade (1864-1926) who collected and published an enormous amount of material on Maratha history. He viewed Shivaji as a religious rebel protesting against Muslim tyranny and as the founder of a Hindu kingdom in opposition to the alien Mughal imperial rule. While downplaying the importance of the ‘otherworldly’ Bhakti movement, Rajwade zealously projected Ramdas as a champion of Hindu empowerment and as Shivaji’s guru. Quite logically, he saw the brahmanical Peshwa regime of the 18th century as expanding and completing the Hindu upsurge. Subsequently, Vinayak Damodar alias Swantryaveer Savarkar (1883-1966), a prominent leader of the Hindu Mahasabha, was among the ardent advocates of the construct.

4 Communist: This construct is best exemplified by the writings of Comrade Shripad Amrit Dange (1899-1991) who claimed that Shivaji had introduced revolutionary changes in property relations pertaining to land. By destroying the economic power of the feudal deshmukhs, Shivaji transferred ownership of land to the cultivating peasants. Further, he created a non-hereditary bureaucracy, thereby bringing the peasantry into direct contact with a centralised, monarchical state. The construct also found expression in the writings of fellow communists like Lalji Pendse (1898-1973). Interestingly, the pioneering exponents of all except the first of the constructs discussed so far were brahmans; and perhaps this explains the curious fact that even the communist Pendse projected Ramdas as a source of intellectual inspiration to Shivaji.

5 Consensual: The Samyukta Maharashtra Movement of the 1950s sought to carve out a separate state for Marathi-speaking people from the bilingual state of Bombay. It elicited the participation of a wide spectrum of political forces and witnessed the invocation of Shivaji as a symbol of regional pride. When the state of Maharashtra was formed within the Indian federation in 1960, the medieval ruler gained a place of prominence in the official iconography. In the new regime based on the political domination of the marathas and the continued cultural hegemony of the brahmans, the regnant discourse on Shivaji amalgamated various elements present in the earlier constructs. The resulting consensual construct portrayed Shivaji as a valiant son of the soil, representing the unity and identity of Maharashtra, and as a benevolent kshatriya king.

In his popular biography of Shivaji, published by the National Book Trust -- an autonomous organisation of the Government of India -- the historian Setumadhavrao Pagadi (1910-1994) articulated the consensual construct as follows:

Shivaji is one of the great national figures of India. A man of faith as well as action, this extraordinary statesman and general created a nation, gave its people a cause to fight and die for and established a state permeated with a spirit of tolerance and justice: a truly secular and welfare state. (Shivaji, 1993)

This construct has been widely disseminated through various channels such as school textbooks, the mass media, public statues, monuments, spectacles and ceremonies. It has become an integral constituent of the Marathi-speaking people’s cultural memory and a central axis of contemporary Maharashtra’s self-image as a political community. Therefore, any form of expression deemed to be a defamation of Shivaji draws the ire of Maharashtrians and quickly drains their reserves of tolerance. Quite predictably, a variety of political forces further their own agenda by using manipulative tactics and fanning the flames of intolerance to take undue advantage of public reverence for the Maratha hero.


Let us not forget that even the famed tolerance of the hypermodern European nations gets frayed when they confront the ‘alien’ cultural norms and practices of non-White immigrant communities. It is no wonder that the perceived profaning of iconic figures like Shivaji leads to flared tempers and excesses in the somewhat precariously constituted regional public sphere which is vitiated by caste and communal tensions. Thus, different versions of the Shivaji corpus clash over the status of brahman authority figures like Ramdas and Dadoji Kondadev who served as Shivaji’s political adviser in his younger days. While some (for example, the Hindutva-centric version) treat the former as Shivaji’s guru and the latter as his early mentor, others (especially the bahujan version) tend to downplay, if not deny their importance. A particularly dramatic manifestation of this tussle was witnessed on December 27, 2010, in Pune, when the statue of Dadoji Kondadev was removed from the historic Lal Mahal with the backing of the Maratha-dominated Congress-Nationalist Congress Party combine which controlled the Pune Municipal Corporation. The incident -- a fallout of the Laine controversy -- provided cause for celebration to forces such as the Sambhaji Brigade which had campaigned for the removal of the statue, even as it sparked off vehement public protests by the champions of Hindutva, especially the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The episodes -- each involving an outburst of public ‘intolerance’ -- that we have discussed so far also reveal a disconnect between ‘civil society’ which seeks to act as a guardian of cosmopolitanism and liberal modernity, and ‘political society’ which serves as an arena for the articulation of conflicting passions and interests (3). The response of the Indian History Congress to the Ranade controversy, upholding the sanctity of untrammelled historical inquiry, as also Justice Saldanha’s order in the Illustrated Weekly case, striking a blow for intellectual freedom, represent the voice of civil society; while the Sambhaji Brigade and the Shiv Sena are two poles of the region’s political society. Principles and arguments that seem perfectly straightforward in the somewhat rarefied medium of civil society undergo strange refractions when they enter the fraught domain of political society (4). Sensitivity to the protocols and nuances of intellectual discourse -- a key feature of the former -- has no place in the rough and tumble world of the latter.

A scholar venturing on to the terrain constituted by the politics of history must tread carefully and soberly, taking due cognisance of the community’s cultural memory, even as s/he remains faithful to the demands of her/his profession. S/he would do well to heed Ernest Renan’s observation that a nation (and eo ipso, a supposedly ‘sub-national’ community like Maharashtra) sustains itself through strategies of commemoration as well as amnesia. On a more positive note, such a scholar may also want to consider the earnest advice of cultural critics like Ashis Nandy and Vinay Lal that s/he should overcome the hubris of scientism, while seeking out and drawing intellectual nourishment from the ‘truths’ represented by inclusive, benign ‘myths’ lodged in the complex interweave of collective consciousness. These are a few signposts in the search for a theory and practice of emancipatory tolerance; but the episodes discussed above remind us that there are no easy roadmaps for those who wish to traverse the minefield of the ‘past continuous’.

Note: Help received from D K Kulkarni, Sandeep Pendse, Ashok Chousalkar, Shantaram Pandere, Jatin Wagle, Shivaji Motegaonkar and Sunil Kankate is gratefully acknowledged; however, the author takes sole responsibility for any errors of fact or judgment that may be found in the article

(Dr Mangesh Kulkarni teaches at the Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Pune. Later this year he will serve as the first Visiting Professor holding the Chair of Indian Studies at the University of Vienna (Austria). He has recently edited a book entitled Interdisciplinary Perspectives in Political Theory (Sage, 2011))

1 In this article, the term ‘Maratha’ is used to denote the community of Marathi-speaking people, while the term ‘maratha’ denotes the most numerous and dominant caste cluster in Maharashtra
2 This exercise is based on the pioneering work of scholars like D K Bedekar and Gail Omvedt
3 This distinction between ‘civil society’ and ‘political society’ is a variation on Partha Chatterjee’s formulation of the analytical binary. It is best treated as an open-ended, heuristic device. The possibility of overlap and osmosis between the two ‘sectors’ is acknowledged but not addressed in this article
4 Perceptive readers will recognise the Burkean provenance of the metaphor invoked here. In his critique of natural rights, Edmund Burke (1729-1797) made the following celebrated statement: “These metaphysic rights entering into common life, like rays of light which pierce into a dense medium, are by the laws of nature refracted from their straight line. Indeed, in the gross and complicated mass of human passions and concerns, the primitive rights of men undergo such a variety of refractions and reflections that it becomes absurd to talk of them as if they continued in the simplicity of their original direction.” (Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790)

Infochange News & Features, July 2011