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Why Shivaji is a pan-Indian hero

By Colonel Anil Athale (retd)
February 24, 2011 20:13 IST
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It is time to free this great son India from the shackles of narrow regionalism, says Colonel Anil Athale (retd)

The birth anniversary of Chhattrapati Shivaji was celebrated throughout Maharashtra last week. But unfortunately for this great son of India, parochial organisations have hijacked his legacy and reduced him to a 'local' figure.

It is worthwhile examining the 'what if' of history. Abandoning the secular legacy of Akbar, Aurengzeb, his great great grandson, had embarked on the 'Islamisation' of India. It is the Marathas, inspired by Shivaji, who fought Aurengzeb and saved India from following the fate of Persia. The proof of Maratha victory lies in the fact that Aurengzeb lies buried, not in Lahore/Delhi or Agra, but near Aurangabad down south.

But for Shivaji and the Marathas, there would have existed a continuous Islamic belt from Morocco to Indonesia. What addition of 1 billion more adherents to Islam would have done to the world power balance or what would have happened to Indian legacy like yoga, ayurveda, music, art and philosophy, is not difficult to guess! It is time to free this great son India from the shackles of narrow regionalism.

Shivaji's life story reads like a thriller. It is difficult to imagine that an individual could achieve so much in a single lifetime. Shivaji revolutionised the art of warfare in India. His policies, strategies and tactics mark a clear break from the past in the Indian context. His approach to the use of violence was radically different from that followed in the preceding 1000 years. The basic Indian concept of war is 'Dharma Yudha' (war for the cause of righteousness). Unfortunately, over the years, wars were ritualised, mainly to reduce the level of violence.

Indian sages, the powers behind thrones, sought to limit conflicts through these means In Indian eyes, war was reduced to a contest for individual glory. This was in the era dominated by the Rajputs. Indian history before Shivaji's advent reads like a chronicle of military disasters. Shivaji changed all that. For him, victory was the only morality in war.

Shivaji's ideas were different from long-held Indian beliefs. His wars of movement have often been described as running away from battle. Achievement of victory through surprise has also been condemned as 'treachery', not just by his adversaries but even by some Indians, down to the present era.

Unfortunately for Shivaji, there was no Indian version of Clausewitz or Jomini to articulate his thoughts or practices. Within his lifetime itself, he had become a cult figure and soon thereafter deified, as is the Indian practice. His strategies and tactics have been a beacon to the Indians in general and Marathas in particular, in times of difficulty.

Shivaji was born in a crucible of revolt and did justice to a brave mother, Jijabai. She was possibly the greatest influence on him. At the of 15, Shivaji took an oath to usher in "Hindavi-Swarajya", note it is Hindavi and not Hindu.

Ideology of 'Hindavi Swarajya' (Indian independence)

Shivaji can rightly be called the father of Indian nationalism. As a small-time ruler of a mountainous area near Poona (Pune), he was like thousands of petty rulers in existence all over India. The crucial difference was that he had a vision of an independent India in which Indians , irrespective of their faith, could live as proud and free citizens.

It is this ideology, which aimed at the protection of the ancient Indian civilisation, that was the bedrock of his military conquests. In a letter written on April 17, 1645 to a Bijapur official's son, Shivaji explained, "When we fight the Sultan of Bijapur, we are not being dishonest. It is God's will that Hindavi Swarajya should get established. It is this that gives me success after success."

The ideological foundations of Shivaji's kingdom ensured that he was assured the co-operation of the entire population. His generals and administrators came from all castes and clans. Thus he never suffered from the enduring caste division that has plagued many other administrations before and after him. The mental soil for implanting such seeds was in any case fertile in Maharashtra thanks to the work of saint-poets.

Shivaji's call for Hindavi Swarajya gave concrete shape to the social urges in Maharashtra. Foreign historians have often written about the apathy and disinterest of the ordinary people in the on going military struggles. They were amazed that Indian peasants continued to till their land while battle raged less than a mile away. This lack of involvement can be said to be the reason why relatively small armies have come and conquered the country.

Shivaji and his Hindavi Swarajya were certainly an exception. He had popular support cutting across caste divisions that enabled him to perform feats like the celebrated raid on Shaista Khan at Poona or his escape from Mughal custody in Agra.

The natural corollary of Shivaji's call for Hindavi Swarajya was his wooing of Rajputs. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Mughal empire in reality was not Mughalat all but a Rajput-Mughal coalition. Shivaji's greatest success was that while he fought the misrule of the Muslim sultans and emperors, he managed to win over sizeable numbers of Muslims to his side.

In this sense Shivaji can be rightly called the founder of the modern secular state of India. He ensured that in his domain Muslim shrines and people were well protected and treated equally. Even contemporary Muslim historians, who otherwise have called him a robber king, grudgingly admit this fact.

Kafi Khan, the Mughal court historian, rejoiced when Shivaji died. "The Kafir has gone to hell," he wrote. But even he admits that Shivaji treated the Quran Sharif with respect and never touched mosques. His approach to the question of religion comes out clearly in his letter to Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb had re-started the hated 'jizya' a tax that had to be paid by Hindus. Writing to him in a regretful tone Shivaji wrote, "In this land Muslims, Hindus, Christians and other people have stayed together without any problem. Your own great grandfather Akbar was well known for his tolerance and fairness to all faiths. Your imposing of this tax will lead to terrible hardship for poor people and your empire will not survive. The Quran is God's revelation and it does not make distinction between God's children. In the mosque, the Muslims give Azaan while the Hindus ring bells in temples -- what is the difference?"

Shivaji was also the first Indian ruler to discard war elephants. His strategic doctrine relied on swift movement and mobile defence. He believed in battles of annihilation by placing his army in an advantageous position. Above all, he believed in relentless offensive action and never permitted the enemy time to re-group. Shivaji did not place any value on the mere possession of the battlefield; rather, he made the enemy army his target.

Thus, on finding himself in a disadvantageous position, he had no hesitation whatsoever in abandoning the battle and battlefield. He placed great value on forts. Yet his defensive strategy was not based on any kind of static defence. Forts for him were secure firm bases from which to launch counter-offensives.

In March 1665 when a powerful Mughal army under Jaisingh of Jaipur descended on Maharashtra, Shivaji had no hesitation in giving up most of his forts as well as other areas. In 1666 after his successful escape from Agra, in less than two years, Shivaji recaptured the entire territory lost to the Mughals by the earlier treaty. Portugese chronicles of the period show amazement at the ease with which Shivaji recaptured 26 forts and compare his military exploits with Alexander and Caesar.

Shivaji re-established a firm connection between politics and war. War for him was a means to achieve his political aim of Hindavi Swarajya. When he found that his objective could not be achieved through diplomacy, he never hesitated to use force. This is in direct contrast with the notions that have been firmly embedded in the Indian mind of war as an end in itself. In this sense he can be said to have revived the teachings of Chanakya after a lapse of nearly 1,000 years.

Shivaji placed great value on the achieving of surprise. This he did through swift movement, often travelling more than 40 kms in a day and also by using deliberate rumours as a potent weapon. In January 1664, when he attacked the rich port of Surat, his arrival at the city gates came as a surprise to the traders who had thought him to be going in the direction of Ahmedabad!

Shivaji often moved by night. Many of his attacks, like the successful raid on the Poona camp of the Mughal army, were carried out by night.

Shivaji recognised the value of accurate intelligence as a war winning factor. Under Bahirji Naik, he organised an efficient system of spies and was usually very well informed about enemy movement. In the period after Shivaji, when the Mughal armies under Aurangzeb tried to crush forever the Maratha resistance, the Marathas often had spies inside the camp.

Shivaji did not compromise on security. When the new Maratha capital was established at Raigarh fort, he asked the prime minister to advertise that if any one could breach the fort walls unknown to the sentries a hefty reward would be given. To the surprise of the prime ministerMoropant Pingle, one Sarjerao, did manage to get into the fort undetected.

Shivaji honoured his pledge and gave away the reward but also ordered the hands and feet of Sarjerao to be cut and he was thrown down the cliff to his death. Shivaji compensated the family but his logic was that a person who knows state secrets is a security risk and has to eliminated.

He believed in the importance of morale as a battle winning factor. It has been shown earlier how he managed to destroy the myth of Muslim superiority in the battle of Pratapgarh as well as by his successful raid on Shaista Khan. To keep up the morale of his troops, Shivaji often spread the story of the special blessings Goddess Durga had given him. The simple, religious-minded folk were convinced that he possessed divine powers.

Shivaji was one of a handful of Indian rulers to realise the importance of sea power. In November 1664, he laid the foundations of the fort at Sindhudurg. This was to be the headquarters of the Maratha navy. He took an active interest in ship-building.

Shivaji's tactical doctrine is often described as 'Ganimi Kava'. This is a Farsi word and literally means 'Enemy's tactics'. In a tactical sense, Shivaji followed the tactics of the enemy. He invented no new concepts and his weapons were the same as those of his enemy. His striking success is attributed more to the skilful use he made of the mobility of cavalry and the surprise he achieved through night attacks.

The other contributory factors were his obviously better trained, disciplined and motivated soldiery. His tactical-level contributions were more in the field of organization and administration.

Despite the brief period for which he ruled unmolested, he established a proper system of government with appointed offices and departments. Realising the importance of sea power, he also established a navy. His efforts at forging an all India unity failed in the face of Rajput obduracy but he can be credited with being the first to have an all-India vision of the nation.

The real test of Shvaji's contribution came after he was dead. It is noteworthy that Aurengzeb did not venture into Maharashtra when Shivaji was alive. Such was the potency of his memory that the Marathas fought a guerrilla war for 22 years and destroyed the mighty Mughal Empire.

In the 18th century it was the Marathas who fought the Afghans at Panipat and later the British at Aligarh, Delhi and Lassawari (near Agra). It is from the Marathas that the British took over India -- the Mughal empire was long dead and buried along with Aurengzeb since 1707!

Colonel Anil Athale (retd) studied Maratha history as the First General Palit Military History Fellow of the IDSA and is the author of Maratha Struggle for Empire.

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Colonel Anil Athale (retd)