Shivaji and the rebirth of a nation

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Shivaji was a military  genius who built an empire from scratch but it is for sparking a national  revival that he should be remembered.

Shivaji, the Maratha warrior who established a  modern and powerful Hindu kingdom in south-western India from 1642-1680, is  undoubtedly the greatest Indian of the modern era. To understand Shivaji’s  importance in Indian history, especially his role in rekindling the spirit of  Indian nationhood, one must recognise that he built his empire against  impossible odds.

India in the 17th century was hurtling towards  catastrophe. Hindus, who comprised the vast majority of the country, were  hopelessly divided, leading a disenfranchised and moribund existence under  Muslim rule. The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb had launched jihad against Hindus by  destroying their ancient and beloved temples and re-imposing the hated jaziya,  a punitive and offensive tax which every Hindu had to pay or convert to Islam.  Before him, his father Shah Jahan and grandfather Jehangir had banned the  construction of Hindu temples, and destroyed many new ones.

The world was changing rapidly, with new  discoveries and advances in sciences being made. While Europe was beginning to  crawl out of poverty, plagues and fanatic Christian dogma, India was going in  the reverse direction. Since the destruction of the leading universities of  Nalanda and Taxila by Muslim invaders, not one new university had been built. India’s  intellectual landscape was barren because Hinduism was battling for survival. Furthermore,  a new threat was emerging in the form of European nations like Portugal,  France, Britain and Holland who, under the pretext of trade, were looking for  opportunities to colonise India.

Other great liberators like Italy’s Garibaldi  and America’s George Washington had two things in their favour—they had only a  single enemy and their people were solidly behind them. Shivaji had to reckon  with Aurangzeb’s mighty Mughal army, the smaller but powerful Bijapur sultanate,  the Pathans, the fierce Abyssinians of Janjira on the west coast, the fanatic Catholic  Portuguese and the wily English. His own people, the Marathas, were serving as  soldiers and chiefs in Muslim armies and totally lacked nationalistic spirit.

Birth of an Army
Shivaji got his inspiration from the Mahabharata  saying, “One thousand horsemen of one mind are enough to conquer the whole  world.” Barely 15 years old, he formed a tightly knit group of Mawala and  Konkani boys and captured some forts of the sultan. Maharashtrians now felt a  patriotic obligation to serve Shivaji, although many still served the Bijapur  sultan.

The amazing thing is the Mawalas and Konkanis  were physically much smaller than the Pathans, Mughals and the African Muslims,  and yet they prevailed in battle after battle. Starting with guerrilla raids,  soon the Marathas were engaging in pitched battles with Aurangzeb’s battle  hardened Mughal and Rajput armies. Instead of fighting for jagirs and cash, the  Marathas were now fighting for God, country and most importantly, honour. They defeated  more powerful armies and also beat the Portuguese and the English on the high  seas.

Reclaiming  the Seas
Shivaji was the first Indian ruler in the modern  era to understand the importance of a strong navy. The Mughals and Bijapuris  had been utterly irresponsible by neglecting the coast, thereby ceding control  of the seas to the Europeans. After he conquered the Konkan, Shivaji realised  the importance to protecting coastal trade.

Though most Marathas were not natural seamen,  the Kolis and Bhandaris of the west coast were good sailors and were tough and  well built. Shivaji built hundreds of ships, large and small, in the creeks of  Kalyan, Pen and Panvel. These fleets manned by Kolis, Bhandaris and Muslims successfully  battled the British, Portuguese, Dutch and Abyssinian fleets.

Historian Jadunath Sarkar writes, “Shivaji  proved by his example that the Hindus can defeat enemies, conduct their own  defence, maintain navies and ocean-trading fleets of their own, and conduct  naval battles on equal terms with foreigners. He taught the modern Hindus to  rise to the full stature of their own growth."

Handling the European  Threat
  Shivaji was farsighted in his dealings with the  Europeans. More than any other ruler, he knew of their unfair trade practices,  their bribe taking and giving, their religious fanaticism, and their dabbling  in Indian politics with an eye on dominions. But realising that the bigger  threat were the Mughals and southern Muslims kingdoms, he initially stayed away  from confrontation. Also, the Europeans owned powerful cannons and matchlocks  which would have been deadly if transferred to his enemies. So while he was in  favour of meeting the Europeans as far west as possible, he knew the time to  deal with them was after ending the land wars.

But he meted out exemplary punishment when  required. In June 1661, Shivaji’s soldiers plundered Rajapur and captured  several Englishmen. This was payback for the English aid to Bijapur. The  following year, he captured a band of Englishmen in Surat for supplying  ammunition to his enemies. In Shivaji:  The Founder of Maratha Swaraj, C.V. Vaidya quotes from an interesting letter  from the president of the English factory at Surat to the disconsolate prisoners:  “How you came to prison you know very well. This punishment is not for your  defending company’s goods. It is for your going to the siege of Panhala and  firing cannon under English banner. Anybody who is strong enough would have  punished you in these circumstances. Merchants have no business to sell ball  and power nor fire on enemies.”

The Western powers were constantly fighting one  another but they were shrewd enough to take advantage of the weaknesses of the  country. Shivaji played the same game against the Europeans and took advantage  of the jealousies among these powers. He would, for instance, use cannons and  ammunition from the Portuguese to attack the English, and take English help to  fight the Dutch. Each of these nationalities would be overjoyed when Shivaji’s  armies or fleets would defeat a European force. Often they would pay good money  to Shivaji to fight the other. The one common thing in their relations with  Shivaji was all of them paid hefty tribute to him.

End of Islamic  Tyranny
Shivaji’s legacy is that he laid the foundations  of a strong kingdom which ultimately under the later Maratha rulers  re-established Hindu rule over most parts of India—from the Krishna in the  south to the Indus in Punjab. The Marathas became the masters of Delhi and the  Mughal emperor their protectee. Hindus were finally able to walk free in their  own country after more than four centuries of almost ceaseless Islamic tyranny.

Meritocracy
The most remarkable achievement of this soldier  king was the completely non-feudatory nature of his empire. Shivaji’s was the  first modern Indian state that had large numbers of soldiers, commanders and  military strategists from  brahmin as  well as lower castes such as Holkars and Mahars. For the first time in the  modern era, jobs were not necessarily connected to one's caste. Even women,  starting with Shivaji’s mother Jijabai, showed interest in administration. Muslims  were treated equitably, his chief secretary being a Muslim. Shivaji, who was  deeply influenced by the ancient Hindu epics, was keen on establishing an equal  opportunity society. That it worked offers hope to those wanting to kick start  social engineering in India.

Shivaji died in 1680 of blood diaeorhea. When the  news reached Aurangzeb, the emperor was elated but then the reality sunk in,  and he muttered: “He was a great captain and the only one who has had the  magnanimity to raise a new kingdom, while I have been endeavouring to destroy  the ancient sovereignties of this country. My armies have been employed against  him for 19 years and nevertheless his state has been increasing.”

Modern India’s pseudo-secularist historians and  political leadership have refused to accept Shivaji's greatness. Believing that  mentioning Shivaji’s name will offend Muslims, he is rarely acknowledged for  his military genius, his administrative brilliance or his nation building  efforts. In fact, Nehru and Gandhi both described the great Maratha as a  misguided patriot. Incredible, coming from two men under whose watch India was  partitioned.

When Shivaji started with a few good men in the  1640's, perhaps only he could have imagined that just over a hundred years  later, a mighty Maratha army would plant the Hindu flag on the walls of Attock in  the Afghan heartland and liberate Punjab after 800 years of Muslim rule.

(About the  author: Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a features writer at New Zealand’s leading  media house. He has previously worked with Businessworld, India Today and  Hindustan Times, and was news editor with the Financial Express.)

Also read:
1. Life  story of Shivaji
2. Raigarh Fort
3. Pratapgarh Fort
4. Maratha Supremacy in the 18th century