October  2001 

Shivaji in ‘secular’ Maharashtra

The Shiv Sena threatens to disrupt an experiment at familiarizing school students with a more balanced understanding of Shivaji. Instead of assuring protection to a pioneering institute, the Mumbai police bulldozes the school management into making a written apology when none is due


While the entire country has been privy to an intense debate on the issue of partisan and narrow
readings and interpretations of the past (see CC, August September 2001, January 2001, October 1999 ), Maharashtra in western India  at present ruled by the ‘secular’ Congress–NCP combine but shackled by the rabid Shiv Sena – recently saw brazen attempts at intimidation and unreasoned rhetoric over the introduction of a handbook for history teachers that deals with Shivaji in a balanced and rational manner.

The issue is, the introduction, on an experimental basis, of a handbook to enhance the understanding and learning of history, authored by Teesta Setalvad (through KHOJ — the secular education programme of Sabrang Communications) in three institutions run by the Don Bosco group of schools in Mumbai. The handbooks were the result of a ten- month long collaboration between history teachers and the author, aimed at re–working and enhancing the syllabus in history.

The section on Shivaji, among other things, also dealt with the caste background of Shivaji and his rise to power and glory despite these restrictive factors. The handbook also deals with the character of Afzal Khan in a balanced manner. These are the sections that have raised the hackles of the self–styled custodians of our common history.

The experiment was being conducted with the full knowledge and consent of the parent–teacher associations in two of the three schools since June this year. But in the third school, Don Bosco’s, Borivali, some parents, clearly unhappy with the rational and logical reasoning in the handbook, approached the local shakha of the Shiv Sena after failing to intimidate the principal at a parents’ meeting, into withdrawing the book. Predictably, the Shiv Sena was more than happy to step in!

Shivaji, a Maharashtrian figure, has been selectively valorised by a parochial and downright communal element in Maharashtra, especially over the past two and a half decades. These elements have consistently used threats, bullying and intimidation tactics to stall any effort to improve upon the orientation of the official textbooks. Even the attempt of the Maharashtra State Text Book Board to re–work the history textbooks in tune with the New Education Policy of 1986 was subverted. (See box).

The narrow worldview that these forces represent would prefer to hide the bitter struggle of Shivaji with the entrenched Brahminical hierarchy of the time. The story of his coronation detailed by eminent historians (see boxes) is a sorry tale of how even a man who gained such tremendous success and popularity in his lifetime had to find a Brahmin priest from Benaras to perform the ‘purification’ and thread ceremony necessary to legitimise his coronation. The services of the Brahmin priest who consented to perform the ritual had to be compensated with significant monetary largesse.

In recent years, sectarian and divisive outfits like the Hindu Mahasabha, the RSS and the Shiv Sena have frequently resorted to intimidation to gloss over these historical facts. But a rich, alternate tradition in Maharashtra has, through the works of Jayant Gadkari, NR Pathak, Govind Pansare and Sharad Patil, periodically resurrected the real Shivaji. As far back as the late fifties,veteran trade unionist, SA Dange’s famous lecture Tyanche Shivaji, Aamche Shivaji delivered to workers, protested against the manipulation of Shivaji into a ‘Hindu’ ruler, deliberately ignoring significant efforts made by him within his kingdom to give equal status to persons of different religious persuasions.

For the Shiv Sena, through it’s crude but popular audio cassettes of Marathi povadas (folk songs), the battle between Shivaji and Afzal Khan is a metaphor for (and justification of) their current politics – demonisation of the Muslim minority and legitimisation of the violence used against them. Every time individuals and groups have challenged this parochial rendering of the past to suit crude present-day political ends, intimidation and threats have been used to nip such attempts in the bud.

In the light of this background, it is particularly educative to see how the organs of the state — both the police and the state education department — functioned after the SS delivered its threat to the Don Bosco school management recently.

On the morning of September 17, after one or two parents had failed to intimidate the school into withdrawing the handbooks — a Shiv Sena Board displayed outside the school threatened a morcha to protest against the ‘derogatory remarks against Shivaji by calling him a Shudra’ and hurting Hindu religious sentiments!

The moment the school contacted me, the author of the handbook, I said we should offer to refer the ‘controversial’ part to a committee of experts but that intimidation and threats to the school should be withdrawn. At the same time, given the violent antecedents of the SS, I approached the police on September 18, requesting protection to the school.

However, instead of supporting the reasonable stand for dialogue and rationality taken by the school management, the local police led by the zonal DCP put relentless pressure on the school management to apologise and withdraw the handbook in order to pre-empt the Sena’s protest. The result: on the morning of the threatened protest, September 19, local Shiv Sainiks assembled in front of the school and publicly distributed xeroxed copies of the apology letter the DCP had forced out of the school management before dispersing in a ‘victorious’ mood. Only the police can tell us how a letter from the school addressed to the police got into the hands of the Shiv Sainiks. If this is not police complicity, English dictionaries would need revision.

No less interesting is the role played by the state education department under a ‘secular’ combine on that day. Representatives of the department descended on the school and extracted an immediate assurance that the handbook would be withdrawn.

Two major issues related to the conduct of public servants arise from the controversy and both have become the subject matter of complaints by the management and the author before the Maharashtra State Human Rights Commission and Maharashtra State Minorities Commission.

One is the conduct of the police, both visible and behind the scenes. Second, is the action of the state education department in seeking to control alternate and dynamic renderings of history.

Throughout the day on Monday, September 17, despite repeated efforts by the school management to contact the local police station for protection from the Shiv Sena, zonal DCP SS Khemkar did not respond. The matter cannot be seen in isolation without considering the fear and terror that an outfit like the SS generates in Mumbai.

Only weeks before this incident, Shiv Sainiks showed their true colours, completely destroying the only hospital of its kind in neighbouring Thane. But for the hospital doctors who did all they could to save patients, several of whom were on life support systems, there is no saying how many may have died in addition to the two patients who could not survive the ordeal. The provocation? The Thane chief of the Sena, Anand Dighe, admitted to the hospital following a road accident, had died due to a massive heart failure. The Thane police commissioner and his police force are now facing an enquiry before the State’s Human Rights Commission for their failure to act against the Sainiks who reduced Rs 9 crore worth of hospital property and equipment to rubble in next to no time. The hospital has since closed down and several hundreds of its employees rendered jobless.

These were the immediate antecedents of the outfit, the Shiv Sena which was threatening Don Bosco, Borivali, with an agitation. Even as the Don Bosco agitation was hanging fire, women Shiv Sainiks had stormed into the chambers of the Mumbai municipal commissioner and roughed him up.

What does the police do in these circumstances to reassure a school management which assumes responsibility for hundreds of young children?

Despite it being made repeatedly clear, by the school management and the author, that the issue was open for dialogue and discussion, the Borivali police through the local DCP SS Khemkar brought enormous pressure on the school to withdraw the handbook completely . Worse still was the conduct of the city’s commissioner of police, MN Singh, whom I contacted on his mobile phone at 9 am on Tuesday, September 18, after trying in vain to get through to him the day before.

The result of the call to the commissioner was the conduct of DCP Khemkar, intimidation and threats made to the school. Behind the scenes, Singh used the Christian connections of former supercop, Julio Ribeiro, to advise the school to "steer clear of controversies".

At the time, Section 142 (order against assembly with weapons) was in force due to the tensions following the terror attacks in the USA. In view of the sensitive situation and the antecedents of the Shiv Sena, the law and order machinery would have been well within its powers to assume a no-nonsense attitude vis–ŕ–vis the SS. Instead, the commissioner, through DCP SS Khemkar, chose to bulldoze the management of a premier and pioneering educational institution into penning a here–and–now apology and withdrawal of the handbook.

The same approach was followed by the second state institution that entered the picture, the state education department. Under law and the codes governing the SSC school board, there is nothing to prevent schools from using educational material to enhance the syllabus; yet the state government responds to the SS intimidation with uncharacteristic promptness.

Maharashtra, like other states in the country, has seen the mushrooming of several thousand institutions run by the RSS/VHP that freely use supplementary texts that, simply put, spread hatred and division. Does the state government, even under ‘secular’ dispensations, ever ‘dare’ to make any inquiries? Why is it that efforts to rationalise history learning and cleanse it of the cobwebs of bigotry and hatred are such a challenge to our institutions, and not those that blatantly promote bigotry and stereotypes?

The matter presently lies before the Maharashtra State Human Rights Commission. The next date for hearing is November 29. Meanwhile, in a parallel move, the Borivali police station has instituted an investigation under section 153 c (hurting the religious sentiments of a section) against the author of the book. 


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