Shivaji did not strive for ‘Marathi raj’ but fought for ‘Hindavi Swarajya’ or self rule by Hindustanis. He was one of the great personalities of not just Indian but world history, says Colonel (retd) Anil Athale.
February 19 is the 384th birth anniversary of Chhatrapati Shivaji, one of the great sons of India [ Images ]. Unfortunately no historical figure has been so disfigured by his so called followers and admirers as Shivaji. He has been thoroughly ‘regionalised’ by Marathi politicians and reduced to a Marathi icon rather than a pan Indian personality that he was.
Shivaji did not strive for ‘Marathi raj’ but fought for ‘Hindavi Swarajya’ or self rule by Hindustanis. Of late in a further debasement, some caste leaders have even sought to make his a leader of ‘Maratha’ caste. His uninformed critics on the other hand paint his as a ‘Hindu’ fanatic.
On his birth anniversary this is an attempt to restore him to his genuine position as one of the great personalities of not just Indian but world history.
Islam came to India in the eighth century but was confined to the Sindh province. In the 13th century, tribes from present day Afghanistan attacked and captured most of the northern plains. The period of Sultanates in Delhi [ Images ] ended when a Seljuk Turk Baber established a kingdom at Delhi in 1556 AD. Popularly called the Mughal Empire, this was to last nearly 150 years. It is often said that the Muslims ruled India for over 1,000 years. The truth is that only the northern part of India came fully under Muslim domination.
A significant part of the Assam, and most of the south, maintained a tenuous independence. Even when the invaders from Asia Minor were expanding in the north, in the South, the powerful kingdom of Chola was colonising much of South East Asia. The last of the major kingdoms in the South was that of Vijaynagar that lasted till 1588.
Shivaji, who was born in 1630, carried on the fight to preserve Indian independence. The British visualised the potential of the threat posed by the ideal of Hindavi Swarajya pursued by Shivaji. It was in British interests to play down the Marathas. In a candid comment Lord Macaulay in his Historical Essays wrote:
“The highlands which borders on the western coast of India poured forth a yet more formidable race, a race that was long a terror of every native power and which after many desperate struggles, yielded only to the fortitude and genius of England [ Images ]. Soon after Aurangzeb’s death, every corner of his wide empire learnt to tremble at the name of the mighty Marathas.”
Shivaji revolutionised the art of warfare in India. His policies, strategies and tactics mark a clear break from the past. His approach to the use of violence was radically different from that followed in the preceding 1,000 years. The basic Indian concept of war is ‘Dharma Yudha’ (war for the righteous cause). Unfortunately, over the years, wars were ritualised and were reduced to a contest for individual glory.
Indian history before Shivaji’s advent reads like a chronicle of military disasters. Shivaji changed that. For him, victory was the only morality in war. His wars of movement have often been described as running away from battle. Achievement of victory through surprise has also been condemned as ‘treachery’.
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. His chief of artillery was Gul Khan and Daulat Khan was joint chief of his navy. Against the fanatic Aurangzeb, he stitched an alliance with the Bahamani Kingdom of Golconda. 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. 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. 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 ‘Azzan’ while the Hindus ring bells in temples — what is the difference?”
Shivaji believed in the doctrine of ‘total war’ and never shirked from achieving annihilation of the enemy. If he had to make compromises and truces, these were clearly due to the exigencies of the situation and not as matter of choice. 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 the 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 [ Images ] descended on Maharashtra [ Images ], Shivaji had no hesitation in giving up most of his forts as well as territory and on June 13, 1665 he signed a treaty with the Mughals. But in less than five months he ensured the defeat of the Mughal army in its battles against the Bijapur Sultan.
In 1666 after his successful escape from Agra [ Images ], in less than two years, Shivaji recaptured the entire territory lost to the Mughals by the earlier treaty. Portuguese chronicles of the period show amazement at the ease with which Shivaji recaptured 26 forts. The Portuguese viceroy, writing to his king on January 28, 1666 compared him to Alexander and Caesar.
Writing in December 1666, the Portuguese historian Cosme De Guarda mentions that when the news of Shivaji’s successful escape from Agra was received, the entire population in Maharashtra rejoiced. He opines that the main reason for Shivaji’s popularity was that he was just to all.
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 and by February 1665 decided to test the preparedness of his fledgling navy. With 88 ships, including three large ones, he embarked with 4,000 infantry and raided the seaport of Basrur. (Most interestingly that is just about the capability of the Indian Navy in the 21st century in terms of amphibian operations.)
Shivaji’s strategic doctrine can be summed up thus:
- War is a means to achieve political ends,
- The only morality in war is victory and everything is fair in war,
- The main target in conflict is the enemy’s armed force and not the battlefield,
- Surprise can win battles even with inferior strength,
- There can be no compromise on security and a sound intelligence-gathering agency is essential for a ruler,
- The importance of morale to own troops and the need to demoralise the enemy through rumour, fear and stratagem
- Control of the sea is vital for the defence of coastal areas.
“The English are no ordinary traders and money-lenders, behind them stands the power of a mighty state. They are also so clever that they will steal from right under your nose without you knowing it. Be very cautious while dealing with them,” Shivaji wrote to one of his officers.
Interestingly the last battle fought by Shivaji was against the English. He occupied and fortified the island of Kahnderi, 16 kms south of Mumbai [ Images ] in order to keep the British under check. He was amongst the few Indians who understood the long-term threat posed by the British.
In the global context, the tide of Islam, which rose in the first millennium, had swept everything before it. In Europe it was Charles Martel of France [ Images ] who checked it, while in Asia the Muslim armies conquests swept aside the ancient civilisation of Persia and the Zorastrian faith. A handful of Zorastrians found refuge in India and the faith survived. Buddhist Afghanistan and most of north India also fell prey to these invasions.
While many Muslim rulers were quite content to let the ancient Indian faith survive, some like Aurangzeb, made a determined bid to Islamise India. India escaped the fate of Persia due to the resistance offered by the Marathas to the Mughals from 1682 to 1707. Shivaji was already dead but his example and ideals survived and were the main source for inspiration for the Marathas in their desperate struggle with the mighty Mughal empire.
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.
Colonel (retd) Anil Athale