What the current government could learn from the farmer king Shivaji

To box him into a frame of an upper-caste Hindu king is to do injustice to the revolutionary legacy that Shivaji has left behind.

Credit : Shubham Patil

Chhatrapati Shivaji, the legendary king, was born on February 19, 1630. To put his birth in context, a Native American was introducing pop corn to the English colonialists, while the first Christian puritans arrived at 'New England'by hundreds, the Indian subcontinent was ruled over by hundreds of fiefdoms and the common Indian was suffering from the constant war between them on one hand, and the peasantry was reeling under famine, ridiculous taxes and innumerable exploitation by the landholding zamindars and Inamdars on the other.

Shivaji, born to Shahaji Bhosle and Jijabai, was himself born into one such 'sardar' family. His father, Shahaji, was a liege lord himself who was surviving in the rough Deccan polity shuffling his allegiances between the battling sultanates of Adilshah of Bijapur and Qutubshah of Golconda and Nizamshah of Ahmednagar. While Shivaji's war exploits and achievements are part of legends, his rule, his policies are most often ignored. His popular image that has been constructed by certain vested interests is simply that of a Hindu king in a Muslim dominated India.

But historic records, contemporary accounts, oral history and several research studies have shown that Shivaji was a figure that was far more complex than a one-line polarising description. His policies, several of them carrying the legacy of another Deccan legend, Malik Amber, touched finances, agriculture, land-ownership, military strategies, insurance and taxation. This might come as a surprise for the one uninitiated to Maharashtra's history, but a good primer on this aspect of Shivaji is the book, 'Who was Shivaji' by the late Com. Govind Pansare. This book is a fantastic and yet brief compilation that puts Shivaji and achievements truly in perspective, and gives the much-required depth to his legacy and most of the references in this piece can be found in the same book.

What might then, the Modi Government learn from the agricultural policies of Shivaji, who the right-wing leader and his party frequently try to appropriate?


Instructions to Army

As part of warfare and sometimes blatant arrogance, armies would march through fields and villages and damage harvests, and sometimes even burn down a standing crop to starve the enemy. Sometimes they would also poison the wells to cut off water supply to the enemy. Sometimes when these armies camped near villages, they would plunder and pillage the neighbouring farms for grain and food. This warfare was the norm and Shivaji could have continued this if he were a typical medieval king. But being the Bahujan king of the 'rayat' (masses) that he was, he restructured his warfare strategies. His armies were salaried unlike the contemporary practice of being paid in the share of the loot from raids from the enemy. He instructed his army to strictly follow a diktat wherein 'not a single blade of the farmer's crop would be touched without permission’.

His letters of orders to his army generals say, 'Do not harm even a leaf of the vegetable that the rayat has grown,' 'Whatever grain-fodder is needed to feed the cavalry, purchase at an appropriate cash payment from the locals,' (JN Sarkar, Shivaji and His Times, pg 365), 'The army must not trouble the common folk at any cost'. 

His minister Ramchandrapant Amatya, writes in a royal decree (Adnyapatra, Ramchandra Amatya), "The Mango, Jackfruit trees in Swarajya lands could supply wood for shipbuilding, but do not touch them. The rayat has grown these trees like their own children, what pain it would be for them to fell them. If there is a dried up, rotten trunk before you, convince its owner, pay them the appropriate amount and only then consensually fell it."

Another excerpt from the same decree has Shivaji's own words mentioning an army camp near modern-day Chiplun. "There is dry hay nearby which farmers might have kept for use during the rains. Some from the army might destroy it, burn it on purpose or unintentionally while smoking a chillum and it might cause great misfortune. That would also starve the cavalry and it would mean that you killed those horses..., ...you have been given a fund in cash, use it to buy whatever material is necessary from the market. If you do not follow this and mistreat the people, they would feel that the Moghul rule was better than this..."



Shivaji's land reform and taxation policy

The whole zamindari system was a feudal system under which the emperor or king of the time would grant ownership and administrative rights of areas of land to feudal lords who would pledge their allegiance to him. These lords would then exploit the people with ridiculous methods of taxation and plunder them. No matter if the farmer was facing war or famine, they had to pay the taxes and fees imposed upon them. These landlords and corrupt officers would also steal funds from these taxes. Shivaji completely abolished the practice of allocating jahagirs, or gift lands and brought upon strict regulations to the ways the tax was collected. 

Historian VS Bendre writes in his biography of Shivaji, "The total land under Swarajya was measured to the last unit into 'bighas'. Studying a standing crop for that year, it would be decided how much yield was to be considered per bigha and this harvest would be then divided into five shares from which the farmer was to keep three and two were to be handed over to the state. This could be paid in the form of grain or cash. In the occurrence of a drought, the farmers would be given heavy relief from taxes. They could pay these taxes over a period of five to six years through installments. When allocating uncultivated land for tilling, the rayat should be given some cattle, enough seeds and enough money to survive until the crop harvests. This amount could be returned after a couple of years. Taxes should be charged in the proportion to the harvest. Officers were instructed that no rayat should be harrassed for taxes."

Another historian VK Rajwade writes in his book 'Aitihasik Prastavana', "Shivaji destroyed the regime of watandars and zamindars and appointed officials for tax collection. The earlier zamindar would be paid the sum they usually received earlier on condition that they would not harass the commonfolk again. This allocation would need approval from the administration each year, which would make these watandars behave according to orders. Shivaji ordered the palaces and fortresses of these watandars to be demolished and they were instructed to build houses like other commonfolk and live similarly."


Shivaji, Muslims and Dalits

Shivaji is often appropriated and portrayed as a Hindu Kshatriya king who slew the Muslim invaders'. What is often hidden or ignored is that Shivaji built and defended his Swarajya on the shoulders of thousands of Muslims, Bahujans and an array of castes and communities who were back then deemed 'untouchables'. His army had Muslim chieftains and his forts had Dalit administrators. He was, on many occasions, even rescued and protected by the personal sacrifices of his Muslim, Bahujan and even Bramhin aides.

Historian Govind Sardesai, writes in his book Shakakarta Shivaji, "In 1648, 500-700 Pathans from Bijapur army joined in service of Shivaji. Gomaji Naik advised Shivaji then, which Shivaji followed thereafter. Naik advised, 'These people have come to you after knowing your fame and it would not be correct to let them go away. If we make it a policy to only employ Hindus and not others, then the kingdom would never realise. The one who wants to rule must hold hands with all castes and religions and then let them practice their own traditions and religious practices."

Pansare clarifies in his book that though Shivaji was a Hindu king, even more a practicing, devout Hindu king and fought enemies who were Muslims, he was not on a religious war against Muslims, nor his rule was for Hindu dominion. A Muslim historian, Khafi Khan, notes in his contemporary accounts, "Shivaji had made a strict diktat for his soldiers about when it would go to raid any region, the army would not harm or damage any mosque, the holy quran or womenfolk. If the soldiers came across a copy of the holy quran, they were to keep it safe and respectfully hand them over to a Muslim comrade." 

An order signed by Raghunathrao Panditrao on behalf of Shivaji, says, "His highness has instructed that each person should behave and practice in accordance of their own religious beliefs. No one must create any ruckus or disorder over it."

There is much, much more to write about the complex, and in many ways, a revolutionary legacy that Shivaji has left behind. To box him into a frame of an upper-caste Hindu king whose existence was limited to vanquishing Muslims, is to do injustice to it. As Mahatma Phule would go on to call him, Shivaji was 'Kulwadi Bhushan' or the pride of the masses. His rule and legacy brought about a fundamental change in the lives of millions of Bahujan rayat and the project of creating a chauvinist, hateful image out of it, will not be forgiven by time and history alike.