Playing the Caste Card


Maratha leader Sharad Pawar sullied his image of being forward-looking by stoking caste politics when folk historian Balwant Purandare was awarded Maharashtra’s highest award for his work on Shivaji

By Abhay Vaidya

There was a time when Sharad Pawar was the darling of Maharashtra. Everything was right about him and he could do no wrong. He was not just a
visionary but also a man of action with excellent administrative skills as the chief minister of Maharashtra. No wonder he not only served a record three terms as CM but also holds the record of being the youngest one in Maharashtra at the age of 38.
Much water has flown down the Krishna since then. The 74-year-old Pawar, whose dreams of becoming prime minister have been all but shattered, cut a sorry figure in Maharashtra recently when he played caste politics. The issue was about conferring the state’s highest award—Maharashtra Bhushan—on 93-year-old folk historian Balwant “Babasaheb” Purandare for his stupendous work in singing paeans to the great warrior-king, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.

Over a span of some 75 years, the Pune-based Purandare has authored the immensely popular Raja Shivchhatrapati—a two-volume, 900-page biography of Shivaji (first published in the late 1950s), produced a magnificent play (Jaanta Raja, the Enlightened King) which has been presented on stage almost 900 times and delivered innumerable lectures on Shivaji within and outside India.
All of this has been widely appreciated by the people of Maharashtra right from the time of the state’s first CM and Pawar’s political mentor, YB Chavan. The Maharashtra Bhushan honor for Purandare, therefore, was not just fitting but long over-due.

However, the first cry of protest against the award ceremony came on August 19 from Pawar’s blue-eyed boy, Thane MLA Jitendra Awhad. According to Awhad, Babasaheb, in his biography of Shivaji, had presented a distorted account of history “with a Brahmanical prism” and unsubstantiated references to Shivaji, his father Shahaji, mother Jijabai and others. Awhad was also critical of the depiction of the Brahmin teacher, Dadoji Konddev, as Shivaji’s teacher and mentor. The MLA’s stand that Maharashtra’s highest award should not be given to Purandare as he was not a historian was endorsed by Pawar.

Governor confers Maharashtra Bhushan award on Shiv Shahir Babasaheb Purandare,Raj Bhavan,Wednesday.Fariha Farooqui/dna.
Sharad Pawar is opposed to the decision of giving the Maharashtra Bhushan award to Balwant Purandare

Apart from the NCP, the other prominent organization that opposed the award to Purandare was the Sambhaji Brigade which hit the headlines in 2004 as it vandalized the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) in Pune to protest against American scholar James Laine’s book on Shivaji, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India.

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Thane MLA Jitendra Ahwad first raised objections to the award to Purandare

Soon, a number of prominent politicians, writers and social activists took opposing views on the issue, polarizing Maharashtra on Maratha versus Brahmin caste lines. While the Congress and the NCP opposed the award to Purandare, the Shiv Sena stood by its alliance partner, the BJP, which was determined to confer the award. The Maharashtra NavNirman Sena, led by Raj Thackeray, supported Purandare and criticized Pawar for stoking the flames of caste politics.

The fact is that till a few years ago, Purandare was a popular celebrity in the state and absolutely non-controversial. Even today, the issue at heart has nothing to do with Purandare per se but with the fact that he is a Brahmin by caste, as is the state’s CM, Devendra Fadnavis.

MUMBAI, OCT 28 (UNI) - Maharshtra BJP president and party MLA Devendra Fadanvis after being elected as BJP legislative party leader at Vidhan Bhavan in Mumbai on Tuesday. UNI PHOTO-104U
Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis ensured that the award function went ahead smoothly

The Marathas—the caste to which Sharad Pawar belongs—constitute the dominant political caste in Maharashtra ever since the Brahmin
intelligentsia lost the upper hand in the post-Independence era. Anti-Brahmin sentiments were revived after the controversy over James Laine’s book, which cast aspersions on Shivaji’s paternity.
Apart from vandalizing BORI (because scholars from there had assisted Laine), Maratha activists of the Sambhaji Brigade took umbrage at the depiction of Konddev as Shivaji’s mentor. Maratha community leaders accused Brahmin historians of distorting history to this effect and forced the Pune Municipal Corporation to remove an installation showing Konddev guiding young Shivaji with his mother Jijabai looking on.

Since Brahmin scholars were being accused of distorting Shivaji’s history, the Maharashtra government’s decision to confer the state’s highest award on a Brahmin folk historian like Purandare —and that too for his work on Shivaji—was unacceptable to the NCP and Maratha organizations. Every available avenue was explored to scuttle the award, ranging from political opposition, vandalizing of government property and a meeting with the state governor, C Vidyasagar Rao.

Even a PIL was filed in Bombay High Court to oppose the award. However, one day before the award ceremony on August 19, the high court dismissed the PIL and fined the two petitioners `10,000 for “wasting the time of the court”. Chief Minister Fadnavis stood firm and proceeded with the award ceremony after changing the venue to the Raj Bhavan for better security.
Purandare, who was presented the award by the governor, defended his approach to history and said he had not distorted facts. At the same time, he said he was open to correction if any distortions could be established.
In a magnanimous gesture, the nonagenarian bard added `15 lakh from his own purse to the award of `10 lakh and donated the entire amount for the welfare of cancer patients in the state.
Perhaps as a snub to Pawar, a video clip was screened at the awards ceremony which showed that Pawar had praised Purandare at a public function.

Pawar’s support to the anti-Purandare agitation emerged clearly as a strategy to consolidate the fragmented Maratha-OBC vote-bank in the state and revive the fortunes of a dissipated NCP to which he belongs. The party is in a shambles with corruption cases and allegations against its former ministers, and has barely 41 MLAs—less than the Congress—in a House of 288. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls too, the party lost out to the Modi wave, securing just four seats out of 48 in the state.

It was, however, unbecoming of Pawar to become a part of the anti-Purandare lobby because, ironically, he had praised and felicitated Purandare when he was presented with a DLitt by the DY Patil University in 2013.
The Maratha leader’s game-plan was noticed by his political opponents and he was roundly criticized by sections of the press and by Raj Thackeray and others for “spreading the poison of caste politics in Maharashtra”. Pawar brushed aside Thackeray’s criticism by saying that there were many who made capital out of his name and Raj was doing just that.

The fact is that Pawar has soiled his own image cultivated over the decades as a progressive and cultured politician. At the height of his popularity, he had even gently rebuked a reporter of a national magazine for referring to him by his caste as a “Maratha strongman”.

During his years at the helm in Maharashtra, Pawar always stood out as a forward-looking, soft-spoken mass leader, with an enviable record in winning elections. He was simply invincible in Baramati constituency, which he vacated for his daughter, Supriya Sule, and moved on to another constituency.
In spite of his share of controversies relating to assets, investments and real estate (Lavasa and DB Realty-Panchshil being just two of them), Pawar was always seen as an all-inclusive leader who was above caste and communal politics. Much to his misfortune, that image now no longer holds true, with the Maratha leader resorting to playing caste politics in Maharashtra.