Saturday, October 25, 2014

Shivaji, Afzal Khan and the Assembly Elections

The Shivaji statue inside the fort,
inaugurated in the '50s by Nehru

The Shivaji-Afzal Khan encounter is Maharashtra’s most evocative tale and was used to the hilt in the Assembly Elections. In the midst of the polls, Tarikh par Tarikh travels to the venue of the battle and discovers the history that still lives and breathes there.

[An edited version of this piece was first published in the Hindu Business Line]

The recently concluded Maharashtra assembly elections saw an interesting intra-saffron contest, as the BJP and Shiv Sena ended their 25-year old alliance. Break-ups, though, are hard. So bitter was Uddhav Thackeray over being dumped, he even compared the BJP to the army of 17th century Bijapuri general, Afzal Khan. This might not seem like much at first glance, but if you’re acquainted with Maharashtra, you’ll know that Khan is the state’s most-hated villain.

His unpopularity stems from the fact that he was the main antagonist in the Battle of Pratapgarh against Shivaji, the founder of the Maratha Empire. The status of Shivaji in Maharashtra has no parallels in any other part of the country. Every school child in the state learns of his heroic exploits and the traditional histories of Maharashtra (called bakhars) treat Shivaji as a quasi-divine figure, often inspired directly by the Goddess Bhavani. Each town in Maharashtra will have an equestrian Shivaji statue in its main square and in the capital city of Mumbai, its airport, its largest train station, largest park and principal museum, are all named after the Chhatrapati. Not surprisingly, the story of Shivaji’s encounter with Afzal Khan is known throughout the state and is one of its most enduring tales.

The Battle Site

The town closest to Pratapgarh fort today is the colonial-era hill station of Mahabaleshwar. Situated on a plateau, Mahabaleshwar has various “points” which overlook the valleys below. At Bombay Point, once I had zoned out the boisterous families, the valley that stretched out before me appeared gorgeous. Everywhere the eye could see, there were rolling hillsides of lush monsoon green interspersed with large splashes of canary yellow, courtesy the Graham’s Groundsel, a flower that’s aptly called the sonki (golden) in Marathi. If you were at Bombay Point on 8 November, 1659, however, a less pretty sight would have greeted you. In the Radtondi pass below, you would have watched the massive Bijapuri army rumble by, headed to the Pratapgarh fort where Shivaji was.

For a long time, the Bijapur Sultanate—the Deccan’s most powerful state—had been forced to ignore Shivaji, as the Maratha captured one Bijapuri fort after another in the Sahyadri hills. Bijapur’s internal strife and conflict with belligerent Mughal prince, Aurangzeb meant that Shivaji got a free hand. Finally in 1659, Bijapur dispatched one of its top generals, Afzal Khan, to confront Shivaji. To note one of the many ironies of that period, Shivaji’s father, Shahji, one of Bijapur’s most powerful nobles, had served alongside Afzal Khan in 1641, as Bijapur endeavoured to crush an uprising of rajas in Vellore.

As Afzal Khan marched to Pratapgarh, he decided to adopt a policy of intimidation of the worst possible kind by destroying a number of Hindu temples on the way, the most important of which was the Vithoba Temple in Pandharpur. Today it is probably Maharashtra’s most popular temple, a status it had even in the 17th century.  Furthermore, as Stewart Gordan points out, “this behaviour was unprecedented for a Bijapuri force” given the kingdom’s past history of syncretism.

Not only was this act morally unconscionable, it was also highly impolitic since it served to alienate the bedrock of Bijapur's civil and military bureaucracy, Marathi Brahmans and Marathas. In the end, the strategy behind the destruction, that of forcing Shivaji to come down from the hills was also a failure. Shivaji knew his forces would be no match for Bijapur’s well-equipped army on the plains and, wisely, did not budge.

Khan, on the other hand, rashly, decided to pursue Shivaji, who then immediately retreated to his fort at Pratapgarh. Like many Deccan forts, Pratapgarh is perched on top of a hill. When I drove up to the fort, it loomed up sharply, its sheer black stone walls enclosed in mist, making it look ominously beautiful. As was obvious at first glance, the fort would be impossible to break into.

Afzal Khan was therefore forced to wait at the foothills of the Sahyadri in Wai. Time however was running out both for Shivaji, who had limited food supplies in the fort, and Khan whose massive army needed to be fed.  Khan therefore sent his envoy, Krishnaji Bhaskar to promise that Shivaji would be treated with respect and rewarded if he surrendered. Shivaji agreed to meet with Afzal Khan, but at the base of Pratapgarh fort, deep in the ghats. In this terrain, Bijapur’s heavy artillery would be useless and Shivaji’s men, who knew the Javli forest around Pratapgarh intimately, would have a tactical advantage over the Bijapuris.

The Encounter

Greatly underestimating Shivaji, Khan accepted this stipulation. He moved his massive army within a few miles of Pratapgarh in the village of Par, deep inside the Sahyadri hills.

Par is today a small village of about 30 shingle-roofed houses and one convenience store. The store stocks five-rupee bags of potato chips, Coke, hair oil and fairness cream. Unfortunately, I arrived just after lunch time and found the attendant asleep at the counter. The rest of the village was deserted, the afternoon siesta apparently being a popular Par tradition. Gingerly, I woke the attendant and asked him about Afzal Khan. Thankfully, he was a good-natured chap and didn’t mind his nap being interrupted. “There is an old mazaar from that period. Ramzaan is the caretaker,” he said, pointing me to Ramzaan’s house. In gratitude, I bought a bag of chips and a small tube of fairness cream.

Ramzaan, a man of about 70, and his wife were the only two Muslims in Par. The mazaar, he informed me, was the tomb of Amir Shah Bijapuri, the maternal uncle of Afzal Khan. Amir Shah had died the day the Bijapuri army reached Par and was buried there on top of a hillock. Unfortunately, by now, nothing remained of the original tomb, which had collapsed around 50 years back and a new modern structure built in its place. It was surrounded by graves, which, Ramzaan claimed, were of the Bijapuri soldiers killed in the battle.

As I chatted with Ramzaan, I discovered he knew an incredible amount about the history behind the battle. He rattled off the names of the Bijapur sultans, the names of Afzal Khan’s entourage and even the exact date of the battle itself (in the Islamic calendar). Amazed, I asked him how he knew so much. As it turned out, Ramzaan was a descendant of one the aides of Amir Shah, or so he claimed. “I am the 15th generation of my family to act as caretaker of this dargaah,” he informed me, a note of pride creeping into his voice.

While Amir Shah is not mentioned in the histories of Pratapgarh, it is recorded that Afzal Khan waited for two days in in Par before going off to negotiate terms with Shivaji. The two were to meet in private, unarmed, at the base of the Pratapgarh fort and discuss the terms of Shivaji’s surrender.
What happened next, however, is a Rashomon-like tale which depends greatly on which source you believe. In the Marathi bakhars, it is recounted that Khan resorted to treachery, attacking Shivaji with a hidden kataar (dagger). Parrying his blow, Shivaji hit back, disembowelling Khan with a hidden weapon of his own: a set of tiger claws. In the Persian accounts of the Mughals and Bijapuris, however, historians such as Khafi Khan claim Shivaji attacked first.

No matter the means, the end result was that Shivaji ended up killing Afzal Khan. As soon as Khan was dead, Shivaji’s forces attacked the unsuspecting Bijapur army in Par. The ensuing Battle of Pratapgarh was short and decisive as Khan’s leaderless troops were routed. This would be one of many instances in the career of Shivaji when his intelligence combined with his remarkable personal bravery would result in an improbable victory.

Modern Politics

Shivaji had Afzal Khan buried at the base of the Pratapgarh fort and, chivalrously, even had a tomb constructed for his vanquished opponent. As time passed, the local Muslims of the area, as is common across the subcontinent, started to treat the tomb as a mazaar. All this came to grinding halt in 2004 when, just before the General Elections, the VHP made the existence of the tomb into an issue. They even threatened to demolish the structure. It was a tense time and “for months no tourists came to Pratapgarh because of these politicians,” angrily remarked my Pratapgarh fort guide, Tanaji.

The police at the time managed to protect the tomb but, bowing to pressure, closed it to visitors and it remains shut to this day. I had barely walked up to within 50 metres of the tomb when 3 policemen all but pounced on me and forced me to leave the area. Amazingly, a garrison of 30 policemen has been maintained outside Afzal Khan’s tomb for the past decade in order to guard against further trouble.

After the VHP’s shenanigans, there is much sweet irony in the fact that today its close partner, the BJP is being associated with Afzal Khan. Of course, both incidents indicate how the history of this period has been completely distorted, being moulded, twisted and contorted into shapes which conform to the politics of the 20th century, either as a Hindu versus Muslim contest or a Maharashtrian versus non-Maharashtrian one.

Both Bijapur’s and Shivaji’s armies contained a mixture of faiths as was the norm in the Deccan at the time. Shivaji’s military commander-in-chief was Nurkhan Beg and the Maratha handpicked a Muslim, Sidi Ibrahim as one of the ten trusted commanders who were his first line of defence at the meeting with Afzal Khan. And while Shivaji’s army was largely Maratha so was Bijapur’s, the composition reflecting the martial traditions of the Maratha castes since the time of Malik Ambar and had nothing to do with a 17th century “sons-of-the-soil” policy. Similarly, on the Bijapuri side, religious identity was delinked from political loyalty. Afzal Khan’s trusted envoy, Krishnaji Bhaskar was a Marathi Brahman. Analogous to Shivaji’s faith in his Muslim soldiers, Khan had no issue in trusting his life with a Hindu and Bhaskar was one of the ten Bijapuri commanders at the meeting. In fact when Bhaskar saw his general rush out, severely wounded, he immediately sprung to Khan’s defence only to be cut down by Shivaji’s men.

Our politicians may not care much for history but this is one comparison that Uddhav Thackeray might regret making. Afzal Khan’s army came to Maharashtra only to be soundly defeated — the BJP, on the other hand, has swept the state.

Afzal Khan's tomb

The Pratapgarh fort 
The Pratapgarh fort

The Pratapgarh fort 

The Pratapgarh fort 

The mazaar of Afzal Khan's uncle

No comments:

Post a Comment