From Right to Left, Jadunath Sarkar’s Renderings of Shivaji & Aurangzeb Have been Reviled by Both

A tribute to this towering historian of the 20th Century on the 176th anniversary of his birth


Sitting in Sarkar’s home city of Kolkatta as I write this piece, I recall moments, decades ago when I browsed through the works of Jadunath Sarkar, lucky as I was to find their works in my father, Atul’s eclectic and vast personal library.Navigating modern, medieval and ancient (early Indian) history even as the works of DD Kosambi became real-life companions, it was and is fascinating to see how regional and national histories have evolved, the former often received short shrift in our desire to evolve a uniform, conformist national narrative.

Today, December 10 is Sarkar’s 176th Birth Anniversary. It is worth recalling through two historical figures, Shivaji and Aurangzeb, how Sarkar’s monumental work was, in a sense sidelined or some would say even marginalised.

What did Jadunath Sarkar say about Shivaji’s Coronation and his diversity-driven governance? And how would Indian Rulers of today react? Why is his monumental work on Aurangzeb dis-satisfying to the left, constructing as it does a comparative narrative between that rulers reign and the more inclusive Akbar’s?

In my research on his work, used extensively in schools and training workshops, I have asked two specific questions; was Shivaji himself a victim of the evils of caste, and was he not in every sense an inclusive and plural ruler as some of the Mughals, were too?
Here are some of the answers I found, from books by Jadunath Sarkar himself. One of the oldest authorities on the Marathas, with two meticulously researched books on Shivaji, the historian has dealt with the ticklish issue of caste that did affect Shivaji’s acceptance as a formal ruler.

Sarkar deals with the deep schisms of caste that prevented from Shivaji from being finally accepted (anointed religiously, by the Brahman) as the ruler despite his successful military campaigns and massive popularity.
Says Sarkar, “A deep study of Maratha society, indeed of society throughout India, reveals some facts which it is considered patriotism to ignore. We realise that the greatest obstacles to Shivaji’s success were not Mughals or Adil Shahis, Siddis or Feringis, but his own countrymen. First, we cannot be blind to the truth that the dominant factor in Indian life —even today, no less than in the seventeenth century — is caste, and neither religion nor country……

Personal Jealousy Hindering Shivaji

Shivaji was not contented with all his conquests of territory and vaults full of looted treasure, so long as he was not recognised as a Kshatriya entitled to wear the sacred thread and to have the Vedic hymns chanted at his domestic rites. The Brahmans alone could give him such a recognition, and though they swallowed the sacred thread they boggled at the Vedokta! The result was a rupture… Whichever side had the rights of the case, one thing is certain, namely, that this internally torn community had not the sine qua non of a nation.

Nor did Maharashtra acquire that sine qua non ever after. The Peshwas were Brahmans from Konkan, and the Brahmans of the upland (Desh) despised them as less pure in blood. The result was that the state policy of Maharashtra under the Peshwas, instead of being directed to national ends, was now degraded into upholding the prestige of one family or social sub-division.

Shivaji had, besides, almost to the end of his days, to struggle against the jealousy, scorn, indifference and even opposition of certain Maratha families, his equals in caste sub-division and once in fortune and social position, whom he had now outdistanced. The Bhonsle Savants of Vadi, the Jadavs or Sindhkhed, the Mores of Javli, and (to a lesser extent) the Nimbalkars, despised and kept aloof from the upstart grandson of that Maloji whom some old men still living remembered to have seen tilling his fields like a Kunbi! Shivaji’s own brother Vyankoji fought against him during the Mughal invasion of Bijapur in 1666. “

No wonder then, that truth telling is not a favourite activity of the extreme right. Those who march today under Shivaji’s name, brandishing the bright saffron flag of an illusive if exclusivist nationalist past, would like us to also forget the deeply practical pluralism that guided Shivaji’s governance. Says Sarkar of Shivaji’s religious toleration and equal treatment of all subjects:

“He stands on a lofty pedestal in the hall of the worthies of history, not because he was a Hindu champion, but because he was an ideal householder, an ideal king, and an unrivalled nation-builder. He was devoted to his mother, loving to his children, true to his wives, and scrupulously pure in his relations with other women. Even the most beautiful female captive of war was addressed by him as his mother. Free from all vices and indolence in his private life, he displayed the highest genius as a king and as an organizer. In that age of religious bigotry, he followed a policy of the most liberal toleration for all creeds.

“The letter which he wrote to Aurangzeb, protesting against the imposition of the poll-tax on the Hindus, is a masterpiece of clear logic, calm persuasion, and political wisdom. Though he was himself a devout Hindu, he could recognise true sanctity in a Musalman, and therefore he endowed a Muhammadan holy man named Baba Yaqut with land and money and installed him at Keleshi. All creeds had equal opportunities in his service and he employed a Muslim secretary named Qazi Haidar, who, after Shivaji’s death, went over to Delhi and rose to be chief justice of the Mughal Empire.

“There were many Muhammadan captains in Shivaji’s army and his chief admiral was an Abyssinian named Siddi Misri. His Maratha soldiers had strict orders not to molest any woman or rob any Muhammadan saint’s tomb or hermitage. Copies of the Quran which were seized in the course of their campaigns were ordered to be carefully preserved and then handed over respectfully to some Muhammadan.”
(From Jadunath Sarkar’s book, ‘House of Shivaji’).

If Sarkar’s rendering of Shivaji pricks the Hindu right, his voluminous work on the Mughals and especially Aurangzeb has made him the unfair target of some ‘left’ and ‘marxist’ historians too.

Sarkar wrote at the end of his vast, five volume study of Aurangzeb-
“Aurangzeb did not attempt such an ideal [of nation-making], even though his subjects formed a very composite population…and he had no European rivals hungrily watching to destroy his kingdom. On the contrary, he deliberately undid the beginnings of…a national and rational policy which Akbar had set on foot.” Akbar had successfully converted “a military monarchy into a national state”—not constitutionally but in effect—by remaining open both to talents of the Hindu Rajputs and to the “right type of recruits” from among the fortune seekers who came from Bukhara and Khurasan, Iran and Arabia.
Aurangzeb in particular failed precisely on this score. Whereas the “liberal Akbar, the self-indulgent Jahangir, and the cultured Shah Jahan had welcomed Shias in their camps and courts and given them the highest offices, especially in the secretariat and revenue administration”, the “orthodox Aurangzeb…barely tolerated them as a necessary evil”. The latter’s conflict with the Rajputs and “the hated poll-tax (jaziya) lent Shivaji the aura of a Hindu “national” leader in the eyes of his contemporaries."

Shivaji or Akbar, Aurangzeb or Babur, it is strange and telling how we pick, and exclude those aspects from the figures of the past that do not suit our own perceived contemporary realities.

It is when we as a society and people, are able, calmly and confidently to appreciate the works of scholars –whatever side of the ideological spectrum we may place them on—on the objective merit of their work, that a truly modern consciousness could be born.

Sarkar, once vice chancellor of Calcutta university, historian of India’s history from the 17th to the 18th century, a moving force behind the Indian Historical Records Commission (IHRC), and the forerunner of the National Archives of India (NAI), is undoubtedly one such. Not only was he instrumental in letting the British colonial authorities allow greater access to archival material for Indian scholars; his monumental five-volume History of Aurangzeb, and two crucial works on Shivaji are a must read for a generation so inundated with the here and now: What’s APP and Social Media.

A shorter version of this article has appeared today in The Indian Express and may be read here.



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