Vote-bank politics over Maharashtra Bhushan award to Babasaheb Purandare

The recent controversy over author Babasaheb Purandare’s Maharashtra Bhushan award certainly reminds one about Kusumagraj’s poem


A file photo of Babasaheb Purandare. Photo: AFP
A file photo of Babasaheb Purandare. Photo: AFP

Mumbai: Jnanpith award winner Marathi poet and playwright V.V. Shirwadkar alias Kusumagraj in his poem The Statues tries to show how we as a society have reduced great social reformers and freedom fighters like Dr. Babasaheb Amebdkar, Mahtma Jyotiba Phule and Lokmanya Tilak, among others, to mere caste icons. The recent controversy over author B.M. aka Babasaheb Purandare’s Maharashtra Bhushan award certainly reminds one about Kusumagraj’s poem.

Purandare, who is best known for his book on life and times of Chhatrapati Shivaji called Raja Shivchattrapati and play Janata Raja also on the life of Shivaji, calls himself a balladeer of Shivaji and presented romanticized life and times of Shivaji through his works and speeches for the last three quarters of a century. Purandare was conferred with state’s highest honour Maharashtra Bhushan on Wednesday by the state government.

However, some Maratha groups, a caste to which Shivaji belonged, and progressive groups and individuals objected to Purandare being conferred with state’s highest honour. Their three main objections to Purandare’s works are that he casts aspersions on the parenthood of Shivaji and thus on his mother Jijabai’s character, he depicted Shivaji as an anti-Muslim crusader and glorified the role of Brahmin gurus in his life.

The Maratha groups openly suggest that Purandare has done all this because he is Brahmin and he is being honoured because the current chief minister of the state is a Brahmin. However, Left-liberal groups objection is not so much on the caste issue but on Shivaji’s depiction as an anti-Muslim crusader and they claim, since Purandare’s Shivaji fits into the world view of organisations like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Shiv Sena he is being honoured by the state government.

However, the role of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which is predominantly a Maratha party, and its president Sharad Pawar is most curious.

In May, when the award was declared, Pawar’s trusted lieutenant Jitendra Avad—incidentally he is not a Maratha but belongs to other backward caste (OBC)—raised an objection. But Pawar and NCP then distanced themselves from Avad’s stand saying it is Avad’s personal view and not the party’s stand. In fact, Supriya Sule, Pawar’s daughter and member of parliament from Baramati, Pawar family’s pocket borough, wrote a letter to Purandare congratulating him for getting the award.

However, Avad, with help of Maratha organizations like Sambhaji Brigade and some other progressive groups held a series of meetings in the state to educate people against why Purandare should not be granted this award.

And in one such meeting in Sangli in July, Avad was attacked by some Hindu organisations, after which Pawar immediately shot off a letter to chief minister Devendra Fadnavis demanding protection for Avad.

Then, just four days before the award ceremony, Pawar suddenly changed track and in interview to a Marathi news channel, said, “Purandare should not be given award as through his writings, he has defamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and his mother Jijabai.”

Interestingly, in 2010, a deemed university from the state conferred honorary D.Litt. degree to Purandare and it was presented by Pawar.

Pawar was clearly adding fuel to the already vicious atmosphere in the state and his remarks were clearly aimed at consolidating the party’s Maratha vote bank.

And for those who know Pawar’s history, this was not a new tactic which NCP played. In the run-up to the 2004 Lok Sabha and assembly elections, the Bhandarkar Institute of Oriental Research in Pune was attacked by goons of Sambhaji Brigade. They destroyed valuable manuscripts dating back to 16th century.

The institute was attacked under the pretext that scholars associated with this institute helped controversial American Historian James Laine who had written a book called Shivaji, the Hindu King in Islamic India in which he made references about Chhatrapati Shivaji’s parenthood.

NCP, which was handling the state’s home ministry at that time, instead of condemning the attack, tried to justify it by saying they were some misdirected youths but one must bear in mind the reason behind the attack.

The NCP’s tacit approval of the attacks gave the party the desired results. In the assembly elections it won 71 seats, the highest ever for the party.

However, Pawar’s Maratha consolidation attempts are not going to bring any results as the first major elections in the state—elections to municipal corporations of big cities like Mumbai, Pune, Thane, Nashik, and Nagpur among others—are due only in early 2017. It will be a very difficult task for NCP to keep stoking the fire till then.