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Nearly a century after his death, Marathi playwright become the focus of Sambhaji Brigade's ire

Parth MN | Updated on: 11 February 2017, 5:46 IST

In the wee hours of 3 January, radical Maratha outfit Sambhaji Brigade barged into Sambhaji Park in Pune and vandalised the bust of noted poet and playwright Ram Ganesh Gadkari.

This action was taken supposedly in retaliation for a 'defamatory' play, which Gadkari had written about Sambhaji, a 17th century Maratha king, and Shivaji's son - after which the brigade as well as the park is named.

Shantaram Kunjir of Sambhaji Brigade, who claims to have read the play, said Gadkari calls "Sambhaji Raje an alcoholic, a womaniser and more defamatory things" in the play.

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"How does it make sense to have his statue in the park named after Sambhaji?" he asked. "We cannot tolerate the glorification of Gadkari."

In another two years, a century will have passed since Gadkari died, bringing this sudden awakening of the Sambhaji Brigade into question.

What is the play about?

Ram Ganesh Gadkari is one of the most noteworthy writers in the history of Marathi literature. Celebrated playwright Vijay Tendulkar considered him the greatest poet-dramatist after Kalidas.

Though he only lived for 35 years (1885-1919), Gadkari wrote 150 poems, four finished plays and three unfinished ones. Out of the three unfinished plays, Rajasanyas is the one on Sambhaji, which has now come under the spotlight almost 10 decades later.

Rajasanyas was supposed to be a five-act play, of which Gadkari had written the first, third and fifth acts. It is a paragraph in the last scene of the last act is something the Sambhaji Brigade is undemocratically protesting against.

The last act of the play reflects the twilight of Sambhaji's life where his own men had manacled him. Hapless and frustrated, Sambhaji's character in the play implores his close associate, Sabaji, to abandon him, for his loyalty to him would only get him into more trouble. When Sabaji refuses, depressed Sambhaji goes into self-deprecating mode and mouths all the wrong accusations - of being a womaniser, a drunkard and so on - against him and asks if he would like to remain loyal to a man like that.

Sambhaji Brigade has ignored the context of what Gadkari wrote in the last act of the play

Sambhaji further criticises himself for not living up to the standards set by his renowned father. But Sabaji asks him to ignore the accusations, and hammers in the reality, which is otherwise.

However, the Facebook posts and WhatsApp messages circulated by Sambhaji Brigade conveniently ignore the context and merely highlight Sambhaji's monologue. Comments reacting to the messages are equally inflammatory and provocative, apart from being vicious towards Gadkari.

By Kunjir's own admission, the workers of Sambhaji Brigade - some of whom took down Gadkari's bust - have not read the play, but the leaders have and they educate the workers. Commentators say if the top brass of Sambhaji Brigade has read the play as it claims and still feels the urge to assault Gadkari's statue, then it is not intellectually capable enough to understand the nuance or having understood it, they are being willfully malicious.

One of the valid arguments of Sambhaji Brigade is that the history of Maharashtra is largely written from Brahminical perspective, but their manner of protest drowns out the legitimacy of the argument.

Why now?

As mentioned earlier, Gadkari died in 1919. The statue, which was attacked in Pune, was installed in 1962. Kunjir said they have been demanding the statue of Gadkari be replaced with Sambhaji's, but it has fallen on deaf ears at the Pune corporation.

"We have been reading up a lot in the last 8-10 years," he said. "Whenever we conduct any gathering, we mention Gadkari's play and how he has defamed Sambhaji. Infuriated workers could not tolerate it and broke down the bust."

The smashing of the bust comes right before Pune corporation elections, which Sambhaji Brigade is contesting

However, the Pune corporation elections are impending and the significance of the event is too glaring to dismiss as mere coincidence. More so, Sambhaji Brigade recently announced it would be contesting elections.

Senior commentator Vishwambhar Choudhari said the attack on Gadkari's bust is an attempt to polarise voters ahead of the polls. "Pune has primarily Brahmin and Maratha voters," he said. "This is clearly a plot to polarise votes on caste lines, and announce its arrival on the political scene, for Sambhaji Brigade's decision to contest polls had gone relatively unnoticed."

Political connotations

Sambhaji Brigade has never been a peace-loving organisation. It first gained notoriety in 2004 after attacking Bhandarkar institute in Pune for assisting James Laine's controversial book on Shivaji.

Even though it was an important part of the recently erupted Maratha agitation, which was known for its silent, democratic nature, the pressure of other Maratha organizations ensured the Sambhaji Brigade toed the line of protests, said Choudhari.

An overwhelmingly Maratha dominated outfit, Sambhaji Brigade's politics has always been anti-Brahmin in nature, staying true to the caste-conflicts in Maharashtra. One of the WhatsApp forwards say the ones who were silent after the falling of Babri are agonising over the falling of Gadkari. In 2010, they had demanded removal of the statue of Dadoji Konddev - Brahmin tutor and mentor of Shivaji - from the Lal Mahal and his name as Shivaji's teacher from history textbooks.

It is an open secret that the Sambhaji Brigade has had the tacit backing of Sharad Pawar's NCP for the longest time. Marathas have been NCP's votebank, while the BJP is identified as the party of Brahmins - the two communities forming an overwhelming majority of voters in Pune.

Sambhaji Brigade first gained notoriety in 2004 after attacking Bhandarkar institute in Pune

Over the years, NCP have successfully used Sambhaji Brigade to galvanise support by playing caste politics, akin to how BJP uses the likes of VHP and Bajrang Dal to invoke religion.

Out of the 28% Maratha population - excluding Kunbis - in Maharashtra, NCP has historically captured around 16-18% of its vote share. In the 2014 assembly elections, the number dwindled to a half of that. Moreover, the NCP may be incumbent at the Pune Corporation, but ground reports suggests it is struggling to retain its pole position.

The BJP, on the other hand, is keen to shed its tag of being a party of Brahmins. CM Devendra Fadnavis, himself a Brahmin, knows Sambhaji Brigade's politics is aimed directly at him - precisely why he rushed to inaugurate the humongous statue of Shivaji that is planned to be built in the Arabian Sea.

The recent Maratha rallies, too, were anti-establishment in its outlook. Fadnavis, desperately wanting to pacify the Marathas, is well aware that Shivaji is still the easiest way of reaching their hearts.

It is an open secret that the Sambhaji Brigade has had the tacit backing of Sharad Pawar's NCP

It is also rumoured that the NCP may have historically played a role in the growth of Sambhaji Brigade, but in the recent past, the BJP, too, has its players rooted in various Maratha organisations, including Sambhaji Brigade.

Maratha leaders in the BJP, who may have an implicit grudge against Fadnavis, seem to be pulling the strings of these fractions. Nonetheless, how the politics plays out in the upcoming corporation elections in Pune remains anybody's guess, said Choudhari. "Either the Sambhaji Brigade would have a tacit alliance with NCP or the BJP could use Sambhaji Brigade to split Maratha votes," he said. "The alignment is difficult to gauge."

Edited by Aleesha Matharu

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First published: 5 January 2017, 8:59 IST
Parth MN @parthpunter

Parth is a special correspondent with the Los Angeles Times. He has a degree in mass communication and journalism from Journalism Mentor, Mumbai. Prior to journalism, Parth was a professional cricketer in Mumbai for 10 years.