A long time ago, a father told his little daughter a different kind of bedtime story.
It was the tale of a hero, who freed his people from the rule of a tyrant. The hero was young and brave, chivalrous and generous. He respected all religions, respected all women and punished those who showed the slightest disrespect to either. He was learned and kind, shrewd and just. All his men would have gladly put their lives on the line for him, and a honoured few did so too. His people loved him, his land sang his praises and he was a favourite of all the scholars, sages and saints who lived under his patronage. At 16, he was a rebel and a revolutionary. A few years later, he became a king who continued to rule his land with the inherent intelligence, cunning and statesmanship that made him the darling of the masses and a thorn in the side of the Emperor. He was not the king of indulgent fantasy who rolled on feathered beds with concubines and left his courtiers to manage the land in his wine-sodden drunkenness. He was a warrior king, the son of a soldier, who gave his land and his people the same love and respect he gave his mother.
Every night, the little girl would close her eyes thinking of this young hero, who shone in her dreams like a star, a moon, a sun. Her mind would fly into the world of imagination on the wings of his stories. And her little heart would fill with pride because he was, after all, of her land. Across time and space, she was his subject. He was her hero.
Years passed and the little girl grew up into a young woman, the stories of the hero still alive in a corner of her heart. She had learned about valour and honour from this man of history. He had taught her the meaning of secularism before she knew its spelling. But the world was a different place now. There was no valour and no honour and the only place one saw secularism was on a political party manifesto.
But the thing that hurt her the most, was this: a bunch of hooligans had appropriated her hero, made him the symbol of something he was not, never was, never could be. They had taken his saffron standard and made it something to be feared and hated. They had stolen his history and tailored it to their purposes. His name was a swear word that the populace shuddered to utter. Those who claimed to follow him were seen as fundamentalists, as violent, crazy, intolerant as the hooligans who used his name to cover up their religious crimes.
She pretended to ignore the vileness she saw, the insults to his name, the unforgivable mockery of his deeds. But at night, she dreamed of his men who conquered the night and welcomed death for him. She dreamed of his courage as he embraced a giant twice his size, survived his treachery and caused his downfall. She dreamed of his escape from the Emperor’s prison, his hauteur, his cunning, his skill at disguise and his power over the hearts of his people.
This wasn’t just some local upstart, with a political agenda in his head and a bunch of goons by his side. This was a man whose heart beat for his land and its people, religion, gender, caste and creed be damned.
And no bunch of slogan-shouting, saffron-waving reactionaries are going to change that about Shivaji.