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Remembering Shivaji The Great
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 16 Feb , 2024

“A few distant centuries ago, on a nondescript day

I can barely imagine

Upon what craggy hilltop, within a dense sunless forest

O sovereign Shivaji

Lightning-like, across your forehead, there flashed

The thought from above-

“With a singular religious thread, this torn up, fragmented

Bharata, I shall bind in One.”

– Rabindranath Tagore

(Shivaji Utsav, written in 1904)

On 27 April, 1645, even as Emperor Shahjahan was engaged in the construction of the Taj Mahal in Agra, an event occurred far away in peninsular India on a remote high plateau in the Sahyadri mountains of Maharashtra which was to change the course of Indian history.

On that day, a teenager called Shivaji, with a dozen of his closest friends, took an oath to establish “Hindavi Swarajya” (Indian self-rule) at the Raireshwar temple, 80 km south-west of Pune.

Inspired by this lofty ideal, the Marathas were to rise to challenge the might of the Mughal empire and ultimately defeat it in a sixty-year war. That war saw the last of the Great Mughals, Aurangzeb, die in Maharashtra in 1707, a frustrated and defeated man.

In the global context, Islam rose in the first millennium and swept everything in its path before Charles Martel of France checked it in Europe.  In Asia, Muslim armies conquered and swept aside the ancient civilisation of Persia and with it the Zoroastrian faith. A handful of Zoroastrians found refuge in India so the faith survived. Buddhist Afghanistan and most of north India fell prey to these invasions. While many Muslim rulers were quite content to let the ancient Indian faith survive, some, like Aurangzeb, made a determined bid to Islamise India. India escaped the fate of Persia due to the resistance offered by the Marathas and Sikhs to the Mughals in 17th and 18th century.

Shivaji was born on 19 February 1630  at a time of great turbulence in Maharashtra. Barely four decades after the end of the Vijayanagar Empire, Maharashtra was parcelled out among five sultanates. Many Marathas sought, and got, employment in the armies of these Sultans, often fighting on opposing sides, brother against brother. 

Shivaji was a born military genius above all else. Shivaji used time and space as his force multipliers. With swift movements, both by day and by night, he created superiority at his chosen point of engagement. As a rule, he dictated the time and place of military engagement. He exploited the mountainous terrain, thus ensuring that his smaller, mobile and motivated force defeated the larger but slow-moving armies of his adversaries.

In the four decades that he ruled, Shivaji made strategic use of the rugged terrain of Maharashtra to negate the advantage of his rivals in guns, cavalry and war elephants. As a rule, he dictated the time and place of the battle. His numerically inferior army won by relying on ambush and raids as opposed to open confrontation so preferred by his adversaries, the so called “Jang-e-shahi” or a single decisive battle. It was a classic guerrilla tactic of using several small battles to cumulatively win the war. His ambushes were surprise attacks launched on a moving or temporarily halted and unsuspecting enemy. In his raids, he swiftly attacked enemy camps and logistic bases, withdrawing before the enemy could react.

Shivaji controlled nearly 432 mountain forts, a few of which he built. These served as secure bases for his mobile forces. Allied with an extensive spy network established by his spy master Bahirji Naik, with a decentralised small mobile force he was always a step ahead of his enemies. A sound administration ensured he had popular support which, in times of invasion, translated into timely intelligence about enemy movement. Thus, while Shivaji knew about every move of his enemy, the adversary was forced to act blindly.

Shivaji’s Relevance

The birth anniversary of Chhatrapati Shivaji is celebrated throughout Maharashtra. Unfortunately, the legacy of this great son of India has been hijacked by parochial organisations who have reduced him to a “local” figure. Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to examine the “what ifs” of history.

Aurangzeb, the great-grandson of Akbar, abandoned the latter’s policy of tolerance. Instead, he embarked on theIslamisation of India. It is the Marathas, inspired by Shivaji the Great and the Khalsa Panth created by Guru Govind Singh who fought Aurangzeb and saved India from the fate that befell Persia. The proof of Maratha victory lies in the fact that Aurangzeb lies buried, not in Lahore, Delhi or Agra but near Aurangabad, in peninsular India.

But for the Marathas and the Sikhs, there would have been a continuous Islamic belt from Morocco to Indonesia. What the addition of one billion more adherents to Islam would have done to the balance of power in the world or what would have happened to Indian civilisation and its contributions like yoga, ayurveda, music, art and philosophy is not difficult to guess. It is time to free this great son of India from the shackles of narrow regionalism. 

His policies, strategies and tactics mark a clear break from the pastin the Indian context. His approach to the use of violence was radically different from that followed in the preceding1000 years.

The Indian attitude towards war was that it was a “Dharma Yuddha” (war for the cause of righteousness). Unfortunately, over the years, wars were ritualised, mainly to reduce the level of violence. Shivaji believed in the doctrine of “total war” and never shirked from achieving annihilation of the enemy. If he had to make compromises and truces, these were clearly due to the exigencies of the situation and not as matter of choice.

He was also the first Indian ruler to discard war elephants. His strategic doctrine relied on swift movement and mobile defence. He believed in battles of annihilation by placing his army in an advantageous position. Above all, he believed in relentless offensive action and never permitted the enemy time to re-group. His military strategy is relevant even in the modern era.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col Anil Athale

Former infantry soldier who was head of War History division, Min of Def, Research fellowships including Fulbright, Kennedy Centre, IDSA, USI and Philosophical Society. 30 years research of conflicts in Kashmir, NE, Ireland, Sri Lanka and South Africa. Author of 7 books on military history.

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