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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Whatsapp arrest: Why does Maharashtra celebrate Shivaji's birthday twice every year?

This question led to a college professor in suburban Mumbai being arrested last week. The answer is trivial.

For Maharashtrians who revere Chhatrapati Shivaji, it is no secret that the 17th century Maratha king’s birth date has been a subject of some dispute. The state officially marks Shivaji Jayanti with an annual public holiday on February 19, as per the Gregorian calendar. A large section of Maharashtrians, meanwhile, prefer to celebrate the occasion on the third day of Phalgun in the Hindu calendar, which fell on March 15 this year.

Members of the Shiv Sena have frequently brought up this dispute between the two calendars – insisting that Shivaji’s birth anniversary must be marked according to Hindu tithi – only to be ignored by other political parties in successive governments.

However, last week, a professor in Raigad district’s Khopoli town was assaulted and arrested for asking the same question on a Whatsapp group of his college colleagues.

On the night of March 15, when many Maharashtrians were commemorating Shivaji Jayanti as per the Hindu calendar, commerce professor Sunil Waghmare posted a comment on Whatsapp questioning the celebration of Shivaji’s birthday twice a year. The comment raised a storm among his colleagues on the group and on the next day, Waghmare was attacked by both teachers and students at the KMC College where he teaches.

The police, which first arrived on the scene to protect Waghmare, ended up arresting him and charging him under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, for allegedly outraging religious beliefs. While he is now out on bail, Waghmare has been suspended from his job.

An absurd controversy
How and why did the birth anniversary of Maharashtra’s most venerated warrior king become a matter of such contention? For most historians and writers in the state, it is an controversy that has been needlessly politicised in the past few years.

Shivaji was born in the early 1600s to Shahaji Bhonsale, a Maratha subedaar or army general, and available historical records are themselves divided about the exact date and year of his birth. When social reformer Lokmanya Tilak first popularised Shivaji Jayanti in the 1890s, Shivaji’s birth date was widely considered to be in the Hindu month of Chaitra, corresponding to April 6, 1627. Other historical records, however, indicated that Shivaji was born in Phalgun on a date corresponding to February 19, 1630.

“Broadly, it is known that Shivaji was born in the spring, but no one can really say for certain in which month or year,” said Sujata Anandan, a veteran political journalist and author. “Since he was not born as a royal, there was no reason to record his exact birth date.”

In 2000, the Congress-led state government of the time set up a committee of historians to determine Shivaji’s birth date. Based on its research and recommendations, the state accepted February 19 – the equivalent of Phalgun vadya tritiya or the third day of Phalgun – as the official Shivaji Jayanti holiday.

“But it is not necessary that the dates of the Hindu calendar fall on the same English [Gregorian] calendar dates every year, and a lot of the public does not accept the government date for Shivaji Jayanti,” said Pandurang Balkawade, a historian from Pune. “So even though schools and colleges are officially closed on February 19, many people celebrate the occasion based on the Hindu tithi.”

Two calendars, two views
Even as political groups dismiss the controversy over Shivaji’s birthday as a non-issue, they have strong opinions on the choice of one calendar over another to mark their celebrations.

The Sambhaji Brigade, a Maratha vigilante group affiliated to the Nationalist Congress Party, believes the Gregorian calendar is the only appropriate choice in a globalised world, so that Shivaji Jayanti can be observed by Indians across the world.

“Today we celebrate the birthdays of all important men by [Gregorian] date, not tithi,” said Vikas Pasalkar, the state president of the Sambhaji Brigade. “Even for [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi, who is the champion of Hindutva, we don’t mark the birthday by tithi, because this is the 21st century.”

While Pasalkar contends that most Maharashtrians celebrating Shivaji Jayanti by tithi would not even be able to name all the months of the Hindu calendar, Balkawade believes people have a right to be annoyed by the government’s imposition of the “English” calendar date.

“In his time, Shivaji had rejected the Islamic calendar of the Mughals, so why should people accept an outsider’s calendar today?” said Balkawade.

On either side of the debate, there is one common source of validation. Kalnirnay – publishers of the widely popular Hindu calendars and almanacs – lists both February 19 and the third of Phalgun as birth anniversaries of Shivaji.

A question asked hundreds of times
For professor Sunil Waghmare in Khopoli, this debate over calendars ended in a criminal case even before a discussion could properly begin.

The Shiv Sena, which is at the forefront of those promoting tithi-based celebrations, distanced itself from the violent reactions of Waghmare’s colleagues. “Chhatrapati Shivaji is such a huge figure that even celebrating his birthday every day would not be enough,” said Harshal Pradhan, a Shiv Sena spokesperson in Mumbai. “We are in a democracy and we do not support violence against anyone.”

Pasalkar, meanwhile, was baffled that Waghmare faced any violence at all. “I don’t know why this question about Shivaji’s birthday should become so controversial all of a sudden,” he said. “This question has already been asked hundreds of times.”

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