As the Maharashtra government’s dream to build a Shivaji Memorial in the Arabian Sea off the coast of South Mumbai edges closer to reality, the opposition from fishing communities affected by the project is getting louder.

In 2008, the Congress-led state government first proposed the idea of erecting a 192-metre tall statue of the 17th century warrior king Shivaji in the sea. In October, after eight years of deliberations and obtaining clearances, the government, now led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, announced that the memorial would be built at a cost of Rs 3,600 crore, with help from the Union government.

The project will officially be inaugurated on December 24, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi will conduct a bhoomi-pujan (rituals performed before the start of construction by Hindus) on a rocky outcrop in the sea where the memorial will be located.

Modi’s impending visit, however, has triggered sharp protests from Mumbai’s Kolis, the fishing community whose livelihoods will be directly affected by the proposed memorial and the reclamation of the sea that the project will involve. Last week, a group of fishermen’s associations announced that they would hold a series of protests on December 24, on land and in the sea, to urge the government to shift the memorial to another spot.

As part of the protests, at least 5,000 fishing boats plan to sail out with black flags towards the bhoomi-pujan site, while fisherwomen from Mumbai, Raigad, Uran and Panvel will form a human chain with more black flags in South Mumbai. In addition to this, three of Mumbai’s major wholesale fish markets, as well as several retail markets, plan to remain closed on December 24.

This is not the first time that Mumbai’s Kolis have agitated against the proposed Shivaji memorial. In May, 500 fishermen took out a boat rally with black flags in an attempt to draw attention to their concerns about the project.

But this time, the protests are not only about the controversial location of the memorial. For the Koli community, these protests are also about resisting misrepresentation and staking contested claims to the historical legacy of Shivaji.

Sons of the soil

Since Shivaji belonged to the Maratha caste, the glorification and reverence for the warrior king has been largely associated with Maharashtra’s Maratha community. Perhaps the most vociferous champion of Shivaji is the Shiv Sena, a right-wing political party that grew in strength and influence on the basis of its sons-of-the-soil ideology that believes Maharashtra belongs only to native Maharashtrians.

In Mumbai, where the Shiv Sena has its headquarters, this sons-of-the-soil argument has periodically been used to target Gujaratis, Tamilians and other non-Marathi speakers for allegedly taking away jobs meant for Marathi natives. Among various Marathi-speaking communities, however, the Marathas are not originally from Mumbai or from anywhere along the Konkan coast.

The original natives of this coastal region are fishing communities like the Kolis and the East Indians – the name by which Catholics in this area are known. In Mumbai, as their villages, livelihoods and lifestyles have been steadily encroached upon by a burgeoning metropolis, these communities have struggled – with little success – for rights and recognition as the city’s earliest inhabitants.

The politics of this struggle is now being played out in their protest against the Shivaji memorial as well. This was evident at a public meeting in South Mumbai’s Cuffe Parade fishing colony on December 19, where various fishermen’s associations discussed plans for the upcoming with community members.

‘We are Shiv sainiks too’

“There is a campaign in the local state-level media to discredit our protest and accuse us of being against Shivaji Maharaj,” said Moreshwar Patil, secretary of the Akhil Maharashtra Machhimar Kruti Samiti, a state-level fishermen’s association that is leading the protest against the memorial. “But Shivaji was an important personality for us too. We have no problems with having a Shivaji memorial – all we are opposing is the particular location the government has chosen.”

The December 19 public meeting was attended by at least 200 Kolis from the Cuffe Parade fishing colony, which will be most severely impacted by the mid-sea memorial. Yet the most conspicuous presence was that of Shivaji himself – his garlanded bust was placed prominently on a special table in front of the crowd. As speakers from different fishermen’s associations rose to address the community, they all pointedly began their speeches with a few words of respect for the Maratha king.

(Photo credit: Aarefa Johari).

“People are trying to claim that we are opposing this memorial because we are anti-Shivaji, but history proves otherwise,” said Ravikant Perekar, a Koli social worker from Raigad, who spoke at the public meeting. “The Marathas were not the only community that supported Shivaji Maharaj. Who do they think built the Chhatrapati’s [ruler] forts on the Konkan coast? It was the Kolis who helped him stay in power in the Konkan.”

Shivaji does not belong to just one community, Perekar told the crowd, emphatically. “We too are the heirs of Shivaji,” he said. “Our only problem is that we have always been politically backward and under-represented.”

Kiran Koli, the Mumbai district president of the Kruti Samiti, made a similar speech. “We have been in Shivaji’s army, we fought for him in the Konkan, so in that sense we are Shiv sainiks too,” he said. “But this is a matter of our daily bread and butter. The government needs to answer if it plans to sacrifice the fisher-folk in order to build this memorial.”

‘We are a part of Mumbai’s history’

For the local fisherfolk at Cuffe Parade, the sea immediately surrounding the rocky outcrop where the memorial has been planned is a lifeline. It is a breeding spot for at least 32 species of fish that are most commonly eaten in Mumbai, including pomfret, surmai, rawas and prawns.

“The boats of at least 300 fishing families fish in that area, and the memorial will rob them of their livelihood,” said Jyoti Maher, a member of the Kruti Samiti’s women’s wing. “This will also affect all those who eat those fish in Mumbai.”

Maher and other community members cannot fathom why the government plans to reclaim a chunk of the sea to build the memorial, which will also house a library, art gallery and museum.

“Why do they need 60 acres for a memorial?” asked Kiran Koli. “Did they even once think about our livelihoods while planning? And how did the Centre even give environmental clearance for this project without considering the impact it will have on fishing communities?”

All through the meeting, Koli leaders proposed a variety of other alternative locations in Maharashtra where the government could set up the memorial. One suggestion was Elephanta Island near Mumbai, which already has a jetty and facilities for tourists visiting the historical Elephanta Caves. Another suggestion was building a memorial within Raigad Fort, where Shivaji had died, which is about 185 km away from Mumbai.

According to Koli, the community had been petitioning various state government departments ever since the location of the memorial was finalised in 2010, but they were never granted any proper meetings with ministers or officials all this while.

On December 16, a few Koli representatives were able to meet with members of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Smarak Samiti, the state government’s committee overseeing the project.

“We explained to them that our opposition is not towards any one political party or any community,” said Mahesh Tandel, Mumbai president of Machhimar Sangathan, another Koli association. “This memorial is about a historical figure, but aren’t Kolis a part of Mumbai’s history too? Shivaji was a people’s leader. He would never want a memorial built at the cost of the Kolis.”