On Wednesday, the Pune Police recovered the bust of poet, playwright, writer and humourist Ram Ganesh Gadkari from the Mutha river near Sambhaji Garden, two days after it was thrown there by vandals. In a statement, the pro-Maratha Sambhaji Brigade owned up to the act, claiming Gadkari had in his play Raj Sanyas portrayed Chhatrapati Sambhaji – the son of Chhatrapati Shivaji – as “a drunkard and womaniser”, sullying his character and, by association, that of the Maratha empire.

Four men have since been arrested for the vandalism, which has been condemned, though the censures have been nuanced, perhaps keeping in mind Maratha sentiment at the moment. Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and the mayor of Pune, Prashant Jagtap, have said Gadkari’s bust will be restored to its original place soon.

If the Sambhaji Brigade wished to disparage Gadkari, it ended up rekindling interest in his work instead. The incident, as a commentator in a newspaper observed, has prompted Marathi speakers and readers, including Maharashtrians, to run Google checks on Ram Ganesh Gadkari, a name among the all-time greats in Marathi literature and theatre. Gadkari – who created a rich oeuvre of plays, poetry and humour pieces in the first decade of the 20th century – may well have been amused at such a turn of events.

However, Gadkari, though a cultural and historical icon, is, in fact, incidental to the present narrative, which is cynically political in nature and intent.

Marathi legend

When Gadkari died at the young age of 34 in January 1919, Raj Sanyas was unfinished. It was the end point of a commercially and critically successful, though short, writing career in which he turned out four full-length plays – Ekach Pyala, Prema Sanyas, Punyaprabhav, and Bhava Bandhan – a collection of poems and songs published under the pen name Govindagraj, and a collection of humour and satire pieces written as Balakram. He was a pivotal part of the celebrated Kirloskar Natya Manch in Pune those days. Ekach Pyala – in which the iconic artiste Bal Gandharva played Sindhu, a poor, struggling wife devoted to her alcoholic husband Sudhakar – is a Marathi theatre classic.

No exploration in Marathi literature or theatre is complete without Gadkari’s works. Among his contemporaries, journalist-writer Acharya Atre called him “bhasha prabhu” (deity of language). The late contemporary playwright Vijay Tendulkar hailed him as among the greatest in his field.

In deference to Gadkari’s virtuosity and place in the Marathi pantheon, roads, chowks and auditoria are named after him. Mumbai’s Ram Ganesh Gadkari Chowk is in the heart of Maharashtrian Dadar, near the Shiv Sena’s headquarters. Thane’s best-known auditorium is called Gadkari Rangayatan. In Pune, where Gadkari lived and worked, his bust adorned the Sambhaji Udyan in the Deccan area, the centre of the city known as Maharashtra’s cultural and intellectual capital.

Current narrative

Gadkari wrote Raj Sanyas in 1917. His bust at Pune’s Sambhaji Garden, named after the warrior, was erected in the early 1960s. Neither the play, nor its characterisation of the Maratha ruler, or even the playwright’s bust posed a problem for pro-Maratha groups such as the Sambhaji Brigade – till recently, when the political capitalisation of the Maratha sentiment of victimhood began. The was seen in the massive silent protests organised by the community across Maharashtra last year.

The Sambhaji Brigade and other pro-Maratha outfits have their eyes on municipal elections in major cities of Maharashtra, including Pune, in the next few months. The outfit aspires to have a few avowedly Maratha representatives elected to the Pune Municipal Corporation where it would like to influence agenda and policies.

There is no dearth of issues in Pune to weave poll campaigns around. Crumbling civic infrastructure, haphazard development, conservation and maintenance of Maratha heritage sites are the obvious ones. However, emotionally-charged identity issues and rallying cries against perceived or real insults bring two benefits at the very minimum – wide attention to the group in pre-election weeks, and the appearance of upholding a cause, howsoever unconnected.

Immediately after the vandalism, Santosh Shinde of the Sambhaji Brigade told The Hindu, “It is intolerable that a person, who had so comprehensively defamed King Sambhaji in his play, should have a bust in the very park named after the great king.”

He added, “The incident [vandalism] is the culmination of our activists’ collective ire after the Pune Municipal Corporation did not pay any heed to our outfit’s repeated demands of removing Gadkari’s bust. It has been our crusade since the past several years to install King Sambhaji’s statue in lieu of Gadkari’s bust”.

Why this did not interfere with Pune’s development as a cultural and educational city till now, and how this would help resolve any of its myriad civic issues is, of course, beyond discussion.

Attacks on institutions

Among pro-Maratha organisations, the Sambhaji Brigade has been the most visible, aggressive and uncompromising in its objectives and tactics. It advocates the creation of an alternative religion to Hinduism called Shivdharma. One of its earliest leaders, Purushottam Khedekar, became popular for his anti-Brahmin rants and writing.

The short history of the Sambhaji Brigade is replete with dramatic attacks on institutions and people it considers inimical to the Maratha empire. Its approach is both anti-Brahmin and anti-Dalit at the same time. In 2004, it caught the public eye after it vandalised the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in protest against historian James Laine’s book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India. It alleged Laine had done his research at the institute.

Around 2010, it was allegedly involved in removing a statue of Dadoji Konddev – widely acknowledged as Shivaji’s teacher and mentor – from Lal Mahal in Pune. Its grouse was that Konddev’s place in the king’s life was a reflection of the bias of Brahmin historians. It helped that the Sharad Pawar-led pro-Maratha Nationalist Congress Party was in the majority in the city’s municipal corporation then. It is even alleged that the Sambhaji Brigade received covert support from the party.

In 2012, the Sambhaji Brigade was involved in the controversial removal of the statue of Waghya – believed to be the Maratha king’s favourite dog – from near the Chhatrapati Shivaji memorial at Raigad Fort. The outfit claimed the dog had no historical reference and this set it on a collision course with the Dhangar community, which believes the dog was indeed Shivaji’s pet.

Three years later in May 2015, the outfit opposed the Devendra Fadnavis-led government’s decision to honour Babasaheb Purandare, a right-wing historian popular as Shiv Shahir or Shivaji’s poet, with the state’s highest civilian honour, the Maharashtra Bhushan award.

Caste calculations

With elections looming, the anti-Brahmin and anti-Dalit nature of pro-Maratha organisations, especially the Sambhaji Brigade, has now come to the fore. The outfit’s opposition to Fadnavis’ decisions is rooted in the fact that he is Brahmin. And in the latter half of last year, the Sambhaji Brigade, along with other pro-Maratha organisations, played a key – though covert – role in organising a spate of silent marches by Marathas across Maharashtra. The morchas were a demonstration against “the marginalisation of the community and injustices heaped on it”. They reportedly had the support of Maratha-dominated parties such as the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party, which mounted their political opposition to Fadvanis on the shoulders of the protesting youth.

A silent Maratha Kranti Morcha in Maharashtra. Photo credit: PTI

The immediate trigger for the rallies was the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl in Kopardi in Ahmednagar district in July last year. The victim was from a Maratha family and the accused were Dalits. It did not take long for the Maratha Kranti Morchas to turn anti-Dalit. Protestors demanded that the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities Act), 1989 be scrapped or amended, alleging that it targeted Maratha youth through “false cases” filed by Dalits.

However, a wave of atrocities against Dalits – nearly 150 cases in the last five years, according to economist and former Rajya Sabha member Dr Bhalchandra Mungekar – in the same district had not evoked such condemnation.

It is worth nothing that though the crème de la crème of the Maratha community is among the most politically and financially influential in Maharashtra, large sections of the community rank among the poor, including debt-ridden farmers. The Maratha youth do not see a future for themselves in rural areas but their economic backwardness puts them at a disadvantage in securing seats in higher educational institutions and government jobs, thanks to reservations for backward classes. These have given rise to demands for the inclusion of Marathas in the category of Other Backward Classes or for the provision of separate reservations for them. This sentiment powered last year’s mass movement. The slogan Ek Maratha, Laakh Maratha (One Maratha equals lakhs of Marathas) displayed the community’s solidarity.

The targeting of Ram Ganesh Gadkari now must be seen against this backdrop. The sentiment of victimhood of lakhs of young Maratha men and women has been primed by the morchas and is now looking to strike at its next target. The sub-text is that Gadkari’s portrayal of Sambhaji as “a drunkard and womaniser” is rooted in his own caste prejudices. While many in the artistic community may point out that this reference is in his play and not a verified history book, such nuances are lost on the Sambhaji Brigade.

On the other side, an association of Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhus – the community to which Gadkari belonged, and which also counts the Thackerays of the Shiv Sena among its members – has organised a protest meeting at Gadkari Rangayatan in Thane this weekend.

The change in Pune

Pune’s rich socio-cultural fabric is a confluence of several communities and ideologies over the last few centuries. Even as the Brahmin orthodoxy held its ground and gave impetus to right-wing thought and organisations, and the Marathas left their stamp on the city’s social and cultural institutions, reformist and progressive thought has also flourished here.

Social reformers Mahatma Jyotirao and wife Savitribai Phule started the first school for women in Pune’s Bhide Wada in 1848. Justice MG Ranade and Gopal Krishna Gokhale, known for their progressive and liberal ideologies that fuelled early nationalism against the British regime, worked here. Gokhale, of course, later inspired Mahatma Gandhi and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. If Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse was rooted in Pune, so were contemporary socialists and revolutionaries such as SM Joshi and Vasudev Balwant Phadke.

Today, Pune’s liberal tradition of the 20th century that emphasised knowledge and moral foundations in political and social work is being challenged by the increasing dominance of the right-wing. Of late, the symbols and markers of Brahmin and/or upper caste ideology have proved to be an eyesore for Marathas, especially a section of Maratha leaders who believe that playing the community identity card is the route to winning back the power and glory of the Maratha empire.

Their aspirations and thuggish attacks, such as the one on the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, were seen as part of the lunatic fringe through the last decade. The fringe now aspires to be the mainstream. And Ram Ganesh Gadkari’s century-old writing proved to be convenient.

The writer is a senior journalist and editor