A tomb as target

Print edition : October 08, 2004

The VHP's failed attempt to demolish the tomb of Mughal general Afzal Khan, an enemy of Chhatrapati Shivaji, is part of a larger Hindutva strategy that usually precedes elections.

in Mumbai

At a checkpoint in Panchwad in Maharashtra's Satara district on September 12.-SEBASTIAN D'SOUZA/AFP

BY threatening to demolish the tomb of Mughal general Afzal Khan in Pratapgarh, Satara district, the saffron brigade in Maharashtra seems to be running out of ideas to catch the imagination of the voters in Maharashtra. Although the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena combine cannot be held directly responsible for this particular agitation by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, there is no doubt, say observers, that it is adopting a dual strategy - make the voters believe that it has given up its hardline communal stand even as its foot soldiers carry out the Hindutva agenda.

The Afzal Khan issue has from time to time been debated in the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council. Saffron parties have been demanding the removal of a building constructed in modern times by the Hazrat Afzal Khan Memorial Society, a charitable trust managing the property, near the site of the 17th century tomb of Afzal Khan, a general in the Army of Sultan Adil Shah of Bijapur, a powerful enemy of the Maratha king Shivaji. The building has a hall and several rooms, which are used by the society. The saffron brigade's grouse is that the building is illegal and that the Congress-led government is pandering to the sentiments of a minority community by allowing it to exist. Besides, they contend, it is unnecessary to "glorify" a man who is a desh drohi (enemy of the country). The issue remained in cold storage until the VHP decided to rake it up under the pretext of a campaign against the "unauthorised" structures. But political observers see a link between the VHP campaign and the elections.

The Pratapgarh Fort where the memorial of Afzal Khan is located.-

It was in late July that the VHP's campaign took a serious turn. The VHP, in a letter to Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, threatened to demolish the tomb if the government did not remove the structures near the tomb by August 31. If the government did not concede their demands, the letter stated, lakhs of VHP workers would head towards the tomb on September 12 and demolish the structures. The VHP also demanded that the State government deregister the Hazrat Afzal Khan Memorial Society, that the forest department take back the land leased to the trust, and that a statue of Shivaji be placed on the site of the tomb.

But the State government did not give in, and said that the memorial was an authorised structure. VHP leaders, workers and "Shiv bakhts", numbering about 1,200 (not lakhs, as the VHP had declared), assembled at Panchwad near Pratapgarh on September 12 to participate in a protest march. .

Unfortunately for the VHP, the agitation did not gather much steam. Attempts to head towards the tomb were foiled thanks to the timely intervention of the Satara district administration, which threw a cordon around the site and sealed off all roads leading to Pratapgarh well in advance. When the VHP activists began throwing stones and blocking traffic on the busy Pune-Satara highway, the police resorted to lathi-charge and arrested 286 protestors, including VHP leaders Venkatesh Abdeo, Babuji Natekar and Milind Ekbote, on charges of unlawful assembly and destruction of public property.

Policemen clash with VHP activists on September 12 in Panchwad.-SEBASTIAN D'SOUZA/AFP

"Although we were able to control the situation from getting out of hand, there is no denying that the VHP has made its point," an official in the district administration told Frontline. According to the official, the mob was restive. "With a little more provocation and if they were larger in number they would have clashed with the police and perhaps made it to the tomb. The illegal structure was an excuse. I am quite certain they would have destroyed the tomb," he said.

An eyewitness said: "When a VHP leader asked the crowd whether it wanted Afzal Khan's tomb here or not, they shouted: `No!' Judging from their mood, it is unlikely they would have left the tomb untouched had they made it to the hill-top."

As the agitation began to attract adverse public attention, the BJP and the Shiv Sena quickly distanced themselves from the entire incident. However, they condemned the lathicharge on a "peaceful demonstration". Speaking to Frontline, senior BJP leader Prakash Javadekar said: "We are concerned about the police brutality and will take it up with the Shinde government." As regards the structures near the tomb, he said: "Why is the government supporting a trust which looks after an enemy's tomb? Why do they permit annual celebrations at the site? We are against this and we want all illegal constructions there to be removed." According to Javadekar, the entire episode was "a deliberate effort by the Democratic Front government in the State to rouse communal tensions."

VHP and Bajrang Dal activists at a "victory" rally in Poladpur after they were prevented from marching to Pratapgarh.-VIVEK BENDRE

The Shiv Sena, which is normally the first to take offence at any perceived slight to the Maratha king, has been silent on the incident. "We condemn the violent attack on the demonstrators. But we cannot speak for the VHP. We do not know what their intentions were," said a Sena spokesperson.

Reacting to the Sena's stand, well-known Islamic scholar Asghar Ali Engineer said: "Of course they will not openly associate themselves with the incident. It would put them in the dock with the Election Commission. This double talk is a typical tactic of the saffron parties."

PRATAPGARH was a well-chosen target. The threat to demolish the so-called illegal structures was just an excuse to attack another Muslim monument. What the Hindutva brigade fails to realise is that the tomb has no religious significance. In fact, the local Muslim community resents the VHP's attempt to turn it into a religious issue. "The enmity between Shivaji and Afzal Khan was not based on religion. It was a political rivalry which is well documented in history texts," points out Asghar Engineer.

Historian Jadunath Sarkar in his book Shivaji and his times notes that after the Mughal invasion of the Deccan in 1657 rolled back, the Bijapur government (then a powerful force in the Deccan) had decided to punish its refractory vassals. The Sultan deputed Afzal Khan, a general of the "highest standing in the kingdom", to take on Shivaji, who was emerging as a threat to the Bijapur kingdom. Shivaji invited Afzal Khan for a meeting on November 10, 1659 at the foothills of Pratapgarh. Anticipating an attempt by the Bijapur general to kill him, Shivaji had prepared himself well. The encounter eventually resulted in the death of Afzal Khan. Shivaji's men beheaded Afzal Khan and buried his head beneath a tower called Abdullah burj on the southeastern side of the Pratapgarh fort. Later Shivaji apparently gave land in Pratapgarh for the burial of Afzal Khan's body.

Historians say treachery was a commonly used tool in medieval warfare. Even if Afzal Khan had planned to kill Shivaji in that meeting, it was one such act of treachery. In fact, in one of his early conquests Shivaji used the pretext of marriage to wrest control of a territory. After promising to marry the daughter of Chandra Rao More, the ruler of Javli, he killed More and took over Javli.

Moreover, Shivaji fought Afzal Khan for political, territorial and economic power, and not to assert his religious supremacy. At the time he met Afzal Khan, Shivaji's command was rising. He had already conquered several hill forts - which was one of the reasons why the Bijapur kingdom wanted to suppress him. "We must explode this myth that Shivaji fought as a Hindu against Muslims. He fought purely for power," said Engineer.

The State government has assured the VHP that its demands, except the one on erecting Shivaji's statue, would be considered. Whether the VHP's whole operation in Pratapgarh is aimed at creating another Ayodhya-type agitation is debatable. But what is clear is that the Hindutva agenda is very much alive.

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