Rape threats against Agrima Joshua show Shivaji's progressive ideals have been hijacked by thugs

The clip can be found online and, quite frankly, is really funny because it makes fun of a government that’s spending, what many taxpayers consider a lot of money, building a memorial for Shivaji. The clip in no way even hints at a joke about the man, only makes fun of the jingoism of his followers.

Ajay Kumar July 12, 2020 20:52:54 IST
Rape threats against Agrima Joshua show Shivaji's progressive ideals have been hijacked by thugs

Chatrapati Shivaji is my favourtie character in history. I have been fond of him since I read about him in school. It amused me greatly, that at a time when the European Powers were roaming in India and the Mughal Empire was at its height, there was a ruler who decided to take them all on. The Maratha Empire doesn't find enough mention in our history books. This was an Empire forged in the Deccan that extended all the way to the to the North-West Frontier. There are living legacies of Maratha rule in the sub-continent even today and the Maratha Empire greatly shaped the history of that tumlutos period between the transition from Mughal to British Admistration of the Sub-Continent.

The man behind this phenomenal undertaking is an illustrious and legendary character in the history of India. His name is Chatrapati Shivaji Bhosale I or as we popularly know him 'Shivaji Maharaj' and his story is something that every Indian should learn and read. For it is quite simply not a story about religion or politics. It is a story of how one man united a people together and decided to stand up to those bullying him.

In the 1869, the great reformer Jyotirao Phule wrote a poetic work called Powada : Chatrapati Shivajiraje Bhosle Yancha. He took the story of Shivaji and used it to start a movement against the social evils of the caste system and later Lokmanya Tilak would use the story of Shivaji to inspire a spirit of resistance against the then British government. But like all leaders, Shivaji's legacy is controversial among some sections of the population. It was present at the time of Tilak and Phule and it is present even now.

There is, however, one aspect of Shivaji's legacy that is beyond controversy. It is that he tried to build a progressive state. Here, progressive means a State that would better the lives of its population rather than the lives of its ruling class. While, this was not a new concept in that era, we must remember that Shivaji's reign commenced and ended during Aurangzeb’s rule in India. The Mughal Empire under Shah Jahan was one that had indulged in lavish spending. Aurangzeb was not only conservative fiscally but also socially. His policies were beginning to have a direct impact on the day to day lives of people. The polices largely being taxation to fund further wars of conquest to expand the Empire. Shivaji's role as a leader assumed even more importance during this period as he believed citizen-centric approach focused on common welfare.

Which is why, Maharashtra today is one of the most industrialised and socially-progressive states in India. Shivaji's approach to the Maratha identity is one that is built on the concept of common welfare and distanced from jingoism. Yes, there is pride taken in the culture here but it is not an exclusionary pride (as it is found in some other parts of India) but an inclusive one.

This is what makes it overly concerning when Shivaji is appropriated by thugs and goons to serve their own perverse political agendas. The news cycle has been filled with the fact that a comedian called Agrima Joshua, has come under considerable social media fire and received threats against her life for a sketch she performed last year in Mumbai. In her sketch, she talks about the ridiculous answers she had read on Quora about the upcoming Chhatrapati Shivaji Statute in Mumbai.

The clip can be found online and, quite frankly, is really funny because it makes fun of a government that’s spending, what many taxpayers consider a lot of money, building a memorial for Shivaji. The clip in no way even hints at a joke about the man, only makes fun of the jingoism of his followers.

The decision to build a memorial is one that should be subject to public scrutiny and the requisite ridicule. The government is spending about Rs 2,800 crore on a memorial, when a new Kolkata Class Destroyer for the Navy would cost about Rs 3,800 crores. Personally, I think, at least in terms of priorities, a naval destroyer capable of launching nuclear war heads is a better testament to Shivaji’s legacy than a memorial statute.

Right now, we do not have a naval ship named after him, just a naval station. Given the contribution of the Maratha’s in developing what would become the Indian Navy, it only seems fitting that we should have named a destroyer after him instead of building a statute that (at least to me) looks like a poor attempt to copy the concept of the Colossus of Rhodes.

However, this joke last year, offended people enough that they actually sent rape threats over to the comedian and the state home minister has requested the Mumbai police commissionerate to take strict and expeditious legal action against her. According to reports, Vadodara Police has registered an FIR against one Shubham Mishra for uploading a video on social media with alleged rape threats to Joshua.

Let us give the government the benefit of the doubt. Even if we assume that she had actually insulted or made fun of Shivaji, would there be cause to actually initiate a prosecution? Popular leaders have historically been leaders who could take a joke when one is thrown at them. It is a part of being in the popular memory. There are many instances when leaders in Parliament share a laugh at the expense of another colleague. Jokes are sometimes how society puts across the point. It can be a praise or sometimes it can be censure and sometimes it can just be for comic effect. The idea that there are leaders who are beyond ridicule is something that should be unacceptable to any society.

Which is what makes it extremely upsetting that the government of maharashtra has decided to try and prosecute the comedian rather than the thugs who have been sending her violent threats.

What Joshua said is protected speech under the Constitution of India and that protection exists for a reason. It is so that we do not become a society where we are scared to point to our leaders and laugh. If leaders are part of the community, why are they protected from ridicule? The same goes with the idea of historical figures.

There is no figure in India that by law is elevated to the point of immunity from ridicule. In fact, a comedian can even make a joke about Mahatma Gandhi, the celibate chap, who is supposed to have fathered this country.

The reaction to that clip, while on the surface looks like social media outrage, does not quite seem to add up. For Maharashtra and the Marathi culture has had a rich history of comedy and theatre. Where truth is spoken to power and social issues freely expressed and discussed. This culture of calling for censorship does not seem to be inline with this culture. The people of Maharashtra (who are the final inheritors of the legacy of this great leader) should speak up against people who are clearly jingoist thugs trying to culturally hijack a beloved figure. They may claim they want the comedian to be prosecuted to “defend” Shivaji’s legacy, but such prosecutions do nothing but take that legacy away, for they set a precedent to take away the power of the public to make fun of their leaders. A vital power to retain a free republic.

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