Shahuji Maharaj: A Leader Who Rewrote the Rules of Society

“The officers who are unwilling to follow this order should resign within six months.” 

Chhatrapati Rajarshri Shahuji Maharaj unequivocally stated that upper-caste officers who were reluctant to cease practicing untouchability should resign so that the government offices in his state become emancipated from this inhumane practice. A leader who revolutionised the power dynamics between a ruler and his subjects, and chose to be a guiding light instead of an autocratic voice; a scholar who made education available and accessible to individuals across all castes and communities; and one of the first feminists of present-day India, Shahu Maharaj was an amalgamation of how the right ruler can rewrite the rules of the society.

Born into the farming caste of Maharashtra (present-day OBC) on June 26, 1874, his original name was Yashwant and he had lost his mother at the tender age of three. On July 2 1894, he became the king of Kolhapur at the young age of 20. In his rule spanning 28 years, Shahuji Maharaj not only challenged the casteist, sexist and superstitious customs of society but also changed them for the upliftment of the oppressed.

Aligning with the principles of revolutionary reformers and educationists Savitribai Phule and Jyotiba Phule, who were from the Mali caste (present-day OBCs), Shahuji Maharaj supported the Satyashodhak Samaj – a society of truth seekers established by Savitribai Phule and Jyotiba Phule to refute worshipping of idols, spread rational thinking, repudiate the caste system and practice a marriage of equality which aimed for working towards the marginalised. Comprehending how the upper castes have dominated positions of power through caste networks and shrewd tactics, he introduced affirmative action to ensure representation. He implemented 50% reservations in educational institutions and government jobs for Dalits (present-day Scheduled Castes) and Shudras (present-day OBCs) in his state.

Shahuji Maharaj democratised education and made it accessible. When in 1912, he made primary education compulsory for all, and when by 1917, he made it free, he became the first Indian ruler to do so. In 1919, he also promulgated an order outlawing caste-based discrimination in educational institutions. From opening schools in all villages to commencing scholarships for marginalised students to establishing free hostels open to every community, Shahuji Maharaj made sure that education does not remain an inherited privilege, but rather evolve into a universal birthright.

Also read: Dr Ambedkar’s Journalism: The Voice and Vision We Will Always Need

Until 1919, Dalits (present-day SCs) could not receive treatment in hospitals because the medical institutions were controlled by upper-castes. Shahuji Maharaj broke this inhumane barrier, issued a declaration that any individual from the marginalised community could receive treatment, and also called to attention how imperative is health consciousness among the youth.

He not only facilitated education and healthcare, but also introduced projects like the Shahu Chhatrapati Weaving and Spinning Mill, and dedicated marketplaces generating dignified employment. He also established cooperative societies so that farmers could be emancipated from the clutches of precarious middlemen. Endeavouring to modernise agriculture, Shahuji Maharaj made credits available to farmers wanting to buy advanced equipment. He founded the King Edward Agricultural Institute to train farmers in crop yield and farming techniques; and also initiated the Radhanagari Dam and made Kolhapur self-sufficient in water facilities. When upper-caste rulers would hold complete control over the donations, assets, and incomes of religious institutions in Kolhapur, Shahuji Maharaj issued an order stating that those assets belonged to the government.

Back then, sexist succession laws imposed myriad restrictions on the agency of women and stated that women cannot inherit ancestral property. Shahuji Maharaj ended these and passed a Hindu Code Bill on November 11, 1920 for women’s rights. He banned the ‘Devadasi Pratha’ which had hitherto led to the exploitation of young marginalised women at the hands of the upper-caste clergy. He founded schools to educate women and made extensive endeavours to curb the inhumane practice of child marriage. He also legalised widow remarriage and inter-caste marriages in his state.

Shahuji Maharaj and Dr B.R. Ambedkar had an enlightening equation and when financial constraints were slowing down Dr Ambedkar’s academic pursuits, Shahuji Maharaj provided monetary support. Further, when Dr Ambedkar was commencing his first newspaper Mooknayak to speak up for the marginalised, Shahuji Maharaj extended moral and financial assistance. When in May 1920, Shahuji Maharaj convened the All India Backward Classes Conference, he stated,

“My friend Dr Ambedkar has consented to chair this meeting. I should also benefit from hearing his speech and that is why I have come… Mr. Ambedkar brings out the Mooknayak newspaper and consults all backward communities. I respectfully salute him for this.”

When a Dalit (present-day Scheduled Caste) worker in his state faced discrimination, Shahuji Maharaj provided him economic assistance to start his own teashop. However, given the practice of untouchability; when upper-castes refrained from drinking tea at the worker’s shop, Shahuji Maharaj drank tea there and also made his upper-caste employees do the same; to begin a change.

A patron of art and culture, he invigorated music and the fine arts and encouraged writers and researchers. He installed gymnasiums and wrestling pitches and motivated wrestlers from all over the country to come to his state to participate in wrestling competitions.

Shahuji Maharaj outlawed archaic customs to further the emancipation of the oppressed. He abrogated the tyrannical Balutdari and Vatandari systems and introduced land reforms. He also discontinued the practice where titles and tenures of revenue collectors were transferred through a casteist hereditary system. He not only focused on macro-administration but also reorganised and strengthened the micro-units of administration at the village level. Given the humongous expanse of work done by him for the marginalised; upper-castes including those who practiced casteist hypocrisy under the cloak of anti-caste progressiveness; instead of reflecting on their inhumane past and present; made umpteen efforts to harm and humiliate Shahuji Maharaj. Undeterred, Shahuji Maharaj marched with vigor and assertiveness and consequently, taught Bahujans the same. He became the first Indian to be conferred upon the honorary doctorate of law by the Cambridge University.

Amidst the brutal casteism and sexism of the 19th century, Shahuji Maharaj innovated methods to resist, retaliate and restructure. Propounding his vision, he had vociferously vocalised in an official order: “In every office and panchayat of my state, it should be ensured that the Dalit and Backward communities receive equal treatment…Until humans are considered humans, the four-fold development of society is implausible.”

Ankita Apurva was born with a pen and a sickle.

Featured image credit: Wikipedia