Days before Maharashtra went to polls on October 15, the 25-year-old alliance between the BJP and Shiv Sena came to an end. Even before the results confirmed victory for the BJP in the state, it was clear that the break-up was going to hit the Shiv Sena hard. So bitter was Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray that he equated Narendra Modi and members of his party to the army of 17th-century Bijapuri general Afzal Khan. Now, if you are acquainted with Maharashtra, you’d know that Afzal Khan is a villain the state loves to hate. As the war of words escalated during campaigning, I embarked on a journey to Pratapgarh — the site of the legendary encounter between Shivaji and Afzal Khan — to revisit a tale that continues to rear its contentious head in every election.

In 1659, despite being outnumbered and outgunned by Afzal Khan’s men, Shivaji led his army to victory over the troops of the Bijapur Sultanate, in what came to be known as the Battle of Pratapgarh. This triumph marks the beginnings of the Maratha Empire. Synonymous with Marathi pride since then, Shivaji became a household name. Every school child in the state learns of his heroic exploits and Maharashtrian bakhars (traditional histories) treat Shivaji as a quasi-divine figure, often inspired directly by the Goddess Bhavani. Each town in Maharashtra will have an equestrian Shivaji statue in its main square, and in the capital city of Mumbai, its airport, its largest train station, largest park and principal museum, are all named after the Chhatrapati .

Given the popularity of Shivaji, it is not surprising that his history is often pressed into service whenever it is convenient for politicians. So, way back in the ’50s, Jawaharlal Nehru had to actually apologise for making some allegedly disparaging remarks about Shivaji in his The Discovery of India and when political cartoonist Bal Thackeray wanted a name for his new chauvinist party, he simply called it ‘Shivaji’s army’. This tradition lives on till today and more than three centuries after his death, Shivaji is an active part of Maharashtrian politics.

The battle site

The town closest to Pratapgarh fort today is Mahabaleshwar. Situated on a plateau, the colonial-era hill-station has various ‘points’ that overlook the valley below. At Bombay Point, once I had zoned out the boisterous families, a beautiful sight greeted me: the lush monsoon green valley stretched out for miles below, dotted with the canary-yellow sonki flowers. If you were at this place on November 8, 1659 however, a more sinister sight would have presented itself. In the Radtondi pass below, you would have watched the massive Bijapuri army rumble by, headed to Pratapgarh fort where Shivaji was.

For a long time, the Bijapur Sultanate — Deccan’s most powerful state — had ignored Shivaji, even as his men captured one Bijapuri fort after another in the Sahyadri hills. With Bijapur mired in internal strife and conflict with a belligerent Aurangzeb, Shivaji had a free run. Finally, in 1659, the sultanate dispatched one of its top generals, Afzal Khan, to confront Shivaji.

En route to Pratapgarh, Khan’s army adopted an unexpected policy of intimidation, destroying several Hindu temples in their path, including the famous Vithoba temple in Pandharpur. Historian Stewart Gordon writes that “this behaviour was unprecedented for a Bijapuri force,” given the kingdom’s past syncretism. Not only was this seen as an unconscionable act, but it was highly imprudent as it alienated most of Bijapur’s civil and military bureaucracy — the Marathi Brahmins and Marathas. Even as a strategy to force Shivaji’s hand, it failed. He knew his forces would be no match for Bijapur’s well-equipped army on the plains and, wisely, retreated to the near-impenetrable hill fort of Pratapgarh.

However, time was running out for both armies. Forced to wait at the foothills of the Sahyadri in the district of Wai, Khan’s massive army needed to be fed. Lodged inside the fort, Shivaji’s men too were grappling with limited food supplies. So, Khan sent his envoy Krishnaji Bhaskar to promise Shivaji that if he surrendered, he would be treated with respect and rewarded. The future Chhatrapati agreed to meet Afzal Khan, but on his terms — at the base of the fort, deep in the ghats. In this terrain, Bijapur’s heavy artillery would be useless and Shivaji’s men, who knew the Jawali forests around Pratapgarh intimately, would have a tactical advantage.

The encounter

Greatly underestimating Shivaji, Khan accepted the offer. He moved his army to the village of Par, a few miles short of the fort. Par is today a small hamlet of about 30 shingle-roofed shacks and one tiny convenience store. When I arrived at noon, the shop attendant was quietly dozing. Interrupting his afternoon siesta, I ask him about Afzal Khan. “There is an old mazaar from that period. Talk to the caretaker, Ramzaan,” he says. In gratitude, I bought a bag of chips.

Ramzaan is 70. His wife and he are the only two Muslims left in the village. The mazaar, he informs me, is the tomb of Amir Shah Bijapuri, Afzal Khan’s maternal uncle. Shah had died the day the Bijapuri army had moved in to Par. While nothing remains of the original tomb, which had collapsed 50 years ago, a new, modern structure has taken its place, surrounded by the graves of soldiers who had fallen in the Battle of Pratapgarh. Ramzaan, I discover, is a repository of the region’s history, rattling away names of the sultans of Bijapur, Afzal Khan’s entourage and dates of battles with ease. As it turns out, he also claims to be the descendant of one of Amir Shah’s aides. “I am the 15th generation in the family to act as caretaker of the tomb,” he says, a note of pride creeping into his voice.

Back in 1659, on November 10, Khan and Shivaji met in private, unarmed, at the base of the fort to discuss the terms of the Maratha’s surrender. What followed next is a Rashomon-like tale that depends greatly on the source. In the Marathi bakhars, the tale goes that Khan resorted to treachery, attacking Shivaji with a kataar (dagger) hidden on his person. Parrying his blow, Shivaji hit back, disembowelling Khan with a concealed weapon of his own — a set of tiger claws. In the Persian accounts of the Mughals and Bijapuris however, historians such as Khafi Khan claim Shivaji was the first to attack. No matter the means, the end result was that Shivaji ended up killing Afzal Khan. Immediately after, Shivaji’s forces attacked the unsuspecting Bijapur army in Par. In the ensuing Battle of Pratapgarh, victory came swiftly for Shivaji — one of many instances when his intelligence combined with his remarkable personal bravery resulted in an improbable win.

Khan was buried at the base of the fort and, chivalrously, Shivaji even had a tomb constructed for his fallen opponent. Time passed, and the tomb became a local shrine for the area’s Muslims.

In the name of Khan

In 2004, all this came to a grinding halt when, right before the general elections, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad made an issue of the tomb’s existence. They threatened to demolish the structure. The place was rife with tension and “for months, no tourists came to Pratapgarh,” says Tanaji, my guide. Bowing to pressure from political parties, the police closed down the tomb for visitors and it remains shut to this day. Even now, a garrison of nearly 30 policemen stand guard outside Khan’s tomb. Ironically, 10 years after the VHP’s call for the demolition of Afzal Khan’s tomb, it is the sister outfit — the BJP — that is being compared to the Bijapuri general. Both incidents indicate how history has been twisted to conform to modern politics. Once distorted as a Hindu versus Muslim battle, the Battle of Pratapgarh now is being presented as a Maharashtrian vs non-Maharashtrian one. Both the armies, Bijapur’s and Shivaji’s, were made up of a mixture of faiths, as was the norm in the Deccan at the time. Shivaji’s closest confidant was a Muslim called Nur Khan Beg; his line of defence began with Sidi Ibrahim; Afzal Khan’s most trusted aide, Krishnaji Bhaskar, was a Marathi Brahmin. And both opposing armies consisted primarily of Marathi-speaking Marathas. Religious or linguistic identity was not equated with political loyalty as is often imagined these days.

Our politicians may not care much for history but this is one comparison that Uddhav Thackeray might regret making. Afzal Khan’s army came to Maharashtra only to be soundly defeated — the BJP, on the other hand, has swept the state.

(Shoaib Daniyal is based in Mumbai and writes on politics, history and linguistics)