Farida Mulla, a Kolhapur native, has always felt a seamless integration with the diverse community around her, unaware of any distinct separation in identities within her city. Despite the nationwide communal clashes of 1992-93, Kolhapur remained a bastion of peace. “Here in Kolhapur, we celebrate both Ganpati and Pir together,” Farida remarks, expressing her concern over the recent surge in divisive election rhetoric that threatens to unravel the city’s social fabric. She worries about the impact of fabricated communal tensions in recent years and hopes fervently for the situation not to worsen.

As the countdown to the pivotal third phase of voting on May 7 begins, the political cauldron of Maharashtra simmers intensely. The spotlight is on the alleged reallocation of SC, ST, and OBC reservations to Muslims. As fiery debate steers the discourse across the State ahead of polls, the ancient city of Kolhapur — the birthplace of reservation for backward castes — is trying to defy the tumult and save the communal fabric, which it has kept intact for over a century.

Shahu Maharaj’s palace in Kolhapur

Shahu Maharaj’s palace in Kolhapur

Shahu’s legacy

“This election, like those before it, Kolhapur has maintained its peaceful ethos and thwarted divisive agendas. This is the legacy of Shahu Maharaj, who united the Marathas, Muslims, and Dalits, planting the seeds of communal harmony. While there are factions in the city that have strayed from Shahu’s teachings, these are marginal elements,” scribe Kumar Kamble asserts.

In 1902, Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur executed a groundbreaking decree in his princely State of Kolhapur that would forever alter the social fabric of India. With a visionary stroke, he declared an unprecedented 50 per cent reservation in government services for the backward classes, positioning himself as the pioneering architect of reservation and affirmative action in India. It was this king who initiated boarding facilities and educational institutions for all communities in Kolhapur, and these establishments remain operational to this day. It was Shahu Maharaj who supported and pronounced Dr. BR Ambedkar as the leader of the oppressed classes. Additionally, his initiatives in laying the foundation for industries and constructing a dam have played a pivotal role in transforming Kolhapur into one of the most affluent and prosperous cities in Maharashtra.

Political Divide

Once dominated by the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the political map of Kolhapur has undergone changes, especially in the last ten years. Many stalwarts from these parties have joined the BJP. Also, many of the Shiv Sena leaders have shifted loyalties to Chief Minister Eknath Shinde, who split the Sena revolting against Uddhav Thackeray. 

Last week, Narendra Modi addressed a rally in Kolhapur, alleging that the Congress had “murdered” social justice and is now attempting to allocate OBC reservation quotas to Muslims. The sitting MP and Shiv Sena leader (Eknath Shinde faction), Sanjay Mandlik, is contesting as the candidate of the BJP-led alliance in Kolhapur. The Congress has nominated 76-year-old Shahu Chhatrapati Maharaj, the 12th descendant of Chhatrapati Shivaji, as the candidate of Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA), led by Sharad Pawar, Uddhav Thackeray and Rahul Gandhi.

The upcoming elections will test Kolhapur’s resilience and its commitment to Shahu’s legacy of inclusivity and harmony. As political debates intensify and allegiances shift, the city’s ability to stay true to its roots will be crucial, says Sunanda Patil, a housewife, hoping that political parties will uphold Kolhapur’s legacy during and after the elections.