Pune’s endless identity wars

In the early 20th century, Bal Gangadhar Tilak caused polarisation in his hometown of Pune, once the seat of the Peshwas, between Brahmins and non-Brahmins. Tilak had supported the Brahmins who had refused to use "Vedokta" (Veda-based) rituals to crown Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur, on the grounds that he lacked enough blue blood. Shahu Maharaj then pioneered the quota system in 1902, by proclaiming that 50 per cent of people serving him would be hired from non-Brahmin communities.

The question of whether the cleansing of the Hindu religion should precede the freedom movement or vice versa began to be discussed, with strong anti-Brahmin sentiments prevailing among non-Brahmins. Tilak's son Shridhar was attracted towards the social revolution led by B.R. Ambedkar, who had the blessings of Shahu Maharaj. Shridhar's social affiliations invited the wrath of orthodox Brahmins, leading to a legal battle for control of Tilak's Kesari newspaper after his death. Ultimately, Shridhar, who had even organised a community dinner with Ambedkar and attended his meetings in Mumbai, committed suicide. The anti-Brahmin movement was led by Marathas and OBCs, with barrister Ambedkar lending legal and social support. Even Bal Thackeray's father Prabodhankar Thackeray was a part of the anti-Brahmin movement.

In Maharashtra, where the Maratha empire eventually passed into the hands of the Brahmin Peshwas, the Marathas and the OBCs form a major chunk of population. Both communities claim to represent over 35 per cent of the population. The non-Brahmin polarisation was a manifestation of the anguish that orthodox Brahmins ruled everyone's socio-economic as well as religious lives.

A century later, Pune has again become a hotbed of caste politics. James Laine's controversial book, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, polarised Maratha leaders, who believe that history has been distorted by Brahmin historians portraying a larger-than-life picture of Shivaji's martial arts teacher Dadoji Konddeo. They are particularly annoyed at doubts raised over Shivaji's lineage — that Konddeo, not Shahaji, was his biological father. The Bhandarkar Research Institute, visited by Laine, was ransacked by a Maratha outfit, the Sambhaji Brigade.

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