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Rajarshi Shahu Chhatrapati of Kolhapur, a reformer ahead of his time

In 1902, long before B.R. Ambedkar enshrined affirmative action in the Constitution, a 28-year-old monarch of the princely state of Kolhapur took the radical decision of reserving 50% of government posts for the backward classes

The new Shahu palace in Kolhapur. Photos: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
The new Shahu palace in Kolhapur. Photos: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

The symbolism of the site, in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, where Aashutosh Kharade, a 27-year-old unemployed Maratha youth, is sitting on protest with fellow Marathas, cannot be overstated. A qualified engineer, he is demanding 16% quota for the Maratha community in education and government jobs in Maharashtra. The makeshift stage erected at Kolhapur’s Dasara Chowk faces the statue of Rajarshi Shahu Chhatrapati (1874-1922), the great reformer king of the princely state of Kolhapur and a pioneering benefactor of the backward classes. Nearby is the Muslim Boarding School, built in 1906, after Shahu Chhatrapati decided to set up exclusive boarding schools for castes and communities that were denied the benefit of education in the Hindu caste hierarchy. Four years before this school came up, the Maratha ruler of Kolhapur did something that leaves Kharade awestruck even today.

On 26 July 1902, Shahu Chhatrapati, only 28 then, issued a historic document in the gazette of the Karveer (Kolhapur) state. It was a notification in English that reserved 50% of government posts for backward class candidates. Two days later, the England-returned Chhatrapati issued the same notification in Marathi, as was his administrative style. History had been made, as developments that followed confirmed.

A bust of Rajarshi Shahu Maharaj at the new Shahu palace in Kolhapur, Maharashtra. Photo:

“That was the first instance of a government issuing quota in India, a full 48 years before independent India adopted the Constitution in which (B.R.) Ambedkar drafted the reservation policy! Ambedkar consecrated in the Constitution what social activist Jotiba Phule (1827-90) before him had demanded of the British rule but wasn’t given and what Shahu Chhatrapati codified and institutionalized. I call it the first manifesto of affirmative action in India," says veteran Maratha historian Jaysingrao Pawar, who is the director of the Shahu Research Centre at Shivaji University in Kolhapur.

Pawar has authored a great body of work on the life and works of Rajarshi Shahu Chhatrapati, who was born as Yashwantrao Ghatge in an aristocratic family of Kagal in Kolhapur state but was adopted into the Bhonsale dynasty and became the ruler of the princely state in 1894. Pawar, a votary of the Maratha quota today, is fascinated by the 1902 notification, which, he says, was just one of the several reformist measures that made Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj the “people’s king" and whose rule (1894-1922), he adds, carried the mantle of the social and intellectual renaissance that had started to sweep Maharashtra in the 19th century.

‘The Kolhapur State Gazette’ dated 26 July 1902.
‘The Kolhapur State Gazette’ dated 26 July 1902.

In one of his books (Rajarshi Shahu Chhatrapati: Ek Magova or Rajarshi Shahu Chhatrapati: A Look Back), Pawar calls Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj a “prophet ahead of his time". “Today, the advocates of democracy and liberalism world over have accepted the principle of affirmative action as the primary means of emancipation of the underprivileged and the oppressed. But here was a man who not only thought about it 116 years ago but even codified it by self-motivation," Pawar says.

There are reasons why Rajarshi Shahu Chhatrapati is considered a classic social revolutionary in the reformist tradition of Maharashtra. Ruler of one of the two seats (the other being Satara) of the Maratha empire founded by Chhatrapati Shivaji, he consciously exposed himself to outside influences and especially the modern European ideals of democracy, fraternity and individual liberty. Back home, he interacted with prominent rationalists and reformists like Mahadev Govind Ranade, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Gopal Ganesh Agarkar. Educated at Rajkot’s Rajkumar College, Shahu Chhatrapati travelled extensively in Europe and India, absorbed all that he could, and implemented many of those things in Kolhapur.

That he was much ahead of his time is evidenced by the astounding trajectory and range of the revolutionary and reformist laws/decrees/manifestos he issued. Like the quota manifesto, many of these legislations predated, by several decades, similar laws that the Maharashtra legislature or Parliament passed. Like the Compulsory Primary Education Act of 1917, the Legal Sanction to Inter-caste and Inter-religion Marriage Act of 1919, the Law for Prevention of Cruelty against Women, 1919, and the Manifesto against Observance of Untouchability, 1919.

Ambedkar consecrated in the Constitution what social activist Jotiba Phule...had demanded of the British rule but wasn’t given and what Shahu Chhatrapati codified and institutionalized. I call it the first manifesto of affirmative action in India.- Jaysingrao Pawar

Manjushri Pawar, a Kolhapur-based researcher, attended a workshop at Shivaji University in Kolhapur on 2 August to mark the 100th year of the anti-domestic violence law that Shahu Chhatrapati had passed. “One can understand the radical ideas and reforms that Jotiba Phule and Ambedkar propagated because they personally bore the wrath and humiliation of the caste system. But Shahu Chhatrapati was a ruler who could have ensconced himself in the comforts of power. Instead, he exposed himself to his people and their pathos. Otherwise, how would a ruler know what kinds of violence an ordinary woman faces in her life? That was the spirit behind the law against domestic violence," Pawar says.

Pawar locates the 1902 manifesto of reservation between two other milestones. The first, according to him, was in 1882, when Jotiba Phule, in his address to the education commission, or the Hunter Commission, demanded that the British purge the education system and public services of the near total dominance of Brahmins. Phule belonged to the Mali caste, which is part of the large groupings categorized as Other Backward Classes (OBC).

“Though the British considered Brahmins as their enemies, they were wary of taking them on since the latter also had a prominent position in the freedom struggle and administration. But Shahu Chhatrapati had this courage. Inspired by Phule and instigated by a particularly nasty incidence of personal humiliation, Shahu Chhatrapati took this revolutionary step in 1902 because he was truly committed to the emancipation of the backward classes," Pawar says.

Shrimant Shahu Maharaj with students of the Chhatrapati Shahu Vidyalaya in Kolhapur.

How did the Brahmins react to this manifesto? Pawar singles out one reaction: “Lokmanya Tilak, in his editorials in the Kesari newspaper, called this notification an undiplomatic and immature step and wondered if Shahu Chhatrapati had lost his mind. If this is what Tilak felt, one can imagine the reaction of other Brahmins," Pawar adds.

The second milestone came on 26 January 1950, when India chose to be governed by the Constitution and when “a great reformer, emancipator, and legal genius" like Ambedkar, who had a relationship of mutual respect with Chhatrapati Shahu, gave constitutional sanctity to the spirit of the 1902 notification.

“The 1902 manifesto sits between these two milestones," Pawar says. The 1902 notification says: “His Highness is pleased to direct that from the date of this order 50% of the vacancies that may occur shall be fixed by recruits from among the backward classes. In all offices in which the proportion of officers of the backward classes is at present less than 50% the next appointment shall be given to a member of those classes." Article 46 of the Constitution reads: “The State shall promote, with special care, the education and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, and, in particular of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of social exploitation."

It is important to recall the social and administrative context that led Shahu Chhatrapati to issue such a radical statute.

When he ascended the throne in 1894, Brahmins held 67 of the 71 posts (94.37%) in the administrative department of the princely state. In the ruler’s private administration, Brahmins held 46 of the 53 posts (87.79%). The remaining posts in both departments were occupied by non-Brahmins like British officers, Anglo-Indians, Parsis, and Prabhus (upper-caste Hindus). “This was what Shahu Chhatrapati called the Brahmin bureaucracy. He discovered the irony that though this was a Maratha princely state, there were hardly any Maratha (non-Brahmin backward classes, including the Marathas, OBCs, untouchables, Muslims, Jains, and Lingayats) in the administration," Pawar explains.

What distinguished Shahu Chhatrapati was the fact that he implemented his reforms both in letter and spirit. So, after 1902, when he discovered that the non-Brahmin castes and communities did not have enough qualified candidates to claim the reserved jobs, he started a multi-pronged programme to extend free, universal and mandatory education. In 1917, he promulgated an Act making primary education free and mandatory for every child in Kolhapur state. When he found out that a students’ hostel attached to the Rajaram High School and College, which is a vibrant institution today in Kolhapur, practised an admission policy for students of all castes and communities only in theory and was, in effect, open only to Brahmin students, Shahu Chhatrapati began his famous programme to set up hostels exclusively dedicated to particular castes and communities.

He is said to have built as many as 21 hostels in Kolhapur for various castes and communities, several of which survive and have contributed immensely to the cause of education among the backward classes. Gani Ajrekar, chairman of the Mohamedan Education Society which runs the Muslim Boarding School, says the facility also runs coaching classes for civil services and 34 students, including three from the Muslim community, have cleared the Maharashtra Public Service Commission (MPSC) examination so far.

These measures greatly changed the social and administrative profile of the princely state. In 1917, when the Act making primary education free and compulsory was passed, Kolhapur had only 27 schools with 1,296 students. By the time he died in 1922, Shahu Chhatrapati had helped build 420 schools which admitted more than 22,000 students. When he took over the reins of the state, the Rajaram High School and College had only 7.6 % students from the non-Brahmin castes. By 1922, this figure was 37.7%. In the general administration, the percentage of employees from non-Brahmin castes went up from 5.63% to 62.11% in 1922. The backward classes accounted for 71.71% of the staff in the private administration, up from a mere 13.21% in 1894.

Post-independence, the princely state of Kolhapur merged with the republic. Pawar traces back to 1902 every step in independent India that furthered the affirmative action programme. “Everything that followed and strengthened the affirmative action, like the Mandal Commission report submitted in 1980 but accepted in 1990, the 1994 reservation policy based on the Mandal report that gave 27% quota to the OBCs who were estimated to account for 52% of India’s population, and the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution that gave 33% reservation to women in local bodies, has the definite imprint and spirit of the 1902 manifesto Shahu Chhatrapati issued in 1902," Pawar says.

Sukhadeo Thorat, a professor at Pune’s Savitribai Phule University, acknowledges the possible “impact" of the 1902 manifesto on Ambedkar when he drafted the Constitution. “Of course, Ambedkar deployed different methods and refined the principle of affirmative action using his own scholarship. But the impact the manifesto of Shahu Chhatrapati had and the principle of affirmative action it reflected might have deeply influenced him," Thorat says. Shrimant Shahu Maharaj, the current family head of the Shahu Chhatrapati dynasty in Kolhapur, and the 13th descendant of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, describes the 1902 document as an “inspiration" behind Ambedkar’s constitutional philosophy of reservation. “Ambedkar studied a whole lot of other things and fine-tuned the policy using his mighty intellect and exposure. Yet the 1902 notification was definitely an inspiration," says Shahu Maharaj.

Today, when Kharade demands quota, the line of demarcation between history and contemporary reality appears blurred, except for one key difference.

In 1902, the princely state of Kolhapur, which covered pretty much the same area as Kolhapur district today, had a total population of 900,000—the upper castes (Brahmins, Prabhus, Shenvis and Parsis), by a liberal estimate, accounted for just 26,000. The rest belonged to the backward classes. Yet, this overwhelming majority did not rise up in rebellion against what Shahu Chhatrapati called the “Brahmin bureaucracy".

In contrast, the Marathas, estimated to be 32-35% of Maharashtra’s 111.24 million population (according to Census 2011), and who formed a large chunk of the backward classes targeted by the 1902 notification, are now on the warpath. And those demanding reservation comprise the whole cross section of the Maratha community, right from a commoner like Kharade to Shahu Chhatrapati’s descendants like Shrimant Shahu Maharaj and his son Sambhaji Raje, a Bharatiya Janata Party MP in the Rajya Sabha.

“If Shahu Chhatrapati could do it 116 years back, why can’t a sovereign and elected government do it today? The very fact that we are demanding reservations today means that the objectives Shahu Chhatrapati set out to achieve in 1902 have not been achieved," Kharade says, as he joins others in shouting “aarakshan aamchya hakkache, naahi konachya baapaache (Reservation is our right and not someone’s personal preserve)". The life-size statue of Shahu Chhatrapati looks on.

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