Shiv Sena and Sambhaji Brigade in a marriage of convenience

Sena needs new Maratha leaders; Brigade wants to enter mainstream politics

20-Manoj-Akhare-and-Uddhav-Thackeray Aligned interests: Sambhaji Brigade president Manoj Akhare (left) at Uddhav Thackeray’s residence in Mumbai.

DESPERATION and helplessness seem to have gripped Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray. His recent decision to join hands with the Sambhaji Brigade, a militant organisation of Maratha youth, is a clear signal that Uddhav will join hands with anyone who helps the Sena recover lost ground after Eknath Shinde raised the banner of revolt and joined hands with the BJP to become chief minister.

The Sambhaji Brigade, named after the elder son of Chhatrapati Shivaji, is an offshoot of the Maratha Seva Sangh. The MSS was founded by Purushottam Khedekar, a retired chief engineer in the public works department. Khedekar’s wife, Rekha, was a BJP legislator when Gopinath Munde and Pramod Mahajan controlled the party’s state unit. When the coalition of the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party came to power in the state, though, the MSS moved closer to the NCP. It grew rapidly in western Maharashtra and Marathwada.

The MSS and the Sambhaji Brigade are known for harbouring strong anti-Brahmin sentiments. There is a difference between being opposed to brahminism and being anti-Brahmin; the MSS and its offshoots take pride in belonging to the latter group.

The Sambhaji Brigade achieved notoriety in 2004, when it ransacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, a premier historical research institution in Pune. The Brigade members said the institute’s scholars helped American academic James Laine write the book Shivaji: The Hindu King In Islamic India, certain portions of which they found offensive. In 2017, they destroyed a statue of eminent Marathi playwright Ram Ganesh Gadkari, accusing him of having portrayed Sambhaji in bad light in an unpublished play written more than a hundred years ago. Interestingly, the Brigade members were unaware that Gadkari was not a Brahmin, but a “CKP”—Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu, a community to which the Thackeray family also belongs.

Because of its opposition to Brahmins, the Sambhaji Brigade once also destroyed a statue of Dadoji Kondadeo, who some experts say was Shivaji’s tutor. The Brigade’s position is that Shivaji’s only tutor was his mother, Jijabai, and that Dadoji Kondadeo, a Brahmin, was a just a member of the staff appointed by Shivaji’s father, Shahaji Bhonsale.

The Shiv Sena and the Sambhaji Brigade maintain some contradictory positions. For instance, the Brigade accuses Babasaheb Purandare, a historian and theatre personality whose work focused on Shivaji’s life, of falsifying history to glorify Brahmins. The Shiv Sena, on the other hand, respects Purandare for his contributions in popularising Shivaji’s history across Maharashtra.

In 2014-15, there was an informal split in the Sambhaji Brigade over entering politics. A faction dominant in western Maharashtra led by Pravin Gaikwad moved closer to the NCP: the Manoj Akhare and Gangadhar Banbare-led faction that dominated the Marathwada region, however, decided to enter active politics. It is with the Akhare-Banbare faction that Thackeray has now formed an alliance.

A major reason behind the tie-up is the Sena’s need for new leaders and support base, especially in Marathwada. Eknath Shinde is a Maratha, and many of the influential Maratha leaders in the Sena had joined him in the revolt against Uddhav. A few Maratha leaders who have remained loyal to Uddhav, such as Subhash Desai, have no clout in the community. Uddhav and his close aides feel that the Sambhaji Brigade could help him reclaim lost political ground.

According to political analyst Prakash Akolkar, the Shiv Sena had never been a casteist organisation. “When Balasaheb was heading it, its leaders and cadres came from all sorts of castes and communities—Marathas, Brahmins, CKPs, Pathare Prabhus, Kunbis, Bhandaris, Vaishya Vanis, Other Backward Classes, etc. Uddhav has now joined hands with a purely caste-driven organisation like the Sambhaji Brigade. What more proof do you want that he is fighting for his survival?” said Akolkar.

There are many areas where differences in opinion can emerge between the Sena and the Brigade. For one, the Sambhaji Brigade does not believe in hindutva, which is the Sena’s ideology. The MSS had launched a new religious movement called Shiv Dharma, entered around subaltern icons, more than a decade ago. Sambhaji Brigade president Manoj Akhare said that the Shiv Sena’s hindutva was now acceptable to his party because it adheres to Uddhav’s grandfather Prabodhankar Thackeray’s model rather than the BJP-RSS one.

Another area of divergence is that the Sambhaji Brigade calls itself a progressive organisation. The Shiv Sena, however, cannot qualify as one. Even Uddhav has said that words like ‘progressive’ are too heavy for the Shiv Sainiks. “We believe in hindutva and Marathi pride,” he said.

The Sena did not consult its Maha Vikas Aghadi partners before joining hands with the Sambhaji Brigade. NCP state president Jayant Patil has expressed displeasure over it. The Eknath Shinde faction of the Shiv Sena, for its part, has accused Uddhav of deviating from the principle of casteless politics advocated by Prabodhankar and Balasaheb Thackeray. “It is known in Maharashtra that the Brigade is the NCP’s B-team,” said Sheetal Mhatre, the Shinde group spokesperson. “People are also aware who controls the outfit and issues instructions to them.”

For now, the bedrock of the Sena-Brigade alliance seems to be their reverence for Shivaji and Sambhaji. “We have come together to save the Constitution and fight for regional pride,” said Akhare. “Some forces in India are out to crush regional identity and pride, and we will fight it out.”