It was not Shivaji’s personality but his vision and his values was what Deccan fought for. They imbibed that vision and made it their own. After that, they were not fighting for their hero, they were fighting for themselves. The secret of why people simply refused to surrender to Mughal power can be found not in Shivaji’s heroics, but somewhere else. The secret lies in the reforms he brought.
During the short span of his governance, Shivaji brought a manifold of reforms. For the purpose of discussion, I will divide them into four categories. Governance reforms, political reforms, defense reforms and social reforms.
Governance reforms deserve first attention. After the coronation, Shivaji put in place fully functioning governance consisting of Ashta-Pradhan (eight ministers). These eight men were noted statesmen in their era. They laid foundation of formal economic policy, foreign policy and other functions of government.
One key aspect differentiated Shivaji’s governance through ministers from the prevailing “watan and jahagir” type of governance – division of work based on function rather than geography. To put in management terms, this was “horizontal decentralization” where each minister was responsible for only one function, say judiciary branch, but was responsible for the entire empire. This was much better than vertical decentralization of “watan” system, where one person would be named in charge of all affairs of a small region. Horizontal decentralization helped keep uniformity across the whole empire and made it easy for people to migrate, do business, and remain one political entity. Also when divided this way, different branches of government keep check on each other and stop each other from running amok. These ministers kept military focused on the military objectives. They checked personal rivalries between individual commanders. In addition these ministers provided a crucial diplomatic support complementing the military ventures.
Second, Defense strategy reforms. The combined choice of Guerrilla warfare as tactics, the reliance on light infantry and and a solid line of more than 300 strengthened forts represents Shivaji’s coherent defense strategy. Unlike Rajputs, who stuck to their code of warriors even as Mughal and Persian invaders broke every possible rule of ethics, Marathas retaliated in tit-for-tat way. They preferred guerrilla warfare for defense and engaged in open field battles only when necessary. They never disrespected the women like Khilji and Ghori did, so they were certainly ethical minded. But they never shied from attacking their enemies at night if required. They were more committed to the political objective than the personal objective of bravery.
Additionally Shivaji launched Navy. Though the Maratha ships were smaller and the weapons inferior in technology, they gave Marathas capabilities to open a sea front. This sea front played a big role in the 27 year war by blocking Aurangzeb’s supply chains from Surat.
Several social reforms were introduced as well. It is largely this statesmanship of Shivaji that laid the foundation of indefatigable Maratha resistance. Common people fought because ,for them, going back to the horrors of previous governance was simply not an option.
On the economic front, there was a taxation reform. The previous empires had followed a system of taxation that was predatory or at times outright cruel. They had appointed Jameen-dars that collected tax on their behalf. The amount that was to be deposited in the royal treasury was fixed, but the amount that was to be collected from the peasants was left to Jameen-dars. These jameen-dars exploited this opportunity to fill their treasures, driving the farmers to bankruptcy. Over the years these Jameen-dars had built big castles, had their own armies, their own courts and they enjoyed being mini-kings.
Shivaji scrapped this system of taxation and introduced taxes where the amount that was to be collected from the peasants was fixed. The appointed officers were given only limited mandate and authority to carry out their duty – to collect taxes. They were often transferred, preventing them from developing too strong local ties. If in any year it did not rain and the farmers lost their crops, the taxes were waived.
Shivaji’s fiscal policies were conservative. Thus no magnificent monuments like Taj Mahal or Royal Mughal gardens were built by Shivaji. But it was him for whom his nation was ready to die. This fiscal conservative bend shows a striking resemblance to another visionary leader. After the American revolutionary war, Thomas Jefferson refused to pay for the extravagant ballroom maintained by British Viceroy in Virginia colonies noting that ” such mansions represent colossal waste of taxpayer money”.
By contrast, Deccan Sultanates and Mughals had shown little interest in welfare of people. During the 22 years that took to build Taj Mahal, three times there was severe draught and hundreds of thousands of people died. But Shahjahan focused all the money and efforts on building a tomb for his wife.
It’s indeed an irony that that Taj Mahal has become symbol of India while the forts that cradled the first “swaraj”, first rule of people, languish in desolation.