On November 10, 1659, Afzal Khan – the magnanimous Bijapur General barged onto the fort of Pratapgad near Mahabaleshwar in Maharashtra. A few metres above its base, a Shamiyana was erected to welcome Khan over his meeting with Shivaji. With open hands, Khan welcomed Shivaji as he entered the setting. Soon, during his paternalistic cuddle, he tried to clench Shivaji and removed a dagger from his pocket.
Aware of his motives, 19-year-old Shivaji swiftly scratched out Afzal Khan’s intestine with tiger-claws. Khan collapsed on the spot with a scream calling his almighty and collapsed on the spot. The incident went into history as one of the glorious chapters of the life of Shivaji Maharaj who later went on to become the first Chhatrapati of the Maratha Empire. To honour Afzal Khan’s right to be laid after death, he was buried at the same spot and a decent tombstone was placed over it.
Until over two decades ago, the grave of Afzal Khan was lying unnoticed in a jerkwater condition. One could see it on the right side after climbing a few steps after passing the main entrance gate of the fort. However, it gained prominence only after some Muslim ascetics in the 2000s claimed the grave and decided to build a shelter over it. According to unverified shreds of information, the state forest department had allotted reserved land to the dargah trust and allowed new construction in the tomb’s vicinity a decade ago.
Gradually over a decade, a permanent structure with an arcade from all the four sides was raised on the grave. Covered with a tapering roof of asbestos sheets, the interior is said to have independent rooms for wandering Muslim ascetics who often take refuge in the newly developed ‘Shrine’. Soon, Afzal Khan – the tyrant from Bijapur who was a staunch enemy of Shivaji, was being gloried on his own fort.
Apparently, the construction was carried out illegally in the name of a “Hazrat Mohammed Afzal Khan Memorial Trust” which had occupied around 5,500 square feet space on the fort. Soon, the glorification of Afzal Khan was naturalised on Shivaji Maharaj’s Paratapgad, with Maulavis asking visitors to pay respects to the Afzal Khan’s shrine. According to local superstitious folklores, praying before the tomb of Afzal Khan was said to have healed mental illnesses. Soon nearby villagers followed suit and started abiding by the Maulavi’s requests.
In 2004, however, The Vishwa Hindu Parishad raised an objection against the illegal capture of land on the ASI regulated site. Furthermore, questions were raised by VHP activists over the alleged transfer of land to the Shrine trust. When the VHP threatened to lead an agitation on the fort, the nearby Mahabaleshwar Police bolstered security around the fort and tomb.
Unaware of the true history of the place, Prabhavati Shetye, deputy chairman of the Mahabaleshwar Municipal Council, said, “Enough is enough. We will not tolerate the VHP anymore. Who are they to make a controversy over this tomb? What do they know about it?” Unhappy with the state government for allotting official forest land to the trust, the Pratapgad Utsav Samiti was constituted by some of the members of the VHP. The group got active support from Vijayatai Bhonsale, who represented the royal lineage of the Bhonsales, hailing from Wai, Satara.
Vijayatai Bhonsale says in an interview that she was appalled to see the growing influence of the newly constructed shrine for Bjiapuri tyrant Afzal Khan, who was one of the staunch enemies of Shivaji Maharaj. When she made complaints with local authorities and sought appointments when officers, none of them paid heed to her concerns. However, when she desired to dig into the case further, she found that a provision for upkeep of the grave was being funded by the state government itself. “I saw garlands coming on a daily basis to the fort. When I enquired the reason behind the garlands, I was told they are for Afzal Khan,” she notes in an interview with Saam TV.
“At a time when Shivaji Maharaj’s statue and the Bhavani temple on the fort continue to be in a neglected state, garlands were being decorated upon a fictitious shrine of Afzal Khan,” she says. She has noted that the illegal encroachment over the tomb of Afzal Khan has been receiving state protection from the local authorities and the state government as well.
Ignorance by the government to remove the illegal construction
The Pratapgad Utsav Samiti, headed by local corporator Milind Ekbote and backed by Vijayatai Bhonsale had filed public interest litigation in 2007 to remove the dargah at the tomb of Afzal Khan who was killed by Chhatrapati Shivaji at Pratapgad. In an order, A bench of Justice J N Patel and Justice S K Kathawala of Bombay High Court had ordered to demolish the illegal structure. The order stated that the land belonged to the forest department and hence no structure would be allowed there.
However, the state government failed to comply with the order. Milind Ekbote again filed a contempt petition in the High Court which was challenged by the state government in the Supreme Court. However, after a two-year delay in asserting its position concerning the demolition, the state government failed to defend its stand protecting the unauthorised dargah at the tomb. The bench comprising Justices D K Jain and Anil Dave in its order on February 13, 2012, said the SPL filed by the state government will be dismissed if the government fails to file a better affidavit.
In 2017, a PIL was again submitted to the Bombay High Court after which the ruling gave an ultimatum to the government to bring down the structure. In 2020, some local politicians demanded to open the structure for public use. However, while the Maharashtra state government has continued to defend the encroached structure over the years, MNS Supremo Raj Thackeray has recently given calls to demolish the grave.
On Sunday, MNS chief Raj Thackeray said at a rally in Pune, “Afzal Khan who was killed by our Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. His tomb is there and is being offered flower garlands on his grave by the people of a particular community. The Maharashtra government is sitting quietly on this issue. If the state government does not demolish this grave, then MNS party workers will demolish it soon.”
With Thackeray’s open threats, the state government has now deployed Rapid Action Force (RAF) personnel around the grave of Afzal Khan at fort Pratapgad in the Satara district of Maharashtra. According to SP Ajay Kumar Bansal, Afzal Khan’s tomb has been a restricted area since 2005. Hence, an additional police force was also been deployed at the spot.