Alibaug, May 22: It may not have been as audacious as selling the Taj Mahal, but the group of islanders off the Konkan coast ' without the option of vanishing from the scene like Bunty and Babli ' went about their job more meticulously.
The Thal village panchayat has sold the state-protected, three-century-old Undheri Fort, from where Shivaji is believed to have fought the East India Company, to a private developer. The deal caps a three-decade effort that allegedly includes fudging the land records.
The fort, on Undheri island near Alibaug, 150 km from Mumbai, was handed to Dolphin Saturn Crest Estate for a paltry Rs 2 crore last month.
The Mumbai-based company isn’t being accused of an underhand deal ' the transaction was duly registered and Dolphin even paid the state government a stamp duty of Rs 12 lakh.
“That’s when we got wind of it and started investigations. But it looks a bit tough to retrieve the fort, because the sale has been planned very meticulously with the collusion of some district officials,” said Dadasaheb Zegde, district administrator, Alibaug.
The Maharashtra government, the legal owner of the fort, is likely to move court, officials said. “In 1972, the Thal village panchayat had made the first move by getting the land records changed by unfair means,” Zegde added.
So, from being a “historical monument” ' a symbol of the once glorious Maratha naval power ' the fort saw its status scaled down to “non-agricultural land”.
There had been an attempt to sell it in 1979, but opposition from some upper-caste Marathas in the Koli (fishermen) community-dominated village had stalled the move.
“There have been umpteen attempts since then, but because of various reasons, they never worked out,” said local schoolteacher Chandrakant. Sometimes the buyers backed out; at other times the villagers fought among themselves.
“The local administration has always been aware of such a move, but it chose to look the other way,” Chandrakant said.
The Kolis say the land, with or without the fort, belongs to them.
“This is the land of our forefathers. They helped build the fort on their agricultural land. The government cannot claim it as its own. It is our community property and we will fight all the way to the courts to prove it,” said Sheshnath Koli, head of the Thal panchayat.
The district administration is furious.
“We have suspended the sub-registrar of the area. We will also investigate the role played by the panchayat. How can they sell off a historical property that belongs to the state'” said Zegde.
The villagers say they ' as well as the fort ' need more than history to survive.
“We wanted someone to maintain the fort. That would have helped us get some jobs as well,” Sheshnath said.
The Konkan coast is dotted with small, centuries-old forts, many of which were used by Shivaji and the later Maratha rulers to launch attacks on their enemies.
Shivaji is believed to have engaged the British in fierce naval battles off the twin islands of Khanderi and Undheri for control of the entrance to Bombay harbour.
Both islands have ruins of fortresses. It is possible to reach these islands by boat from Naigaon, which is a couple of kilometres’ drive south from the well-known Kihim beach near Alibaug. Khanderi has a lighthouse that can be seen flashing right from the Mumbai docks.
Being state-protected monuments, these forts don’t come under the authority of the Archaeological Survey of India and are in a run-down state.