Bhima Koregaon violence: The real problem that no one wants to address

Gautam Benegal
Gautam BenegalJan 04, 2018 | 21:06

Bhima Koregaon violence: The real problem that no one wants to address

In the wake of the recent Dalit-Brahmin animosities and resentments of centuries resurfacing and bubbling over into riots, everyone is now aware of the Battle of Koregaon on January 1, 1818, wherein 834 troops of the Bombay Native Infantry led by Captain Francis Staunton defeated an overwhelmingly superior force of 30,000 of Peshwa Baji Rao II.

One of the earliest accounts of the battle was published in 1885 in the three-volume The Poona District Gazetteer, edited by James M Campbell, ICS, as part of the series of Gazetteers of the Bombay Presidency. The gazette itself does not mention the caste of Indian soldiers in Staunton’s army, but later accounts say a sizeable number were Mahars. A 65-foot obelisk was erected by the British in 1822 to commemorate their fallen soldiers at the Battle of Koregaon. An inscription in English on the west side celebrates the “heroic firmness” of the detachment under Captain Staunton.


Dr BR Ambedkar visited the monument frequently, and in a speech in Sinnar in 1941, asserted that the Mahars had defeated the Peshwas at Koregaon. Since then there have been competing narratives of Dalit assertion against Brahminical oppression, and Indian "nationalism" represented by the Marathas resisting the colonial army of the East India Company seen as part of the broader canvas of the freedom movement.

bhima-koregan-690__0_010418084118.jpgThe Mahar memorial at Bhima Koregaon. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The question on many people’s lips is, why would anyone take kindly to a group of people who take pride in openly siding with colonial invaders against defenders of the “homeland” and making a decisive battle that sealed the fate of the Maratha empire, paving the way for British dominance in western India, a cause célèbre?

The answer probably lies in how we interpret this sub-continent from our nationalist lens as a singular monolithic entity before the British subjugated the sub-continent. The idea of an India as an integral entity existing in continuum is most attractive when one describes the Revolt of 1857 as the First War of Independence. I will address this briefly.

A point of contention that keeps coming up, and indeed, is a frequent question that examiners love to set in high school question papers is, whether the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 was the first battle of Independence or not. Was this an unprecedented upheaval across religions, castes and sub nationalities in their nascent  awareness of a nation, an assertion of geographical, cultural, and political unity, or simply some regional leaders like Rani Lakshmibai, Nana Sahib and Tatya Tope and others finding common ground, banding together and defending their turf and territory, escaping the fate of Oudh?


In 2007, the Union government launched a series of high-sounding programmes to celebrate 150 years of 1857 as the first war of independence, conveniently forgetting all earlier armed struggles against the British. Referring to vice-president Bhairon Singh Shekhawat's speech at the May 10 historic celebrations of “the first war of Independence' in the Central Hall of Parliament, deputy speaker and Sikh leader Charanjit Singh Atwal intervened to assert that before 1857 a fierce battle between the Sikhs and the British had taken place in 1845.

babasaheb-ambedkar_0_010418084229.jpgBabasaheb Ambedkar with the Mahar regiment. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

As a matter of fact there were several peasant revolts before the watershed event of 1857, such as the Rangpur peasant risings in 1783, Dadu Miyan’s revolt in East Bengal in 1839, and the Ramoshi uprising under Vasudev Balwant Phadke in 1877-1878. (However it was Mangal Pandey, a random Brahmin picked out of the squad, whose simple act of defiance in not tearing open a cartridge seal with his teeth because of his religious taboo, whose name became synonymous with the so-called “first war of Independence” and none of the tribal or low caste leaders of rebellions before him who had much more to do with organising and executing operations against the British.)


Moreover, we should remember that a large number of kingdoms and principalities like Kashmir, Kapurthala, Bikaner, Bijawar, Sirohi, Mewar and Alwar among others supported the British, which would take away the pan-Indian claims of nationalist unity.  It is debatable whether Baji Rao II was doing anything more than just that - defending the Maratha empire against invaders. Yesterday, Aurangzeb, today the British.

In an India riven by regions, religions castes and sub-castes competing for political space and resources you traditionally pick your enemy according to whoever threatens the survival of your identity group and its interests. To the so-called "untouchable lower castes", the enemy is the Brahmin, and justifiably so, considering the millennia of oppression they have been subjected to. It is not remarkable that Ambedkar would choose to appropriate the victory of the British in Koregaon as a Mahar victory over the Brahmin Peshwas, to consolidate, mobilise and empower his constituency.

It is equally not remarkable given their animosities towards the Muslims that the Chitpavan Brahmins of the RSS never took part in the freedom struggle, remaining subservient to the British and opposed the mass movements for India’s freedom in every phase of the struggle. Their claim to a larger patriotism and indignation at the Bhima Koregaon monument being paid obeisance smacks of two faced-ness and masks their resentment of lower caste Dalits flooding Shanivarvada, which is holy ground to them.

A small example will serve to explain the dynamics of such loyalties. It is a touching side note to the story of the Dalit’s journey towards self-emancipation. It has its roots in the subaltern Varkari tradition, that Sant Gyaneshwar (1275-1296) and a number of others from "low castes" founded. Every year, the Varkaris, which comprise all castes, were meant to forget their differences and travel hundreds of miles to the holy town of Pandharpur, to the temple of Vithoba, gathering there on ekadashi (the 11th day) of the Hindu lunar calendar month of Aashaadha (which falls sometime in July). Another pilgrimage is celebrated on the ekadashi of the month of Kartik (which falls sometime in November).

Almost 80 years ago, Ganpati Babhutkar, a varkari himself, realised that this reform movement had been compromised with the "upper castes" still displaying the same discrimination against the "untouchables" on the pilgrimage. He started a movement in a Vidarbha village Mangrul Dastgir, which, he thought, would rid Indian society of the caste system altogether. He proclaimed himself as ajaat - man of no caste and asked his supporters to follow suit. A few thousand joined him.

There were several attempts on Ganpati Maharaj’s life as well as other ajaats from "upper caste" Savarnas and the only people they could turn to was the British administration who were neutral and only cared for law and order.

In a recent documentary on the ajaats (a fast disappearing cult), Ganpati Maharaj’s descendant explains, how, to the Dalit ajaats, the British were regarded as saviours and not enemies.

Ambedkar wrote, “Swaraj would make Hindus more powerful and untouchables more helpless and it is quite possible that having regard to the economic advantages which it gives to the Hindus, Swaraj, instead of putting an end to untouchability, may extend its life.”

And “…one may ask what really can happen if India does become a sovereign and an independent state? One thing is certain. The governing class will not disappear by the magic wand of Swaraj. It will remain as it is and having been freed from the incubus of British Imperialism will acquire greater strength and vigour.”

To a great extent Ambedkar’s apprehensions have come true.

Last updated: January 05, 2018 | 17:21
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