How Bhima Koregaon battle anniversary turned into a riot

The Brahmin versus Maratha socio-political conflict had a third angle of the Dalits.

 |  5-minute read |   02-01-2018
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The usually peaceful celebrations at the Bhima Koregaon village every year to commemorate the battle of 1818, took an unusually violent turn on January 1. The history of 200 years is seen as a metaphor of Dalit triumph against the caste-based tyranny during the Peshwa rule.

The violence in Pune on Monday resulted in the death of one and vandalising of several vehicles that were stranded on the Pune highway for hours. Violent reactions were also reported from Aurangabad and other parts of the state. NCP supremo Sharad Pawar and the Congress have alleged the role of right-wing organisations in the violence, calling it a pre-meditated attack.

The violence and the subsequent political reactions though are obvious. The root cause of the incident can be traced to the interpretation of Maratha history.

Broadly speaking there are two school of thoughts that decipher the Maratha history.

A section of historians have portrayed Shivaji as a Hindutva icon who fought the Islamic aggression of Mughals. Another section, mostly Dalit historians, believes that Shivaji was a "Bahujan" ruler who was subjected to humiliation by the upper caste Brahmins. The right-wing portrayal of Shivaji is that of "Hindavi Swarajya Sansthapak" (the founder of Hindu kingdom), and "Gau-Brahman prati palak" (the protector of cows and Brahmins) while the other section call Shivaji as "Rayate cha Raja" (king of the ryots).

Shivaji's kingdom after his death was caught in a family feud and was further handled by the Peshwas, who were upper caste Brahmins and the prime minister in Shivaji's cabinet. After achieving glory during Peshwa Bajirao I's rule (where the Peshwas extended their rule beyond Attock, now in Pakistan) the Peshwa rule became notorious for its Casteist rule. The Peshwa rule or Peshwai, as it was called, came to an end in 1818, mainly after the battle of Bhima Koregaon.

A small battalion of the British East India company, mostly comprising soldiers belonging to the Mahar caste fought the mighty army of 28,000 Peshwa soldiers. The Bhima Koregaon battle, more than a fight of supremacy, has been seen as a symbol of uprising against the Peshwa tyranny against lower castes.

Ever since, the interpretation of history has not only been at the centre of academic debate, but also a boiling socio-political issue. Although there has been undercurrents in Maharashtra's political circle, lately after the BJP government led by Devendra Fadnavis (a Brahmin) has come to power, agitations with historic connotations are on the rise.

Immediately after the BJP came to power, Fadnavis was at the receiving end for conferring the state's highest Maharashtra Bhushan award to historian Babasaheb Purandare. Maratha organisations for years have alleged that Purandare was responsible for the Brahmanisation of Maratha history.

In 2004, Pune's Bhandarkar Institute was vandalised by Maratha organisations alleging that American researcher James Laine had portrayed Shivaji and his mother in bad light. This has led to the banning of the book. But since then, Maratha organisations suc as Sambhaji Brigade and Maratha Mahasangh have been at the forefront of aggressive Maratha agenda.

So in 2014, when a Brahmin Devendra Fadnavis became the chief minister, it was likened to the rule of Peshwa. Similarly like the Purandare episode, Maratha organisations uprooted a statue of renowned Marathi dramatist Ram Ganesh Gadkari from Pune's Sambhaji Park. The allegation was yet again the same, wrong portrayal of Sambhaji through a Brahminical prism.

The Brahmin versus Maratha socio-political conflict had a third angle of the Dalits. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar calling for annihilation of caste burnt the copies of Manu Smriti. Anti-Brahmin tone has been the main ingredient of the Maratha and Dalit movements. Although the struggle was targeted at Brahmnin upper caste hegemony, clashes have been noted only between the Marathas and Dalits. Violence between Brahmins and Dalits, or Brahmins and Marathas have hardly been noted. Although the Brahmin community remains a meagre three per cent of the state's population and politically uninfluential in Maharashtra (unlike Uttar Pradesh), they still have been at the centre stage of such agitations.

Maratha organisations took to the streets after a girl from the community was raped and murdered in Kopardi. There were mammoth rallies by the community to demand justice for the victim and also reservation for the community. The massive Maratha morchas also had an undertone of anti-Dalit sentiment as the accused in the case were Dalits.

The Maratha and Dalit communities indulged in major violence and bitterness in the 1980s when former CM Sharad Pawar announced the renaming of Marathwada University as Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University.

The latest incident is yet another case of the strange history of clashes - while the Mahar battalion fought an army of Peshwas, the latest clashes have been reported between Marathas and Dalits.

The violence will undoubtedly have its own political ramifications. But it has once again brought to the fore the complex caste cauldron in Maharashtra politics.

Also read: BJP can no longer take Dalits for granted



Kamlesh Sutar Kamlesh Sutar @kamleshsutar

The writer is deputy editor at India Today Television.

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