Mahars, Peshwas and the Battle of Bhima Koregaon

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Present Day Scenario

The city of Mumbai remained shut down, due to violent mobs in Pune. There were anticipations of disturbances in parts of Gujarat. On January 23rd, a Pune court rejected the anticipatory bail plea of Milind Ekbote, a pro-Hindutva leader. He was booked for allegedly inciting violence on 1st January, during the bicentenary commemoration of the Bhima Koregan battle. This violence had led to one person’s death. The Hindu Ektha Aghadi and Shivraj Prathisthan, have cases registered against them. They were opposed to the so-called celebrations of British Victory over the armies of Peshwas.

Background of the Battle

They say our present is linked to our pasts. Understand the past and you will have gained knowledge of your future course of action. The present baffling matter of Bhima Koregaon, has links to the oppression of Dalits at the hands of Brahmins, years ago.

Before the unfortunate events of 1st January 2018, a lot of us had no clue of such a battle in history. Some of us are still fuzzy about its historical importance.

Here I have tried to lay bare exactly what transpired in 1818. The battle was between the East India Company and the armies of the Peshwas. For the Anglo-Indian army, Mahars, a lower caste, then regarded as untouchables fought against the Peshwas, regarded as upper caste Brahmins. This battle was fought on the banks of Bhim river, that’s how it got its name. It was the last battle fought, of the Anglo Maratha war. The Company forces of 800 troops were led by Captain Francis Staunton and defeated Peshwa Baji Rao II. The battle among the natives is viewed as a symbol of Dalit power, valour, and assertion. It is seen as a victory against their oppressors “the upper caste Peshwas”. It is not viewed as a foreign invader conquering the country. The fact is even after this battle the British abolished the Mahar regiment, only to restart it in Second World War. They had a preference towards the upper class. Also, there were a lot of Mahar caste members who fought alongside the Peshwas, who were mostly consisting of Arab fighters.

Symbolism of Bhima Koregaon

The Mahar and Peshwas relation had turned sour when the latter rejected the former’s offer to join their army and serve. The place of the battle had an obelisk erected containing the names of 22 Mahar soldiers. This memorial was stitched into the uniform of Mahar Regiment. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar visited it on 1st January 1927. He talked about Dalit pride and their assertion. On how they fought beside British armies to conquer India. These remarks did fetch him a lot of criticism.

Casteism, Nationalism and the Growing Debate

After the ongoing incidents, and the atmosphere of religious and caste differences in the country, the upper caste Maharashtrians are anxious. There are suspicion and hatred from people who believe the government is trying to protect the offenders. Cases of atrocities against SCs/STs have been filed. The people from all walks of life belonging to this community, have viewed the incident as another move and attempt at oppression. They are of the view, that it is a slander to the fighters, leaders they look up to. Some people and so-called leaders have taken the opportunity to come on television debates and capture prime time. They are influencing and polarizing people’s behavior, largely for local elections.

It can be said that there is a process of selective thinking and propaganda in play. Some of the historians nowadays do have a pre-determined agenda and bring out information accordingly. While investigations are on, as to what incited the violence. The key task for Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis , would be not to let the issue escalate into a full-blown caste matter. Already there has been a lot of public dissents and bad blood over the performance of BJP-Shiv Sena led coalition, this case just might tilt public opinion further.

Impact of the Battle in Future

Though fought years ago, it has been a part of the history and culture, of the indigenous people. Other incidents of caste atrocities where a pregnant woman was burnt to death, is causing an environment of distrust. A lot of times, without investigating on root causes, incidents are being branded as casteist for political and personal gains.

Was the 1st January incident, of people running with saffron flags, opposing the celebrations on such an occasion, only investigations will tell? The culprits must be caught, whichever faction they belong to, for only that will symbolize the true spirit of our diverse nation and strong Constitution. In these troubled times, we need a loud, bold and clear voice of equality and support from the Government.

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