In the last few decades of the eighteenth century, Britain lost an empire in North America but compensated for that loss by gaining one in India. Between 1757 and 1799, sepoy battalions of the East India Company led by young British officers conquered Bengal and Mysore. By the time Tipu Sultan was cornered and killed in Seringapatam, expanding British power in east and south India had hemmed in the so-called Maratha Confederacy spread over central and western India. This disunited confederacy crumbled after the First Anglo-Maratha War (1775-82) despite the efforts made to save it by the wily Nana Fadnavis in his last years. Soon after conquering Mysore, the British defeated a coalition of some Maratha sardars in the Second Anglo-Maratha War (1803-05). This hard-fought war destroyed Shinde power in north and central India, converted Gwalior into a subsidiary of the British and gave the English commanders complete control over the military labour market in north India. The credit-worthiness of the East India Company in India and its ability to raise a large number of regularly paid and well-trained sepoy battalions guaranteed its success against the regional polities which had emerged in South Asia following the disintegration of the Mughal empire in the 18th century.
Baji Rao II, the elder son of Raghunath Rao, whose felony had precipitated the First Anglo-Maratha War (1775-82), became the Peshwa of the fractured Maratha confederacy after much intrigue in 1796 with the help of Daulatrao Shinde and his French mercenaries. Events proved him a true son of a disgraced father. During his self-destructive rule (1796-1818), the Marathas fought two wars with the British. The Second Maratha War (1803-05) destroyed all effective Maratha power and converted the sundry Maratha sardars into subsidiaries of the East India Company in accordance with the Subsidiary Alliance Treaty System devised by Governor-General Richard Wellesley. This war was caused by the enmity between Yashwantrao Holkar and the Shindes. Instead of reconciling these two powerful sardars, Baji Rao got Yashwantrao’s brother Vithoji Holkar murdered in Pune in 1802. Then, to escape Holkar’s wrath, he sought English protection, which was promptly granted. The Peshwa fled to Vasai and officially surrendered his sovereignty to the East India Company by signing the Subsidiary Alliance Treaty with the English on December 31, 1802. Soon thereafter, he was reinstated as an English puppet in Pune and the Second Anglo-Maratha War commenced between the recalcitrant Maratha sardars and the Company.
An artist’s collage of the landscape and peoples during the Anglo-Maratha Wars
Some historians maintain that the Treaty of 1817 caused the Peshwa some remorse and in a last-ditch effort to regain his lost independence he declared war on the English in November 1817. Just before the war began, in a scene reminiscent of the Second Anglo-Maratha War, the Peshwa’s mercenary English commander Captain Ford defected to Elphinstone with his troops. This made Baji Rao’s position in Pune untenable and he fled from the capital of his ancestors once again on November 16, 1817, with a desolate band of followers. The Peshwa forces were chased by the Company battalions and defeated in a series of battles fought at Khadki, Yervada and Koregaon in the vicinity of Pune. Of these three battles, Koregaon has assumed an epic status. The battle has a special place in British military history, the history of the Mahar regiment and the Mahar-dominated anti-Brahmin movement in Maharashtra led by Ambedkar. On January 1, 1818, a battalion of 900 Company troops, including a large number of Mahar soldiers of the Bombay Army led by Captain F.F. Staunton, defeated a 20,000-strong force led by the Peshwa at Koregaon on the banks of the river Bheema. The place is close to Sirur and around 30 kilometres from Pune on the road to Ahmednagar. After the battle a 60-foot commemorative obelisk was erected on the battlefield to remind future generations of the bravery displayed by the English and Mahar soldiers in the teeth of adversity. In contemporary times, the Koregaon war memorial has become the site of an annual Ambedkarite pilgrimage on every New Year’s Day. ‘Corregaum’ and the obelisk also became inseparable parts of the official insignia of the 2/1 Bombay Native Light Infantry, which later became the decorated Mahar Regiment.
March of the Redcoat East India Company officials ride in a procession.(Photograph by Getty Images, From Outlook 04 November 2013)
On the one hand, the Third Anglo-Maratha War (1817-1818) ended the Peshwa era (1707-1818) in the history of Maharashtra, much to the discomfiture of the Maharashtrian Brahmins who remained nostalgic about it for a long time. On the other, this war also produced events like the Battle of Koregaon, which became a symbol of the Dalit anti-Brahmin movement in colonial and post-colonial India. The Brahminical Peshwai, above all, represented an oppressive caste system to the Dalit castes of Maharashtra like the Ramoshis, Mangs and Mahars. The Ramoshis and Mangs have always been proud of resisting the Peshwa regime. Koregaon, where a handful of ‘martial’ Mahars defeated a large army led by the Peshwa himself, became a symbol of Dalit liberation from the excesses of the Peshwai. Among the lower castes in Maharashtra, the demise of the Peshwai and the victory of the British in 1818 is not mourned for obvious reasons.
(Anirudh Deshpande teaches history at the Delhi University. He’s the author of several books on Indian history, cinema and social sciences.)
Apropos Anirudh Deshpande’s Pride Flash Glory and Dust, I always knew the Shindes and Holkars and Peshwas had ego problems, but caste wars? This is really news to me. It’s an unfortunate fact that we are not taught the full picture in history books. I always thought Ghasiram Kotwal was a bit over the top, but now I know better!
Parag Naik, on FB
The vitriolic reference to the battle of Koregaon was unnecessary. The majority of the Maratha force consisted of Maratha, Kunbi, Brahmin, Bhoi and many other castes. The Mahar, Ramoshi etc were fighting from both sides.
Puru Kale, on FB
“Wily Nana Fadnavis”, “Maratha power came to an inglorious end in 1805”, “craven Baji Rao II”, “true son of a disgraced father”, “recalcitrant Bhonsale sardar”, “bravery displayed by the English”, “young British officers”, even “credit-worthiness of the East India Company”. All Maratha sardars are wily, craven, disgraced and recalcitrant and the British are young and credit-worthy? Maratha power came to an ‘inglorious’ end? Who was more wily and craven and disgraceful—the foreign tribe that wanted to rule another civilisation by hook or by crook or the people who were fighting these invaders with their lives?
Abhijit Adhikari, Washington DC
The article is typical of a subverted desi mind which seeks to debase itself while glorifying a foreigner—using egalitarianism as an excuse. There is nothing which is absolute. In ‘Brahminical’ Peshwa armies, non-Brahmins were numerically superior. Many Brahmins worked for the British, helping them organise and administer. And the British were no angels either—they cleverly manipulated the stupidity of the locals who were busy fighting each other. They used our own regional forces, harnessed serially after subjugation, to conquer one territory after another.
There are few parallels to the bravery of the Mahars in the Koregaon war. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been publicised well. Good to see this.
Bharat Paul, San Francisco
Historically, over the centuries.-in our subcontinent of Akhand Bharat - whenever large empires of note weakened it is the regional players who start warring with each other. Then yet another Foreign Iinvader takes over the centre stage and some kind a peace time ensues!
There are very few parallels to the act of bravery shown by Mahars in the koregaon war.. Unfortunately this has not been much publisized in media.. Good to see outlook publishing this.
It seems, that the Chattrapati wanted to keep a low profile, presumably because of his illustrous ancestors, and the Peshwa was made the figurehead, just like the President is supposed to be the head of govt., having the P. M. setting the agenda.
'wily Nana Fadnavis'
'Maratha power came to an inglorious end in 1805'
'craven Baji Rao II'
'true son of a disgraced father'
'recalcitrant Bhonsale sardar'
'bravery displayed by the English'
'young British officers'
'credit-worthiness of the East India Company'
All Maratha sardars are wily, craven, disgraced and recalcitrant and British are young and credit-worthy? Maratha power came to 'inglorious' end? Who was more wily and craven and disgraceful - the people who wanted to rule another civilization by hook or by crook or the people who were fighting these invaders with their lives?
article is typical of a subverted desi mind which seeks to debase itself while gloryfying a foreigner using egalitarianism as an excuse. there is nothing which is absolute. in brahminical peshwa armies non-brahmins were numerically superior. many brahmins worked for the british helping them organize and administer. and the british were no angels either and they cleverly manipulated the stupidity of the desis who were busy fighting each other and used desis themselves to conquer one territory after another. that's the simple truth.
and a brahim is trying to get a caste angle in this!!! idiot!!! shows how skewed the national outlook is.
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