For a fortnight, social media has been abuzz with factual and fictional accounts about what happened at Bhima Koregaon in 1818—and why it remains relevant even now. All of it, since the start of this year that marks the 200th anniversary of a historic event associated with the rugged village in west-central India. It’s there that a war memorial stands as a symbol of Dalit pride, as 22 soldiers of the underprivileged Mahar caste died fighting in a battle between the British and a military force under the Maratha empire.
On the New Year day of 2018, people heading for the victory pillar near Pune were attacked, allegedly by Hindutva forces, killing a young man. It triggered protests the following day, prompting several human-rights groups and Dalit activists to organise a state-wide bandh. A cloud of unrest lingers across Maharashtra, potentially hinting at the start of a new era for negotiating the socio-political power structures for Dalits and Marathas. It may also portend a fresh challenge for the state’s ruling BJP that sits in an uneasy alliance with the RPI, Ramdas Athawle’s Ambekarite party.
Late jurist-politician-reformer Bhimrao Ambedkar, the architect of India’s Constitution, was himself from the Mahar community that was considered untouchable. The January 3 bandh was largely successful, with Dalit leaders Prakash Ambedkar and Jignesh Mewani emerging as the front leaders of the energetic agitations. A relentless Prakash, also the grandson of Ambedkar, has freshly attacked the BJP government, saying it did not act against the perpetrators of the attack on Dalits. He has slammed the regime for alleged combing operations in Bhima Koregaon and places such as Aurangabad and Latur, detaining as many as 3,000 youths.
The Left sees it was a “plan” was to create schism between Marathas and Dalits. “That is why Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote had been active for days leading up to January 1,” says senior CPI(M) leader Ashok Dhawle, referring to the two top right-wingers accused of orchestrating violence at the Bhima Koregaon celebration. “When RSS hoodlums attacked the travellers, a Dalit-Maratha conflagration was expected. However, there are people who see through this plan on both sides and will oppose it.” Else, why would suddenly there be stone-pelting on an event that has been observed for years, he wonders, claiming the troublemakers weren’t locals but were brought from outside.
The pillar showing the names of the slain soldiers, 22 of whom are Mahars, is seen as a major symbol of subaltern valour.
Beyond the recent developments, new debates simmer over issues of caste conflict and nationalism. Different accounts of academics and historians—regional and international—string up certain facts that are undisputed. That a battle took place at Bhima Koregaon on January 1, 1818 between the British troops and the Peshwa army, that both sides suffered casualties as well as injuries, and yet the imperialists came away more victorious and less damaged. That a pillar with names of slain soldiers was erected, that 22 of the 50 were Mahars, and that the ‘Vijaystambh’ has eventually been seen as an important symbol of their valour in the face of systemic discrimination for generations.
Some accounts say the Peshwas scorned the Mahars’ offer to join them in the fight. Whatever, the pillar is about an increasing need for assertion of identity, according to an award-winning writer, who says efforts to create rifts for political gains are on the rise of late. The recent desecration of tomb of Ganpat Mahar (at Vadhu village), who is said to have performed the last rites for Sambhaji (1657-89), the second ruler of Maratha Empire and the eldest son of its founder Shivaji, was a “deliberate attempt to stoke violence” between Marathas and Dalits, he adds, seeking anonymity.
Historian Sachin Garud says one “cannot ignore why all this is getting discussed now and who will benefit from a further division between Marathas and Dalits and other castes”. Activists point out that despite an FIR being registered against Bhide and Ekbote, there have been no arrests yet, indicating RSS and BJP support to the fringe Hindu organisations.
The BJP government did announce compensation for the youth who died on January 1 and ordered a judicial inquiry into the clash, but it has otherwise been stoic in its defence. “We won’t interfere in the probe,” says senior BJP leader Madhav Bhandari. “It is not true that the bandh was successful. I could travel from Parbhani to Pune on that day.” According to him, Jignesh’s provocative speeches alone fomented trouble.
The RPI’s Athawle, on his part, sought justice—albeit meekly—and that has further consolidated the following for Prakash and Jignesh. “The only clear message that will go out from this whole episode,” according to political analyst Kumar Ketkar, “is that the BJP cannot take the Dalit vote for granted, like it was after getting RPI in their fold.”
Historian Shraddha Kumbhojkar notes Koregaon has become iconic for the one-time untouchables because it serves as a reminder of their ancestors’ bravery—a virtue the caste system claimed they lacked. “This may help to explain how a memorial to a colonial victory built in the early 19th century has been adapted to serve as a site that inspires those who belong to castes earlier considered untouchable,” she writes. “The valour of untouchable soldiers who fought on the side of the British is not perceived as a shameful memory today.”
Academic Neeraj Hatekar says the “memory” of Bhima Koregaon is “more about the fight for equality than the outer layer of British versus Peshwa.” More so, since history “is a collective imagination of events from the past.”
The complexity of inference and interpretations reflects in opinions of different experts. Anand Teltumbde, a Dalit academic, writes Babasaheb Ambedkar was “creating a pure myth” that is “required to build movements” when he “painted the Battle of Bhima Koregaon as the battle of Mahar soldiers against their caste oppression” in Peshwa rule. Garud notes an “important factor of caste conflict”, as the narrative bears “several instances of atrocities by the Peshwas on women and Dalits, besides making regressive changes to the systems to control money and education.”
Shrimant Kokate, a researcher on Maratha history, says the Peshwas did not allow Mahars to walk on the road without a pot and a broom tied to their bodies. “They were punished even if their shadows came in the way of Brahmins,” he adds. “The Peshwas, in their eager to control everything, didn’t even allow even Shivaji’s descendants to study.”
It is in this context that the past casts its long shadow on the present, which continues to witness discrimination and isolation of Dalits and other minorities. Even so, efforts are on to resist polarisation. The CPI(M)’s Dhawle informs of two events that took place after the riots and bandh. The villagers near Vadhu have decided to rebuild the samadhi and taken a call not to have fights between Marathas and Dalits. Second, in Aurangabad a sadbhavana rally was organised on January 8 to assert that progressive groups “will not buy into the RSS agenda of polarising on caste lines”.
Even as a Rs 10-lakh compensation has been declared for the deceased in the riots, it’s hurting the Dalits that there is no move to prosecute the culprits of the January 1 clash. The pillar at Bhima Koregaon—decked up or even otherwise—will continue to add layers to the region’s subaltern struggles
By Prachi Pinglay-Plumber in Mumbai