Baji Rao II was a defeated man, a shadow of a Peshwa, having been a puppet since the 1802 treaty of Bassein with the British. So, the battle of Koregaon wasn’t really big—either for the British Empire or the many Indian communities, including the Mahars, which comprised the Bombay Native Infantry of the British East India Company. The epoch-making battle that gave primacy to the British on the west coast was the battle of Srirangapatna that ended on May 4, 1799. A grenadier of the Bombay Army (could even have been a Mahar) shot through the temple of the Tiger of Mysore. If at all Mahar valour has to be exemplified, I would choose May 4 instead of January 1, because even in British documents the siege of Mangalore in 1783 by Tipu and the battle of Srirangapatna are much bigger events than Koregaon, where just about 50 soldiers of the Bombay Army died. In fact, the Bombay Native Infantry, about which some politicians are getting emotional, was one of the deadliest forces set against Indian kings like Tipu Sultan.
Earlier, Tipu Sultan’s father Hyder Ali was defeated by the Madras army—which was, composition-wise, 12 per cent Dalit (Pariah). They even snatched Hyder’s cavalry standard and it became part of their regimental colours. The same army was part of the forces that had defeated the Marathas in 1803 in the battle of Assaye. So, to celebrate Pariah valour, shouldn’t we re-enact the 1781 battle of Sholingur against Hyder Ali, the battle of Assaye against the Marathas and the many battles against Tipu? While celebrating all these colonial victories against small Indian kings, there is one campaign which brings a lot of sorrow to an average Malayali, that is the Bombay and Madras armies’ victory over a small king of Malabar and his Nair and Kurichiya (now a scheduled tribe) soldiers in Wayanad. So, while we celebrate the Mahar valour against Kerala Varma, the Raja of Pazhassi, are we allowed to shed tears for the Kurichiyas? Or is it casteist to do so?
This is nothing but an absurd, comical attempt to relive a British policy meant to divide Indians. Gandhi’s 1932 fast in Poona, if that act is to be read in its fullness, was not against Ambedkar, but against the British idea of separate electorates for Muslims, Sikhs, Anglo-Indians, Indian Christians and Scheduled Castes. So, it made a lot of sense for the British to choose Koregaon as a symbol of Dalit assertion instead of Srirangapatna or Sholingur or Wayanad. But it doesn’t make any sense for modern-day Dalit leaders to celebrate British victories because the British were worse than India’s privileged castes in keeping the Dalits in chains. For instance, it was the British who made manual scavenging by a certain caste lawful in the army, the railways and the municipalities. If Churchill had so willed, Bezwada Wilson’s family would not have been manual scavengers in the Kolar gold mines. Despite Sholingur, Srirangapatna, Wayanad and Koregaon, the Dalits were classified as non-martial by the British, thereby blocking their social mobility, something that was possible in an earlier era without enumerators and census. Finally, it was Gandhi who chose Ambedkar to head the drafting committee of the Constitution.
It is indeed an irony that after helping Raja Sekhar Vundru, the Ambedkarite scholar and bureaucrat, stop Roland Joffe in 2003 from making a Braveheart-like Hollywood movie on the battle of Wadagaon (which the Peshwa won against the British), I write this piece on Koregaon now. Wadagaon or Koregaon, it is foolish to valorise either the feudal Peshwa or the colonial British. They were oppressive rulers and their soldiers were merely mercenaries.