This article is a part of our #DalitHistoryMonth campaign. April is celebrated as Dalit History Month in order to recognise and bring to light the contributions of Dalits and acknowledge the systematic oppression and violence that mainstream history has conveniently overlooked.
On the 1st January 2018, lakhs of people were attending the 200th anniversary of the historical Bhima-Koregaon battle. Some groups carrying saffron flags interrupted the peaceful gathering, sparking violence. One person, named Rahul Fatangale, died and several others were injured.
The event drew the attention of almost everyone in the country, and shone light on the original Bhima-Koregaon war, which people considered as one of the earliest Dalit uprisings. It is considered so, as there aren’t many recorded events that demonstrate the fights of Dalits against their oppressors.
The Bhima-Koregaon war was the third and the last of the Anglo-Maratha wars. This war in particular put an end to the Peshwa rule in Maharashtra and laid a strong foundation to the British establishment in Maharashtra. The Battle of Koregaon, also known as Koregaon-Bhima battle and Bhima-Koregaon battle, took place on January 1, 1818, and was fought between the British East India Company and the Peshwas at Koregaon Bhima.
This victory is celebrated by Mahars and other Dalits across Maharashtra as it was one of the very few instances where the oppressed fought their oppressors and defeated them.
The history is that during the battle, Bajirao II sent around 5,000 troops to attack Pune. But after learning about British East India Company’s merely 800 troops he withdrew his troops and sent 2,000-2,500 troops. The East India Company’s troops, however, were successful in fighting the Peshwas and after 12-hour-long battle, Peshwas lost with a loss of 600 men. Baji Rao II then withdrew his troops. Now, these numbers aren’t reliable as we do not have any document other than the memorial that was built to honour those who lost their lives in the battle.
Why Is This War Significant?
Anyone who has lived in India or even has a little knowledge about Indians would know about the caste system that exists in India. The caste system, as suggested or prescribed in Manusmiriti, categorises people into four groups – the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas and the Shudras. Apart from these is another section that is considered to be ‘outcasts’ and they are known as Dalits. This caste hierarchy is organised based on someone’s occupation or so they claimed.
Coming back to the discussion of the Bhima-Koregaon battle, it needs to be noted that it is more than just a battle between the Peshwas and the British. The Peshwas were Brahmins who often held ministerial positions under the King of Maratha and were known to have ill-treated the Dalits (Mahars, in this case) in the region.
During the battle, the Peshwas waged war against the British and the Mahars were fighting on behalf of the British. The anger and frustration that had been contained for years of oppression, along with modern weapons gave the Mahars an upper hand in the battle and helped the British win the battle.
This victory is celebrated by Mahars and other Dalits across Maharashtra as it was one of the very few instances where the oppressed fought their oppressors and defeated them. There have been speculations about whether the Mahars actually participated in the battle or if the Mahars should or shouldn’t have joined hands with the British to defeat Indians. Despite varying data and narratives, most historians agree that there had been at least 500 Mahar soldiers who fought the battle. The Mahars like many other subcastes of Dalits were treated often like animals or even worse, at times, by the upper castes. They were made to carry a spittoon on their neck and a broom on their back, so that even their dust shouldn’t pollute the Brahmins. Brahmins would even close their ears to prevent their bodies from being polluted by a Dalit voice.
The battle garnered more limelight when Ambedkar visited the memorial obelisk erected on the spot on 1 st January 1927 and ever since the place has been visited every year by Dalits across Maharashtra to celebrate the valour of their forefathers. The battle is seen as a symbol of Dalit pride. It has become a political and cultural symbol that will be remembered in history.
For all those who claim that even the British were oppressors, well, they left. When is your casteism going to leave?
The battle is as significant as any other battle to any other community. It is significant to the oppressed as it tells the other generations that they can fight back. It is significant to the oppressors as it tells them that they can’t oppress all the time. It doesn’t matter which side who is on as long as it is the oppressor versus the oppressed. For all those who claim that even the British were oppressors, well, they left. When is your casteism going to leave?
The gathering on 1st January 2019 celebrating 200th anniversary of the battle which is celebrated as Shourya Divas (Day of Valour) was headed by Jignesh Mevani and Prakash Ambedkar. A riot broke out during the celebrations and a young man lost his life in the battle. The violence that broke out later lasted for the next two days.
After independence, there have been several political parties started by Dalits, for the Dalits across the nation. There are youngsters who are inspired and are ready to discuss, debate and act on what they believe in. They no longer let others ‘outcast’ them and are ready to face and fight those who do so. Protests have become more prevalent for the right reasons. The youth are open to anti-caste discussions and Jignesh Mevani has become the new face of Indian Politics. He represents the fights that Dalits will have to put up to make their political position stronger and has laid the foundation for the generations to come.
Living in a time when there are mob lynchings, ruthless murders of Dalits for marrying into other castes, the celebration of the Shourya Divas has brought new energy into young Dalit blood. Yes, the times have changed a little. But there is lot more to change. A time when a Dalit scholar like Dr. Vasantha Kandasamy of IIT-M doesn’t have to wait for twenty years for her promotion despite her achievements , a time when people like Pranay can fall in love without having to worry about their castes, a time when people like Akhlaq can eat whatever food they want without fearing death, Shourya Divas must be celebrated. The battle that will be celebrated not only to signify victory in 1818, but also emphasises all the battles that Dalits have fought and will be fighting in the future.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of the article contained the words ‘an aggressive mob’, leaving room for misinterpretation, about whom the onus of the 2010 violence lay on. It has been edited to better reflect the author’s intention – that the initial gathering was indeed a peaceful one, and only turned violent after being attacked by a group carrying saffron flags.
Featured Image Source: News Laundry