Maharashtra has been tense over the past few days as violence erupted on January 1 in Bhima Koregaon which led to the death of 28-year-old Rahul Phatangale and left four others injured. Following that, Maharashtra police registered against two right wing Hindu leaders for instigating the violence; Milind Ekbote of Hindu Ekta Aghadi and Sambhaji Bhide of Shiv Pratisthan were booked under the Scheduled Castes And Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
Bhima Koregaon is a place where thousands of people gather every year to mark the anniversary of an 1818 war between the British and the Peshwa. This is significant for Dalit leaders as they believe the war was won by the British with the help of Dalit soldiers in the army.
The following are a few stories that better help understand the region, the history and provide context for the current violence and agitation –
1. An Indian Express report provides context for why the battle was important for Dalits. The battle was mainly over territory between the British and the Maratha ruler, Peshwa Baji Rao II.
“Every year on January 1, thousands of people belonging to the Mahar community in Maharashtra gather near the ‘victory pillar’ in Koregaon .The Koregaon memorial is almost a pilgrimage site for the Mahars, a Dalit community, who take tremendous pride in the battle that the pillar celebrates”.
The battle was fought between the British East India Company on one side and the Peshwa faction of the Maratha confederacy on the other. This held significance for Mahars, especially the Dalits because they considered it a victory over their Peshwa authority.
“Their victory over a much stronger Peshwa contingent came to be commemorated over the years as an event of pride for the Mahars. They look back at it as an instance when they were successful in overcoming their untouchable status and defeating the Brahmin Peshwas”.
2. M. Rajivlochan, a professor of History at Panjab University in a column for The Indian Express goes into detail of the battle; one where both sides thought they had lost –
“All the troops, English and Peshwai that fought the Battle of Koregaon retreated from the field fully convinced that they had lost and would lose even more were they to stay put”.
The native soldiers were commanded by Captain Staunton who was based in Shirur, which is situated outside Pune. He led a group of Mahars to a river bank to realize that there were many Peshwai troops on the other side. Attacking, capturing and beheading one of Staunton’s commanders.
“The next year, the English, as sovereigns of the land, set up a cantonment at Koregaon. Four years later, in 1822, they erected a pillar at the site where the Peshwa camped and inscribed it with words to the effect that this pillar was to remind of the unconquerable spirit of the British soldier”.
Decades later, names of the soldiers who died were inscribed and a medal was issued with the word Mahar on it.
3. Anand Teltumbde, a senior professor at Goa Institute of Management in a column for The Wire writes on the fight against Hindutva forces in the context of Bhima Koregaon. The column states that though Dalits benefited from colonial rule, it was not a primary motive and was dictated by their colonial logic –
“There is no dispute that the British colonial rule brought Dalits numerous benefits…it must simultaneously be understood that it was unintended and primarily dictated by their colonial logic. It is unfortunate that Dalits blind themselves to this reality with their identity blinkers”
4. A report in The Hindu provides details on “How a British war memorial became a symbol of Dalit pride” and the reason why some right-wing groups were agitated -
“The Koregaon Ranstambh (victory pillar) is an obelisk in Bhima-Koregaon village commemorating the British East India Company soldiers who fell in a battle on January 1, 1818. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s visit to the site on January 1, 1927, revitalised the memory of the battle for the Dalit community, making it a rallying point and an assertion of pride”. The Bhima-Koregaon Ranstambh Seva Sangh (BKRSS) was formed in 2005 in order to keep alive the memory of the Dalit soldiers in this period of Indian history and pay homage to those who fought. Thousands visit the site especially from Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat.
According to Dalit scholars, a context to keep in mind is that history of Dalits is often recorded from a Brahminical perspective, as the report states; “…has resulted in Bhima-Koregaon and other battles in which Dalits fought, not getting their due”. Some argue though that looking at the battle only through the prism of caste is a reductive one.
5. For the Roundtable India, Nitin Dhaktode a PhD student in Development Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, in a column encapsulates the history of Bhima Koregaon, Mahar Legacy and its impact on contemporary politics.
“The bravery of the Mahars in Maharashtra and India is well known and well recognised by the Ambedkarites. The polarization of Ambedkarites was begun by the BJP to take advantage of 125th Birth Anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar”.
“Bhima Koregaon is a symbol of the confrontation against the hegemony that exploited the marginalized. In the present regime, the kinds of attacks on Dalits that happened made followers of Ambedkar come together to fight against this modern Peshwai”.
The column makes the case for Bahujan politics with Ambedkarite ideology which should be led by well educated members of the marginalized caste and not by the dominant caste.
6. The Indian Express editorial provides context for the violence and the protests by putting it in terms of the current political situation in the state and nationally with respect to the BJP –
“The Dalit mobilization in Maharashtra could unsettle the BJP’s carefully calibrated outreach to the community while attempting to build a consolidated Hindu base. As the party expands its social base, contradictions between the interests of its “core” vote and the new sections it wants to woo and attract, are coming to the fore”.
The BJP’s core base of Hindu nationalism propagated by the RSS and fringe Sangh factions has been met with resistance from the Dalit thinking of pride. The BJP has painted the incidents in Maharashtra as a local issue between Marathas and Dalits; but it does speak to a larger context.
“Koregaon-Bhima appears to have been a trigger for Dalit anger simmering over issues of self-respect and constitutional rights, jobs and livelihoods. It is separate from, but also connected to the student unrest in Hyderabad Central University, the Una flogging of Dalits by gau rakshaks and tensions in Saharanpur”.
The BJP in elevating Ram Nath Kovind as President was an attempt to reach out to the Dalit community.
“The BJP’s overtures to such social groups get periodically ambushed by Sangh Parivar affiliates, who refuse to compromise with core ideological issues for electoral considerations”.
More columns by Varun Sukumar