The violence took place when Dalits were returning after gathering for an annual event to commemorate the 200th year of the battle of Bhima Koregaon. Photograph:( Zee News Network )
The New Year couldn’t have begun on a worse note than what we came across on the very first day of 2018. As the rest of the nation was indulging in a food and dance binge wishing even strangers with the cheers of “Happy New Year”, villagers from Koregaon Bhima, Pabal, and Shikrapur in Pune district of Maharashtra were pelting stones to hit the skulls of those with whom they might be living in harmony since generations. As the maelstrom subsided, one person had died and 25 vehicles were torched in clashes that broke out between villagers on 1st January over a celebration of a 200-yrs old “victory” of Mahars over Peshwa Bajirao II's Army on January 1, 1818.
The ripples of the incident travelled far and wide across Maharashtra with many incidences of violence in Nagpur, Aurangabad and Mumbai on 3rd January in a day-long state-wide shutdown called by various Dalit parties on Wednesday.
The question is what led to the violence?
It all started with Koregaon-Bhima, a small village in Pune district, where many members of Dalit communities gathered on January 1st on the dawn of the new year to commemorate the 200th-anniversary celebrations of a small Anglo-Maratha War fought on January 1, 1818, which some traditions claim that the British won. However, the war, otherwise fit for the footnotes of history, is important because it is flaunted as the victory of the ‘Mahars’ over the upper caste Marathas. Hence, the incident fits perfectly in the jigsaw of ‘Dalits vs Upper Castes’ narrative and finds instant takers by some opinion leaders.
A careful digging of history on this war may take you to the Poona District Gazetteer, which was compiled by an ICS officer James Campbell as part of the Bombay Presidency Gazetteers. The Gazetteer, mentions that as a part of the Third Anglo-Maratha War, a battle had taken place at the village of Koregaon, 16 miles northeast of Pune, where 834 British troops faced 28,000 Marathas on January 1, 1818. It would be interesting to delve a little deeper into it in order to debunk the various insinuations originating around it.
As per the official record, the British troop comprised of the second battalion of the first regiment Bombay Native Infantry of 500 soldiers led by Captain Francis Staunton who was assisted by 300 auxiliary horsemen and two six-pounder guns manned by 24 European and 4 Native Madras artillerymen. The troops marched from Sirur to Poona at 8 pm on December 31, 1817 and reached the Bhima River next morning to face the Peshwa’s army of 25,000 Maratha horses.
However, Peshwa Bajirav-II sent only three small infantry units comprising 300-600 men each from the Arabs, Gosavis and native fighters, which under the support of the cannon and rocket fires, crossed the river from three sides and besieged the British troops in Koregaon village cutting off their food and water supplies.” Devastated by hunger and thirst, the British thought of surrendering but held on to their position.
However, “as night fell”, the Gazette mentions, “the attack lightened and they (the British) got water.” By 9 PM the firing ceased and the Marathas left, fearing the rumor of arrival of a larger troop of General Smith, while Capt Staunton marched back to Sirur the next morning with his army carrying his near-death experience. The British record mentions that out of 834 British soldiers, 275 were killed, while the Maratha casualty was around 500 to 600. The above account is also mentioned by James Grant Duff in his book, ‘History of Marathas.’
The East India Company, however, strongly praised the bravery of its soldiers and erected an obelisk in 1822 at Koregaon to serve as a ‘victory tower’ for one of the “proudest triumphs of the British Army” in India.
The Gazetteer doesn’t mention a Maratha defeat, nor does it mention a British Victory. Secondly, the Gazetteer doesn’t mention the caste composition of the British army. Some later descriptions mention that the British army consisted mainly of Mahars, although historical accounts revealed by Vasant Moon (Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Writing and Speeches Ed. 2003) that the British army under Capt Staunton consisted of native Parwaris, Marathas, Rajputs, Muslims and Jews, apart from Mahars. The inscription on the Koregaon obliske mentions the names of the 49 dead Indian soldiers of the British army and as per V. Longer in his History of the Mahar Regiment (1981), 22 were Mahars or Parwaris, 16 were Marathas, 8 were Rajputs, two were Muslims, and one or two were probably Indian Jews.
So, let’s summarise our lessons. First, no matter what the tradition says, it’s a historical fact that neither side achieved a decisive victory in the battle. Second, it was not a battle between the Mahars at one side and the Marathas at the other, as both armies were a strategic potpourri of castes, races, religions and nationalities. Whereas the Marathas formed a part of the British army, some Mahars also fought from the Maratha side, as the Mahars had historically been a part of the Maratha armies.
To quote R.K. Kshirsagar (Dalit Movement of India and Its Leaders: 1857-1956), Mahar warriors and leaders always played prominent roles during Shivaji, Rajaram and various Peshwa rulers. He mentions that Nagnak Mahar was prominent in the reign of Rajaram so was Shivnak Mahar, who was gifted the village of Kalambi by Rajaram, Rainak Mahar fought Raigarh and Shidnak Mahar saved the life of Peshwa general Parshuram Patwardhan during the Battle of Kharda in 1795. Third, the memorial at Koregaon has nothing to do with the glorification of the Mahars or has got least to do with the claimed “victory” of Mahars over the Marathas.
Hence, the “Them Vs Us” narrative at Bhima-Koregaon is nothing but a mischievous spin-off of the Dalit identity movements of the first half of the 20th century, when Dalit leaders, especially Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, started visiting the Victory Tower of Koregaon from 1927 and propounded the theory in 1941 that the Mahars defeated the Marathas in the battle of Bhima-Koregaon. Thus, he appropriated a pure British legacy as a Mahar symbol and used the Victory Tower to give muscle and credence to his brand of identity politics.
The same brand of identity politics, i.e. demonisation of the Brahmins and the Upper Castes and presenting themselves as a victim of Brahmin atrocities, has been sequestrated by the contemporary Dalit leaders and leftist academicians who succeeded in marketing it well on the global forum.
The narrative of atrocities has never been put to a rigorous academic scrutiny, which would reveal that caste atrocity is coterminous with caste hierarchy where any caste higher in the hierarchy than the others tends to oppress and exploit the latter. Even Mahars considered fellow Dalits, like Mang and Bhangis as inferior and polluted and didn’t accept food from them till late. Further, as far the exploitation goes, they didn’t allow a Mang caste groom to ride a horse during the Peshwa period and forced them to ride oxen during marriages.
Several studies point that many Dalit castes are rivals and communal tensions among them are frequent. A study by Prem K. Shinde found more than 900 Dalit sub-castes throughout India, with internal divisions, who compete among themselves for higher status and, claiming relative higher gotra status, refuse to dine and intermarry with lower gotras.
Although the Khateek (butchers) are generally viewed as a higher caste than Bhangis, the latter refuses to offer cleaning services to Khateeks, believing that their profession renders them unclean. They also consider the Balai, Dhobi, Dholi and Mogya as unclean and do not associate with them. A Dalit Sikh claims a superior status over the Hindu Raigars, Chamars and Ravidasis and refuses to intermarry with them.
Sociologists like M.N. Srinivas have showed that atrocities on Dalits are often more committed by the intermediate castes, like Vanniyar in the South and the land-owning Yadavas in the north. However, a “Brahman Vs Dalit” narrative sells well in the west that ensures flow of huge money from western Churches, donors and Foundations.
Jignesh Mewani, Prakash Ambedkar, Kanhaiya Kumar and Chandrashekhar (Bheem Army), apart from many others, are some of the few claimants of that coveted narrative and its resultant benefits. Thus, with competing enthusiasm, such Dalit leaders have blamed the RSS for the violence against Dalits in Bhima-Koregaon. Rahul Gandhi has also remarked that RSS’s vision is to keep Dalits on the bottom of society.
The “Brahman Vs Dalit” narrative is not complete unless the fountainhead of Hindu unity and consciousness - the RSS - is dragged into the debate and run down as an anti-Dalit and pro-poor outfit. That’s why there has been a conscious, deliberate and persistent attempt by the leftist and Dalit ideologues to denigrate the RSS and, through selective research and sponsored publications, besmirch its pro-Dalit credentials.
Although this write-up is not about RSS or its activities, it’s pertinent to mention that no organisation has done as much for the upliftment of the Dalits and eradication of the caste-system in rural India as the RSS has done. There are volumes of research and publication available to support how the top leadership from Golwarkar to Deoras to Mohan Bhagavat, have not only maintained it as an official policy but ensured that it translates into ground action.
Incidentally, defragmentation of Hindus and ending all forms of caste discrimination in the hinterlands of India has been fundamental to the RSS ideological core, i.e. Hindu unity. However, partially due to inability of the RSS to effectively dispel the canard by positive campaigning about its actions on the ground level and partly also because of the historical suppression of Pro-RSS research and publications in the left-dominated academia, the “anti-Dalit RSS” narrative has become the mainstream intellectual discourse, which is as mindlessly consumed by the masses as a fast-food delicacy.
This doesn’t, however, absolve ‘Shivjagar Pratisthan’ President Sambhaji Bhide Guruji and ‘Hindu Janjagruti Samiti’ President Milind Ekbote from their culpability in inciting the villagers around Bhima-Koregaon to attack the people participating in the January 1st commemoration.
The state government must deal the Hindu Ekta Manch goons with iron hands and RSS must intervene to reign in the two leaders, who are undoing many things that the RSS has been doing. Although much detail is not available on the exact sequence of action in Koregaon violence, but the acts of the followers of Sambhaji Bhide and Govind Ekbote are surprising as none of the two leaders have displayed any anti-Dalit approach in the past. Rather, many Dalits form the core of their respective outfits. Yet, the onus is on the state government to unravel the plot and punish the wrongdoers.
However, various media reports point to the dubious role of Jignesh and Umar Khalid who made provocative speeches suggesting an open rebellion against the democratic process with a call to hit the streets. Such anti-democratic provocations appear to be the part of a larger conspiracy to defame and destabilise the elected governments. They create division among Hindus so that those surviving on identity politics could take advantage of it in 2019. The seeds of this divide-India conspiracy are being sprinkled since long, but the same sprouted during the Gujarat election and, with active incubation provided by the Congress, is fast taking roots all across India.
There appears to be a well-orchestrated attempt to spread disharmony and create disaffection in society using few local freelancers of chaos like Jignesh Mewani, Hardik Patel, Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khaled, who have already showed their intent with slogans like “Bharat ki Barbaadi tak jung rahegi jung rahegi”.
The jung has begun and the Gujarat model is spreading its reach. Now, the onus is on the government to unravel the conspiracy and defeat these merchants of disintegration.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL).