The Dalits who had gathered at Bhima-Koregaon near Pune on January 1 this year had done so to commemorate an English victory over a Maratha army.
The celebration was expectedly dubbed “anti-national” by Hindu groups and one person died in the clashes that followed.
Two hundred years ago, on January 1, 1818, the Marathas and the English had fought the third and the last of the Anglo-Maratha wars. The English won, thereby, consolidating their rule over India.
The Dalits commemorate the English victory because there were a large number of their soldiers in the English Army, and they now believe they were then fighting the oppression of the Peshwa Brahmins.
It was BR Ambedkar who had set that idea afloat when he said the war was an example of Dalit retaliation against upper-caste Hindu oppression.
Dalit scholars have since said that Ambedkar was employing an orator's trick. That the Dalit soldiers were not there to fight caste oppression, but to simply soldier.
They add that just as there were Dalits in the English Army, there were Arabs in the Maratha Army. And ask that if the Dalits were there for reasons of caste, why were the Arabs there? To prolong Hindu rule?
The scholars say Ambedkar knew better than he was saying but had needed the "lie" at the time.
That lie has now become part of Dalit cultural memory.
The Hindu groups want the commemoration of Bhima-Koregaon to be stopped – they say it celebrates the defeat by the English of an “Indian” army – but should they be given their way, they must in turn drop their protest against the movie Padmavat(i).
For the story of Rani Padmini too is nothing but a cultural memory.
Historians tell us Alauddin Khilji, the sultan of Delhi, invaded and sacked Chittor in 1303. He died in 1316.
There is no mention of a Padmini or Padmavati to be found anywhere from that time.
The first time she is heard of is in a book of poetry, the Padmavat, written in 1540 by the Awadhi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi.
Jayasi, like Ambedkar after him, had used a writer's trick.
He had taken a long-ago war, conjured up a fictional character, said she was a legendary beauty, and told the world she was why Khilji had invaded Chittor.
The rest of course is history.
Every Indian child is told the story of the brave and beautiful Rani Padmini of Chittor, who chose death before dishonour (Khilji was on his way) and committed jauhar (mass sati) along with her ladies. And we will brook no deviation from that tale.
Never mind that it is a lie.
The law says (peaceful) commemoration of Bhima-Koregaon and (peaceful) protests against the movie – and the movie itself – should be allowed to go ahead. The Indian constitution allows for all three, since it guarantees freedom of speech. And section 124A of the Indian Penal Code which deals with sedition (anti-nationalism) allows you to say anything, I repeat anything, so long as you do not instigate people to violence.
Finally, no matter how messy the issues themselves might seem – Can one actually allow Indian citizens to celebrate a British victory? – they in truth should not be seen as such.
Sorting out the messes should be left to the historians. Let them fight over the battles, and tell us why they were fought.
But how we view them – with Bhima-Koregaon for example, whether we cheer on that English victory or hang our heads in despair over it – should have no bearing on our citizenship.
For linking how we view history to current citizenship will do nothing but lead to civil war.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL).