For the past two days, Maharashtra has witnessed violence surrounding a historic location where an epic-worthy war was fought. This battle is a matter of pride for the Dalit community of India.
There were several wars fought over the course of history for power, authority and other reasons. But the war in Koregaon was fought for self-respect and emancipation of the Dalits — the sole intention was to be seen as a fellow human being. It was fought against the Peshwas, who saw the Dalits as below human and not worthy of any humane treatment. Koregaon is a reminder of the ability of the Dalits to rebel against oppression.
Since 200 Years
Every year on January 1, the Koregaon stupa at the edge of the Bhima river adjoining Pune witnesses Dalits from across India coming to pay their respects to the monument and the battle it symbolises. The monument commemorates the war fought by the Mahar soldiers against the Peshwas, and is being observed for the past 200 years. So, this procession against oppression, atrocity and violation of dignity did not originate today.
Dr B R Ambedkar on 1st January 1922, spoke to the people assembled at Koregaon about the need to remember and commemorate the battle that was fought not with the intention to conquer territory but to win the basic human dignity. He spoke of the need to remember Koregaon as long as there is an inkling of oppression. His spirit of Dalit upheaval is running till today.
On the 1st of January 1818, on the banks of River Bhima in Koregaon, 750 Mahar soldiers stood and fought against 28,000 Peshwa soldiers. It was publicised as a fight between British and Peshwa soldiers, but the majority of the soldiers that fought on that day were Mahars. Moreover, the fact that a mere 750 soldiers stood, fought and won against an army of 28,000 is a historic occasion.
Battle for Self-Respect
One cannot forget that the war was fought for the pride and self-respect of the Dalit soldiers. The belief that the only way to emancipation was to win a battle that was heavily tipped against them was a major driving force to win that battle.
During the time of Shivaji, Mahars were recruited as soldiers, but the Peshwas who had come to power after him began to oppressively implement the Manu dharma. Inhuman laws and rules were implemented. Untouchables were not allowed to enter the village, especially during dawn and dusk as their shadows would fall on the houses of the villagers. They were only allowed into the village at noon and under very urgent circumstances.
They had to tie a broom behind them so that they themselves remove their footprints. Spitting in the village was prohibited. If they had to spit, it was in bowls tied to their necks. If an untouchable passed a gym, his head was severed and used as a toy. This was how the Peshwas used their power.
The Mahars being under these horrid attacks from the Peshwas did not let go of an opportunity to join the British side. They no longer feared for their lives as martyrdom would have been better than life under the Peshwas. Victory was imminent even though they were outnumbered. At this juncture, it is important to recount the words of Virginia’s Civil Rights leader Patrick Henry: If we must be free, we must fight. It’s either freedom or martyrdom.
This was the same way that the Mahars broke out of the chains of the caste system and prepared themselves for martyrdom. They stood, fought and won. This is the story of Koregaon.
On Tuesday, the banks of the Bhima river, lakhs of people — from infants to the elderly — had waited for hours to pay their respect to the Koregaon stupa, which is a symbol of struggle and oppression. The members of the Dalit community were in a peaceful procession, showing display of unity.
On the other side of the river, towards the north in Vadhu Bhadruka village, members of the upper caste saffron brigade brandishing saffron flags, iron rods and stones had begun to attack the procession of the Dalits. The startled members of a peaceful procession were severely attacked.
Vehicles that stood still amid the confusion were set on fire. Upper caste members of the neighbouring Sansavadi and Sikhapur villages joined in. Three people were severely hurt in the rioting and Rahul Pathangale succumbed to his injuries in hospital. Residents and members of the procession are of the opinion that the attacks were premeditated with planned brutality.
On 29th of December 2017, the grave site of a martyred Dalit was desecrated in Vadhu Bhadruka as a part of the plan to intercept the Dalit procession. It can be seen that the plans for Bhima Koregaon march for the past three months have made the upper castes restless. The fact that the Bhima Koregaon movement is viewed with pride by the Dalits and considered a victory became an eyesore and this made them perpetrate the horrific attack on unarmed men, women and children.
Inspiration for Dalits
On 1st January 2018, when the Dalit procession was attacked in Koregaon, some intellectuals raised a few questions. On one side, they condemned the attacks and on the other, they questioned the necessity to bring forth a 200-year-old war epic. Hundreds of years of atrocities, inhumane treatment, inequality, humiliation and slavery had left the downtrodden population hopeless. When a section is continuously and relentlessly suppressed and humiliated, a few silver linings like the battle of Koregaon give these people hope to move forward and fight in the spirit of democratic values and to be a part of the fraternity.
After 70 years of independence, we continue to celebrate the auspicious day with enthusiasm and immense participation. If remembering the Koregaon battle is wrong, then one must view the celebration of India’s independence the same way.
(The author is Chairman, Centre for Dalit Studies)