Two million men, women, children and elderly gathered on January 1, 2018, in Pune to honour those who had bravely fought certain death at the hands of a massive army in the battle of Koregaon, fought 200 years ago on January 1, 1818. A single regiment armed with their muskets had then overwhelmed all odds.
That was all it took to invite hate and retaliation from right-wing activists, who pelted stones, destroyed vehicles, harmed women and children, leading to injuries to many and even to the death of a 28-year-old Dalit.
Prior to this attack, a memorial of a Mahar soldier, Ganpat Gaikwad, who is credited to have brought back the mortal remains of Sambhaji from Aurangzeb’s jail cell against his imperial order, was desecrated. This incident points to the premeditation and intention to cause unrest during a peaceful procession that only honoured the long dead for their courage.
Battle of Honour
Koregaon’s monument honours the fallen soldiers of the British army that included Mahars, as they won a battle that was near impossible to win. About 500 soldiers of the Second regiment, First Battalion led by a British Captain, FF Staunton, held their ground against the Maratha army led by the Peshwas, which had 20,000 horsemen and 8,000 infantry. Thousands of cavalrymen and infantry stormed Koregaon by the Bhima river but the big attack was thwarted. The British Army considered it their biggest victory in the east.
Many see honouring a memorial constructed by the British to celebrate a battle that was won against an Indian king as anti-national and unpatriotic. But it is important for the downtrodden community in India — the Dalits — to remember and honour the forces that successfully fought against an oppressive king because the regiment comprised Mahar soldiers.
It is not just about a victory against an opposing army. Apart from being a battle fought with great pride and fortitude, it was also an absolute representation of rebellion against the caste system and the oppressive laws framed under the Manusmriti.
Moreover, the commemoration of the Koregaon march had only begun after Dr BR Ambedkar had honoured the British war memorial on January 1, 1927. He did so not because it was British, but because it symbolised the Mahars’ victory as well. Moreover, they fought not just as British soldiers.
Pride of Place
The Bombay Gazetteer of 1818 describes the battle with a sense of pride but with little or no mention of the courage of Mahar soldiers. However, historians have documented several members of the British army speaking highly of the Mahar regiments. In fact, the Mahars’ fortitude, loyalty and honesty are captured richly in British literature.
It is also worth noting that Chhatrapati Shivaji, who fought against the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb to protect the Hindu kingdom, had a Mahar regiment that he greatly valued and held in high regard. The regiment fought countless battles for Shivaji.
During Shivaji’s rule, Mahars received respect and acceptability. It is recorded that the Mahar soldiers ate and slept in the same tents as the rest of the army. The fact that they belonged to an untouchable community did not come in the way.
Behind Switching Sides
After the death of Sambhaji, the Peshwas, who were officers in the Maratha kingdom, took over and being Brahmins, they brought back the Hindu law and age-old rules of Manusmriti. The Mahar regiment was discarded.
Humiliating and inhuman rules were also imposed on them and any violation led to severe punishment. This alienated the Mahar soldiers, for whom death became an easier option.
Moreover, the untouchable castes were not allowed to enter villages, 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, under urgent circumstances.
They had to tie a broom behind them so that their footprints would be removed. Spitting in villages was prohibited, and 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 for playing.
When the British army started to recruit locals, Mahars were not ignored. They readily joined the British to not only escape the atrocities of the Peshwa rule but to regain their lost self-respect and the sense of being treated as a fellow human being. Even though the Mahar regiment was disbanded by the British in 1893, it was seen as a means to appease the upper castes.
Incidentally, famed sepoy Mangal Pandey, who was immortalised for his role in the First War of Independence in 1857, is not faulted for serving in the British army. The Mahar regiment, however, is considered anti-national and unpatriotic!
In today’s India, untouchability is an offence. The Dalits are protected by the Constitution of India and special legislations that make sure that the atrocities committed on them do not go unpunished.
But even after such legislative and constitutional backing, there is still widespread oppression, which is not limited just to the rural parts of India but also to universities and workplaces.
The suicide of Rohith Vemula in the University of Hyderabad, the tying up of four Dalit youths and their parading for the ‘offence’ of consuming beef in Una and the Rajput attack in Saharanpur point to the continuing unacceptability and hatred for the Dalit community.
Listen to Koregaon
While we have made advances in many spheres, we are lacking on the social front. Casteism continues to rear its ugly head every now and then and Dalits and Backward Classes, who must be treated as equal citizens, continue to be ill-treated as children of lesser gods.
In the light of the growing atrocities and oppression, it was imperative for the Dalit community to gather at this historic location as a show of unity and in a spirit of fraternity. The planned attack only shows the deep sense of inequality as well as hatred for the Dalits. Social change doesn’t even seem to have papered over deep cracks in our society.
As long as there is such perpetrated inequality, oppression and atrocities, there will continue to be a need to commemorate and take inspiration from the Battle of Koregaon.
(The author is Chairman, Centre for Dalit Studies)