Protests by Dalit groups broke out across the state of Maharashtra in January. Photo courtesy of Kanchan Srivastava

A battle fought between the English East India Company and Indians 200 years ago in the western state of Maharashtra has come back to haunt modern-day India.

Huge protests erupted across Mumbai, Thane, Pune, Manmad, Aurangabad and several other major cities of Maharashtra on January 2 following clashes between the so-called “lower” and “upper” caste groups on Monday (Jan 1), which left one dead and at least five others injured during an event to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregoan.

Large parts of Mumbai have been shut down today and other parts of the state are on high alert as a precautionary measure to contain the violence.

India’s caste-ridden faultlines surface periodically as the oppressed “lower” castes, treated as “untouchables” by the privileged “upper” castes who have traditionally denied them their basic human rights.

On January 1, 1818, a battalion of about 900 Company soldiers, led by Captain FF Staunton, on a march from Seroor to Pune, battled a 25,000-strong army led by the Peshwa, an upper caste Brahmin, at the village of Koregaon on the banks of the river Bhima. While the battle has been viewed as a conflict between Indians and the British, the oppressed castes, known as ‘Dalits’, view it very differently.

The English battalion drew its soldiers from the ‘Mahar’ caste, who were treated as a “lower” and “untouchable” caste for centuries. The Mahars joined the military as a means of breaking through traditional caste barriers. The battle that day, saw the Mahars score a “victory” over a numerically superior army, led by the upper caste Brahmins and Marathas. Dr BR Ambedkar, known as the “father” of India’s Constitution was a Mahar and his father had served the British Indian Army as a Viceroy’s Commissioned Officer.

Caste violence erupts

On Tuesday, Dalit protesters hands jammed rail lines and highways in and around Mumbai while shops were forced to shut down. Public buses were also burnt as the violence spread across the state. Alarmed by the spreading unrest, the BJP government of chief minister Devendra Fadnavis suspended state bus services to several cities. He has promised a judicial and CID probe into the violence. The police took to Twitter and urged people to maintain peace and not react to “rumors”.

Rahul Fatangale, 28, was killed – hit in the head by a rock – and five others injured in the violence that erupted on Monday, as Dalits were gathering on the banks of the Bhima river to commemorate the “victory”. Around 40 vehicles, including a police van and two-wheelers, were torched. The situation was tense till Tuesday evening in Pune as scores of protesters jammed the roads.

Dalit leaders see this as an assertion of their identity as well as a rejection of generations of oppression. For centuries Dalits have been forced to live outside villages, drink filthy water, not wear clothes and treated as “untouchables”. Upper-caste men were known to rape Dalit women routinely, while murders were commonplace for minor aberrations. “People are angry and not ready to go home unless the perpetrators of the violence are arrested,” Keshav Waghmare, a Dalit writer from Pune told Asia Times.

“Atrocities against the Dalits across India in the last couple of years and the government’s attempt to curtail scholarships for us and the consolidation of Maratha and upper-caste communities against Dalits have already hurt the community,” Sanjay Vairal, a Dalit student leader from Mumbai told Asia Times. “The Bhima Koregaon violence, in which a Dalit boy was killed, has become a flashpoint.”

Political commentator and professor at Mumbai university Surendra Jondhale echoed Vairal’s sentiments. “There is a huge social and political mobilization of Dalits across India against the BJP government at the Center and various states. It all started with the Una incident in Gujarat where upper castes flogged Dalits. Several other incidents have helped to consolidate their anger, which has come out in the form of protests in Maharashtra.”

Many right-wing groups, dominated by privileged upper-caste people in Pune opposed the commemoration of the battle. They labeled it as a celebration of a “British victory” over Indians. However, Dalits ignored them and attended the celebration, marking it as the “200th anniversary of their victory”. According to a police official, an incident on December 30 in Vadhu Budruk village triggered the clashes. “A few upper-caste Marathas from the village had vandalized tombs of Govind Gaikwad and Sambhaji Maharaj, son of Maratha king Shivaji. Vadhu Budruk is barely three kilometers from Bhima Koregaon where Dalits were gathering from all across India.

Gaikwad, a Dalit, had performed the last rites for Sambhaji after he was killed by Aurangzeb in 1689. The Mughals had warned the Marathas that they would kill anyone who came forward to perform the last rites of their dead prince. As the Marathas kept away, Gaikwad defied the order. He was killed by the British, but Gaikwad emerged as a symbol of Dalit pride and courage for centuries.

Today, the village has tombs of both Sambhaji and Gaikwad – and both were vandalized, a police official told Asia Times.

A historic ‘caste’ battle

According to available historical records, about 900 soldiers from the East India Company’s Bombay Native Infantry regiment led by Captain Staunton waded across the Bhima river and defeated the Peshwa’s 25,000 soldiers on New Year’s Day in 1818. The number of Mahars in the battle could be inflated, some academics say.

In 1851, the British erected a memorial pillar at Bhima Koregaon, with the names of those who died in the battle. Most are Mahar soldiers killed in battle that day. “Our history books cite different numbers. The number of Dalit soldiers could be more and the Peshwa army could be smaller than what is being cited. We must also keep in mind that the Peshwa’s army also had its complement of Dalit soldiers. So, one view is that the battle of Bhima Koregaon was not just the Mahars versus the Brahmin Peshwas. It was a battle between two armies – the East India Company versus the Maratha empire,” Jondhale said.

But Jondhale also pointed out that despite various interpretations, the English-led Mahars fought against impossible odds that day. The Peshwas were forced to cede control of the Maratha Empire to the East India Company. This reinforced the foundation for British rule in western India.

“The memorial got prominence when Dr Ambedkar led a commemoration here on January 1, 1927.” Ambedkar has been largely credited since then with the ‘pilgrimage of Dalits’ to Koregaon, Jondhale said. Years later, Ambedkar referred to the battle in his monograph “The Untouchables and the Pax Britannica” to support his argument that the untouchables had been instrumental in establishing and consolidating British power in India.

There is no clarity on the victory, however. A research paper by the scholar Shraddha Kumbhojkar, a Professor of History at Pune University, in the Economic and Political Weekly states: “In the words of Grant Duff, who was a contemporary official and historian, neither side won a decisive victory, but despite heavy casualties, Captain Staunton’s troops managed to recover their guns and carry their wounded officers and men back to Seroor.”

While details of the battle remain elusive, it is symbolic of a powerful assertion of Dalit pride, sharpened by India’s current populist right-wing identity politics.

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