Dr B R Ambedkar, the father of India's constitution and the tallest Dalit icon at Bhima Koregaon memorial. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I have been visiting Bhima Koregaon regularly for the last 10 years on  January 1 to pay homage to my ancestors for their valor and bravery. The 200th anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon battle this year brought more than a million people, not only from Maharashtra, but also from other parts of India.

After 200 years, the monument at Bhima Koregaon has transformed into a symbol of social revolution throughout the country.

The Battle of Bhima Koregaon is a historic event in many ways. On January 1, 1818, a disciplined and organized army of 500 defeated the 28,000-strong army of the Peshwas/Brahmins. The 500 disciplined Mahars (now converted to Buddhism) and some other marginalized castes along with the British officer(s) defeated what can be considered the inhuman, draconian casteist rule of the Peshwas.

The Peshwa/Brahmins enacted the caste codes of the Manu Smriti (an ancient text that lays down codes for a version of Hinduism) and the Mahar-Nags were forced to wear earthen pots around their necks and a broom on their back, so that if they spat, they spat in the pot tied around their necks, and their footprints would be swept by the broom. Their touch was labeled as “polluting” by the Brahmins. Even their shadow was considered polluting.

In the history of the world, many battles and revolutions have been fought against slavery. The Haitian Revolution started in 1791 by African slaves resulted in the takeover of Haiti by 1804. African-Americans waged a similar battle for equality, and the rebellion of black slave Nat Turner is a landmark event.

The Bhima Koregaon battle is important because the worst kind of oppressors were defeated. The origin of the Mahars is discussed by Dr B R Ambedkar in a short paper on “Who Were the Mahars?” and historically Mahars were a martial race. They were the brave classes who fought with bravery to defeat the Brahmins. Not only the Mahars, but the major untouchable castes were all martial races.

That was the time when India was divided into small kingdoms ruled by different monarchs. Though there were many kingdoms, the Manu Smriti reduced erstwhile martial classes of untouchables (and former Buddhists) to the lowest rungs of society.

Ambedkar found the origin of the word Mahars and that it came into usage around 1700. Gustav Oppert, a remarkable German Indologist, in his book The Original Inhabitants of India reveals that untouchable castes throughout the country have a common social origin. If we trace their history, it goes back to the history of the conflict between Buddhism and Brahminism. Untouchability is the outcome of the Brahminical hatred toward the Buddhists, which continues even today.

The battle of Bhima Koregaon in 1818 was fought at a time when Dalits were treated as less than humans by the Brahminical Peshwas.  After the battle, the British became the masters of India. Even in the battles of Plassey and Buxor in Bengal, the untouchables of the regions fought side by side with the British East India Company’s army.

Though India was united politically under the British and the untouchables fought with the hope of their rights and their liberation, the British were ungrateful, and they recruited other castes into the military after they won India. They delisted the untouchables. They only started listing them when they realized that untouchables had risen politically through social mobilization. Babasaheb Ambedkar played a role in starting the Mahar regiment again in 1940s.

The present context: January 1, 2018

What was strange this time was the way everything was arranged by the Maharashtra state government run by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). If you were traveling to the memorial from Pune by the Ahmednagar Road, the vehicle was halted 5 kilometers before reaching it. This turned the visit into a laborious walk. Imagine so many mothers and sisters walking with their children for 10km. The mass of people at the Bhima Koregaon memorial probably numbered several hundred thousand.

The privileged “upper” caste Hindus, probably instigated by suspected RSS/BJP members, threw stones at the people coming from this approach. They set vehicles on fire in a bid to scare people away. The crowd remained undeterred and non-violent. Only after this violence was unleashed did the Dalits come out on the streets to protest and deny them their right to celebrate a historic victory.

The context: past and present

The violence perpetrated during the celebration of Bhima Koregaon by the Brahminical Hindutva forces must be placed in the context of the larger contemporary political scene in India. The battle of Bhima Koregaon was decisive for the future evolution of the Bahujan (Dalit) movement for social justice. Otherwise, oppressed Indians would have languished in perpetual social degradation.

When the Marathas (a dominant farming caste) were ruling significant parts of India after the social, political and cultural revolution of Shivaji Maharaj (King), society was not as divided on the basis of caste. The great king never discriminated on the basis of caste and religion. On the contrary, the arrogant Brahmins disrespected him, as is evident from  many historical sources where he is described as the Shudra (lower caste) King.

The term “Marathas,” then, was not the name of a caste, but a linguistic identity. Today, dominant farmers use it to assert their caste pride. The word “Maratha” emerged after the language (Marathi) that the majority of people in the kingdom of Shivaji spoke (present-day Maharashtra, whose name is derived from the Mahars). The Marathas included various castes. The history of the Marathas is connected with that of the Vakatak/Satvahans, who were Buddhist rulers

However, through their political machinations, Brahmins took over the Maratha kingdom and used Manu Smriti to justify their rule. The great Sambhaji, the son of Shivaji, was killed according to the dictates Manu Smriti as he dared to study Sanskrit. It dictates that the Shudras cannot read, write, or hear Sanskrit. When Sambhaji Maharaja was thus killed, it was a Mahar soldier Govind Gaikwad who collected Sambhaji’s mortal remains and gave them an honorable funeral, defying a Mughal diktat. That is the reason the Brahminical forces vandalized Gaikwad’s tomb on December 28 last year.

Had it not been for the victory in the battle of Bhima Koregaon, there would be no Mahatma Phule, the father of India’s social revolution. Famously, his father told Jotiba that had it not been for the victory of the British and the defeat of the Brahmin Peshwas in Pune, he would have been reduced to a plaything of the Brahmins. If Jotiba had not emerged, Bhimba (Dr Ambedkar) would not have emerged, and we Indians would be still ruled by the inhuman Brahminical Peshwas.

The Battle of Bhima Koregaon was a successful contest for the social and political emancipation of the Bahujans, including the Marathas and the other castes. Therefore, the architects of the Bhima Koregaon victory are the founders of the ongoing battle between the 85% Bahujans and 15% Brahmins and Banias. This is a historical trajectory that must be understood in this context.

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Mangesh Dahiwale

Mangesh Dahiwale is the director of Manuski, a Pune-based non-profit.

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