When Mahars fought on home turf, and helped Britain win

STANDING TALL: The memorial that draws many who celebrate victory over oppression.  

On January 1, 1818, some 500 soldiers of the ‘untouchable’ Mahar community fought a great battle at Bhima-Koregaon village alongside the British against the superior forces of Peshwa Bajirao II. This battle in the third Anglo-Maratha War effectively ended Brahmin ‘Peshwai’ domination and signalled the end of the Maratha empire. Many Dalit activists see the battle, in which their community members fought under the Union Jack, as the turning point in their struggle against oppression.

On January 1, while many in Pune danced to usher in the New Year, thousands of others from a different social class converged at a memorial at Bhima-Koregaon, 30 km away.

The celebrations around the Koregaon ‘Ranstambh’ (victory pillar), organized by the Bhima-Koregaon Ranstambh Seva Sangh (BKRSS), keep the memory of the relatively obscure war alive.

“In the beginning, there were a few thousand visitors. This year, we had more than eight lakh,” notes Sarjerao Waghmare, BKRSS president.

There was massive participation of backward community members from Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat too.

Several retired officers of the Mahar Regiment come to pay homage, says Mr. Waghmare. In the battle, the British were outnumbered: they had 12 officers and 834 troops, of whom the 500 infantrymen were predominantly Mahars.

Satchitananda Kadlak, vice-president, BKRSS, proudly traces the regiment’s night march from Shirur.

“Relations between the Peshwas, who were Brahmins, and the Mahars were strained after Bajirao I died in 1740, and touched the nadir during the reign of Bajirao II, who insulted the Mahar community and rejected their offer to serve in his army,” he says.

Crucial moment

This pushed them to the British side and they fought with extreme courage. When the regiment crossed the shallow Bhima river and pursued the Peshwa’s army, those troops fled.

The English showered praise on the fortitude of the Mahar infantrymen.

“The Mahars were in the mainstream Maratha army since the time of Shivaji’s legendary conquests. People forget that it was a Mahar who collected the mortal remains of King Sambhaji after he was tortured to death on Aurangazeb’s orders. They fought alongside the Peshwa’s forces in crucial battles, including the third battle of Panipat and at Kharda. But history is often recorded from a Brahmin- ical perspective, which tends to obfuscate facts,” contends Mr. Kadlak.

Mahars served the Peshwas prior to Koregaon. However, Bajirao II’s insults alienated them.

Of the 49 soldiers immortalised on the Koregaon pillar, 22 are believed to be Mahars.

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Printable version | May 14, 2021 5:46:12 PM |

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