Bhima Koregaon in Pune, Maharashtra, the seat of unrest now , is a tiny village, but is associated with an extraordinary phase of Maratha history. Two hundred years ago, on January 1, 1818, a few hundred Mahar soldiers of the East India Company, led by the British, defeated the massive Peshwa army , led by Peshwa Bajirao II, in Koregaon. This battle has, since, attained legendary stature in Dalit history. Ambedkarite Dalits do not see this from the narrow lens of nationalism versus imperialism. Over the years, as the battle came to be seen as a victory of the Mahars against the injustices perpetuated by the Brahminical Peshwas, thousands of Ambedkarites have been gathering in Bhima Koregaon on January 1 to pay their respect at the Vijay Sthamb (victory pillar). The pillar was erected by the East India Company in memory of those who fought the battle and includes the names of the Mahar soldiers who unknowingly brought an end to the Peshwa rule in 1818.
The past and the present
Dalits are unanimous in drawing inspiration from the victory. In recent years, particularly in Maharashtra, since the Bhima-Koregaon Ranstambh Seva Sangh (BKRSS) was formed, Dalits regard the pillar as a site of positive memory of their valour and a symbol of their renewed political aspiration. Their denunciation of the Peshwas is strategic; it helps them relate to their social and political marginalisation in contemporary times. The debate here, however, is whether such invoking of history is effective in hoisting Dalit politics to a new level.
What happened on the day of the battle’s 200th anniversary which led to the death of one? Prakash Ambedkar, the grandson of B.R. Ambedkar and a prominent Dalit leader from Maharashtra, has said that a few Hindutva organisations planned and perpetuated violence against the Dalits in Bhima Koregaon. He has named Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, prominent Maharashtrian leaders who have been actively promoting organisations that advance the cause of Hindutva, as being responsible for bringing the State to a halt. These organisations have been polarising the political landscape on religious and caste lines, particularly against Ambedkarite Dalits who are seen as impediments to their political project.
A recent, and crucial, illustration of this was at Wadhu Budruk, a village not far from Bhima Koregaon. Vadhu Budruk is where Sambhaji, the eldest son of the Maratha ruler Shivaji, was cremated after being killed by the Mughals in 1689. As the legend goes, Sambhaji’s body was mutilated and thrown into a river by Aurangzeb. It was Govind Mahar (Gaikwad), a Dalit resident of Vadhu Budruk, who then gathered the body parts together and made arrangements for the last rites. Sambhaji’s memorial was said to have been erected by the Mahars of that village. Consequently, Govind Mahar’s tomb was also erected in the village after his death.
A planned attack
A few days ago, upper caste Marathas, who refuse to acknowledge the role played by Govind Gaikwad and other Mahars in the last rites of Sambhaji, objected to a sign at the site that recounted the story. Complaints were filed with the police by both sides. In Maharashtra, there has been a consistent effort to situate Maratha history within the anti-Muslim Hindutva framework — in fact, this even predates the rise of the political right-wing in the State. Maratha youth, who are facing unemployment and a lack of educational opportunities, are now being easily pulled into these conflicts by Hindutva organisations that are consequently built by invoking past Maratha glory. The violent clashes in Bhima Koregaon were an extension of the conflict in Wadhu Budruk. All indications are that this was a pre-planned attack.
Being the 200th anniversary, that gathering in Bhima Koregaon this year was much larger than usual. Many Dalit and Bahujan groups collectively organised a big public conference in the name of Elgar Parishad at Shaniwar Wada, which was the seat of the Peshwas until 1818. The agenda of this conference was evidently against Hindutva politics which was powerfully manifested by projecting Hindutva politics as the neo-peshwai (new Peshwas). Jignesh Mevani and Prakash Ambedkar were invited.
The conspicuous politicisation of Dalits against Hindutva, particularly after the Una violence in Gujarat, has been a cause of concern for those who propagate the latter. The Elgar Parishad helped consolidate their apprehensions against the politicised Dalits. The new political articulation of the Dalits (by equating Hindutva with the Peshwai) has annoyed the right-wing forces and exposed the fault lines we are seeing today.
Prabodhan Pol teaches history at Ramjas College, University of Delhi