In the lead-up to the battle of Bhima-Koregaon...

share this article

The present-day unrest around a historical commemoration is a different phenomenon to the event that set it off in the 19th Century, but flows along the same lines of caste and politics that pervade Indian society.

By the time Balaji Baji Rao rose to power in the Maratha empire, the seat of Chhatrapati had been reduced to a sinecure under the British. | Wikipedia

Recent events in Maharashtra following the commemoration of a historic battle on January 1 have perplexed many. The context of the celebrations by Dalit organisations is unknown to most people and, therefore, the violent events that followed in the wake of the commemoration have been misread as ‘needless provocation’.

 

Understanding the historical context of the original battle and the reasons for its commemoration might be one way to develop a holistic understanding of the situation, courtesy Dr. Stewart Gordon’s definitive Marathas 1600-1818.

Maratha rule post-Shivaji

After the death of Chhatrapati Shivaji in 1680, the Maratha kingdom struggled to hold its own against the Mughals. Shivaji’s sons, Sambhaji and Rajaram (both half-brothers) who came to the throne one after the other met with limited success in holding on to the kingdom that Shivaji had fashioned in western Maharashtra. Sambhaji was killed by the Mughals in 1689 and Sambhaji’s son Shahu was a prisoner in the Mughal camps of Malwa for almost eighteen years before his release in 1708. Succession battles between Tarabai, Rajaram’s widow who attempted to foist her son, Shivaji II on the throne after Rajaram’s death in 1700 and Shahu, who wanted to ascend the throne himself, also queered the Maratha pitch. Even though Shahu did ascend the throne in 1708, from 1713 onwards, it was the Peshwa, Balaji Vishwanath who came to hold the reins of power.

Till 1761, when the Maratha defeat at the hands of the Afghan marauder, Ahmad Shah Abdali, in the Third Battle of Panipat tempered Maratha power to an extent, Balaji Vishwanath, a Chitpavan Brahmin by caste and the Peshwas (his son and grandson) who followed him — Bajirao (1720 – 1740) and Balaji Baji Rao (1740 – 1761) — exercised power on the Chattrapati’s behalf. The Chhatrapatis who followed Shahu were reduced to being nominal heads and retired to Satara while the Peshwas held fort at Pune which came to be the real centre of power. The Peshwas were assisted in their military endeavours by various Maratha chiefs — Holkar, Scindia (Shinde), Gaekwad and Bhonsle — who led roving bands of soldiers that aided the Peshwa army.

 

After the 1818 battle, Maratha power, which was anyway on its last legs, was effectively finished. And, ironically, Mahars were involved in its final battle.

 

After the 1761 defeat, Maratha power did recover, at least to the extent that the Marathas were able to hold Delhi for close to two decades from around 1770 to 1790, but the office of the Peshwa became a hugely contested one especially after the death of Madhav Rao in 1773. With multiple claimants from the same family and politically motivated murders of contenders, the Peshwa became a shifty and crafty entity who was forever seeking alliances to strengthen and safeguard his position rather than be a leader of consequence. Nana Phadnavis, a minor official initially and a 1761 veteran, became a figure of such influence post the death of Madhav Rao that the Peshwa, Madhav Rao II committed suicide in 1795, rendered helpless by Phandnavis’s maneuverings. Between 1795 and 1800, when Phadnavis died, the Maratha confederacy almost came apart. Both Scindia and Holkar strove to widen their scope of influence and were no longer beholden to the Peshwa as before. The Peshwas who followed Madhav Rao II were increasingly dependent on someone or other to hold on to their post.

Even as Maratha power waxed and waned over the second half of the eighteenth century, the British were increasingly becoming a force to contend with in the Deccan and southern India. Post the death of Tipu Sultan in 1799, the British established themselves as the paramount power. The Subsidiary Alliance instituted by Lord Wellesley in 1798 offered Indian princely states the protection of the East India Company in return for a tribute. With the Peshwa increasingly dependent on Scindia or Holkar, it was clear that Maratha power was on the wane. In 1802, when the forces of the Peshwa and Scindia were defeated by Holkar, the Peshwa fled to the British territory of Bassein and submitted to the Subsidiary Alliance. Effectively, the Peshwa’s power ceased as a result of this and he became a figure of very limited influence. This state of affairs continued till 1817 when the British attempted to foist yet another treaty on the Peshwa, effectively finishing off even the limited influence that he had.

 

 

This new treaty formally sought to end the Peshwa's titular overlordship over other Maratha chiefs. Stung, the Peshwa put together an army, burnt down the British Residency at Pune in an attempt to assert his importance, but was defeated in the Battle of Khadki near Pune on November 5, 1817. The Peshwa then fled to Satara, and the Company forces took complete control of Pune.

Towards the end of December, the British received news that the Peshwa intended to attack Pune, and asked the Company troops stationed at Shirur for help. The troops dispatched from Shirur then came across the Peshwa forces en route to Pune, resulting in the Battle of Bhima-Koregaon on January 1, 1818.

The Peshwa had the larger force (the numbers are disputed, but were between 20,000 and 25,000). The Company Army was admittedly much smaller (about 900 soldiers, including Mahars, Marathas, Rajputs, Muslims, and Jews), but the battle was decisively won by Company forces. The dead Company soldiers of Indian origin included 22 Mahars, 16 Marathas, 8 Rajputs, 2 Muslims, and 2 Jews. Maratha power (effectively Brahmin power embodied in the Peshwa), which was anyway on its last legs, was now effectively finished. And, ironically, Mahars were involved in its final battle.

Mahar identity

Some historical work connects Mahars to the Nagas in the ancient period and it is believed that they had small kingdoms in the southern part of the sub-continent. Medieval accounts, however, suggest that Mahars were outside the pale of the caste system and consequently stigmatised. The Bhakti movement in Maharashtra attempted to alleviate their conditions somewhat, but with limited success. The verses of Chokhamela (himself a Mahar) talk of his ill-treatment in society. The discrimination continued under the rule of Shivaji and degenerated during Peshwa rule. Peshwa rule exacerbated Mahar ill-treatment to the extent that even punishments in the justice system were made caste-based. It is also reported that Balaji Baji Rao also spurned Mahar offers to serve in the Peshwa army, something that had been the practice under Shivaji.

 

 

The rise of British power saw Mahars being employed by the British in various capacities, including as soldiers in the army. It was no surprise therefore that the battle of Bhima-Koregaon saw Mahars on the British side fighting against the Peshwas. The victory pillar erected at the site of the battle became a symbol of Mahar pride. Subsequently, in the 19th Century, Jyotirao Phule’s work went a long way in restoring a strong sense of identity to Maharashtra’s Dalits, something that continued under Ambedkar.

On January 1, 1927, Ambedkar visited the site along with Mahar soldiers and veterans of the British-Indian army. Since then, functions have been held at the site on a regular basis. 2018 was the 200th anniversary of the battle. The commemorations were organised on a larger scale than previously. It was seen an occasion for solidarity, for regrouping and for Dalit assertion.

The violence that has followed once again highlights the deep-rooted hold of caste on the Indian psyche, something that the dominant narrative seeks to deny in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

share this article
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor