Pune: Two centuries ago, on January 1, 1818, a few hundred Mahar soldiers fighting as part of the British Indian army defeated over 20,000 Peshwa soldiers in the battle of Bhima Koregaon near Pune in Maharashtra. To commemorate this victory, thousands of Dalits, Muslims, Christians and Bahujans will gather at Shaniwar Wada here on December 31, and then march toward Bhima Koregaon, 40 km from Pune, the next day. However, many right-wing organisations have opposed this celebration, calling it ‘anti-national’ and casteist.
Jignesh Mewani, the newly-elected MLA in Gujarat who is also a Dalit, the late Rohith Vemula’s mother, Radhika Vemula and JNU student leader Umar Khalid are among those who will address the crowd comprising over 200 organisations across the state at Shaniwar Wada. The organisations include Kabir Kala Manch, Sambhaji Brigade, Muslim Mulnivasi Sangh, Rashtra Seva Dal and so on.
Jyoti Jagtap, a member of the Bhima Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerna Abhiyan, said, “We have received permission from the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) to hold the programme and the Shaniwar Wada police has also given its nod for organising it. The commemoration is a call to all Indians to rise against the rising Peshwai, meaning the forces that are promoting hatred and violence on the lines of castes. We have seen the lynching of Muslims and Dalits over allegedly carrying beef. Rohith Vemula committed suicide… The battle is not against anybody but against a particular ideology.”
She further added, “The march has already begun from Yeola, Nashik, where Dr Ambedkar announced his decision to convert to Buddhism. Activists will travel through the nine districts of Maharashtra and would reach Pune on December 31.”
The Bhima Koregaon battle
Sudhir Dhawale, a Dalit activist, explained the history of the battle. “In 1818, the first regiment of the second battalion of the British empire consisted of the Bombay Native Infantry with 500 soldiers, the 17 Poona Horse and the Madras Cannon. The Bombay Native Infantry had 500 soldiers who were mostly Mahar (Scheduled Castes), Maratha and Christians and other Bahujans. And 17 Poona Horse had 250 soldiers on horse and there were 25 soldiers with the Madras Cannon.”
“They, under the leadership of Strontan, a British Army officer, fought against the Peshwas, who were heading the Maratha empire, having over 20,000 horsemen and 8,000 soldiers. By 9 pm on January 1 on that year, these 600 soldiers of the British Army killed 600 soldiers of the Peshwa forces. The remaining Peshwa soldiers then ran away. Over 200 soldiers from the British side including 22 Mahar, 16 Maratha, eight Rajput and two Muslims and two Christians also died.”
He added, “Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar visited the war memorial built at Koregaon on the banks of Bhima river on January 1, 1918, and since then, Dalits and all other Bahujans have started to celebrate this day. The Mahars fought with the British against the Peshwas but that was not an anti-national act. The Peshwas were the oppressors of the lowers castes like Dalits. Despite Dalits serving and wining battles for the Peshwas earlier, they had to sleep and eat differently – away from other soldiers. Common Dalits had to tie a broom behind them when they entered the city limits so that the broom would clean the area that had allegedly been polluted due to them having walked there. However, the British offered equality to the Dalits to a great extent. Unlike the Peshwas, they offered the Dalits jobs with good salaries and education. Dalits were exploited so badly by the Peshwas that they felt that the British were better than them and hence they fought for the British.”
“So the victory and battle is significant for Dalits or all Bahujans as that was the victory over caste-based oppression against the Peshwa. And now this march to commemorate 200 years of the Bhima Koregaon battle is against the rising Peshwai, that means the BJP rule backed by right-wing organisations in Maharashtra that has allowing right-wing groups to create an environment against lower castes and Dalits.”
Right-wing groups oppose
Several right-wing groups like the Akhil Bhartiya Brahman Mahasabha, Rashtriya Ekatmata Rashtra Abhiyan, Hindu Aghadi and also the descendants of the Peshwas have, however, opposed the celebration, calling it anti-national and casteist. They say that such an event can create differences between castes.
Anand Dave, the president of Akhil Bhartiya Brahman Mahasabha, said, “We need to understand that the British in their effort to gain control of India had started to wage wars against kings in all states including Maharashtra. They fought against the Peshwas who were heading thr Maratha state to win the Maratha empire. The British Army had people from all castes including Mahar, Maratha and even Brahmins. And the Peshwa army too had people from all castes including Maratha and Mahar. This was a war was between the British and Indian rulers and not between Mahar and Peshwa as is being told. So what are they celebrating? Victory of British over the Marathas?”
He further added, “Through this, a few organisations are trying to defame the Peshwas, calling them oppressors of Dalits and lower castes. They have intentionally organised a programme at Shaniwar Wada that was the palace of the Peshwa. We are disappointed that the BJP government gave permission to hold this programme at Shaniwar Wada. We have given a letter to the police commissioner of Pune saying that at least make sure that organisers would not talk against a particular caste to avoid further tensions in the society”.
Uday Singh Peshwa, a descendant of the Peshwas, expressed his disappointment with the authorities for giving permission for the event. Uday, who is against holding the programme, lamented the fact that nobody from Pune is protesting against it and he cannot do anything alone.
Meanwhile Mukta Tilak, the mayor of Pune, has said that the PMC has given permission to a cultural programme but if the organisers are converting it into a political one by inviting political figures like Mewani, then the PMC would rethink the permission granted .
Varsha Torgalkar is an independent journalist based in Pune.