Why Were Dalits Celebrating A ‘British Victory’ & Who Were Behind The Violence That Brought Maharashtra To Halt?

Pooja Chaudhuri

January 3rd, 2018

Image Credit: Mumbai MirrorHindustan Times

Dalit protesters called off the bandh in Maharashtra after a morning of road, metro and rail blocking, and vandalism, including in parts of Mumbai, Nagpur and Baramati. Section 144 of CrPC was imposed in some areas and internet suspended to plug rumours from adding more fuel to the fire.

The third day of protests saw shops being closed, students’ exams being postponed and routes being diverted. The agitation had reached the capital too.







This was a continuance of Monday’s agitation in Bhima Koregaon village, about 40 km from Pune, that claimed the life of one person. Lakhs of people were going to the village to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon when an altercation between two unidentified groups near the memorial of the British-era battle sparked caste-based violence.


What was the Bhima Koregaon Battle?

The Battle of Koregaon was the last Anglo-Maratha war fought on January 1, 1818, between the British East India Company and the Peshwa. It took place in Koregaon on the banks of the Bhima river hence, the name ‘Bhima Koregaon Battle’

Though there is contention on the number of soldiers who fought on each side, it is said that 800-something Mahar Dalits in the Company troops stopped 2,000 soldiers of Peshwa Baji Rao II from attacking Pune.

Historical documents suggest that neither of the two sides won, however, the battle is said to be a decisive win for the Company.


Were Dalits celebrating a British victory?

Every year, Mahar Dalits visit the memorial pillar of the battle at the village of Bhima Koregaon. The pillar was constructed in 1851 by the British and has inscribed on it the names of those who died in the battle. Most of the names are of Mahar soldiers.

Historically, the Mahars were considered ‘untouchables’ but they were recruited with ‘upper-castes’ regularly for military or administrative roles. Maratha King Shivaji often recruited them in his army in the 17th century. By the nature of their work, they were situated with the upper castes. But their societal position changed under the Peshwa rule.

The community was subject to even more oppression when Baji Rao II took over. They were ill-treated by the ruling Brahmins and were disallowed from serving in the military. It is said that the Peshwa would tie brooms behind the backs of Mahar Dalits to sweep up the dust of their footprints. Pots would be tied to their necks to collect their spittle. Amidst such rampant oppression, the British still recruited them in their army.

More than a victory for the Company, the Battle of Koregaon has great significance for Dalits after BR Ambedkar painted it as a matter of pride for them. The Battle wasn’t one where the Mahar helped the British establish power over the Peshwa but it was one where they made their oppressed voices heard – so said the Dalit hero, creating a myth to bring together Dalits. Although this has adverse repercussions and is a misrepresentation of history, the atrocities faced by Dalits at the hands of the Peshwa are no secret. The Peshwa practised the worst forms of casteism and social exclusion. The Koregaon Battle is seen as a protest against this caste-based discrimination. Every year, Mahar Dalits come together on January 1 to celebrate their own ‘win’.  

To term the celebration of the battle’s anniversary ‘anti-national’, as did some Hindutva factions, is like calling the Indian soldiers who fought in the British Army in World Wars I and II, ‘anti-national’.


Who were the main instigators of Monday’s violence?

On Tuesday, a criminal case was filed against two pro-Hindutva leaders, Milind Ekbote of Samast Hindu Aghadi, and Sambhaji Bhide of Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan, under charges of instigating Monday’s violence that took the life of a 30-year-old.

The two had the same reason as other Hindutva outfits for protesting against the event – it was a celebration of ‘British victory’.

The duo is yet to be arrested, which comes as a no surprise considering their deep links with the RSS and the Prime Minister himself.

Ahead of the 2014 General Elections, PM Modi had ‘especially’ paid a visit to Bhide and said that he did not visit ‘Guruji’ on his request but on his order.


PM Modi with Sambhaji Bhide ahead of the 2014 General elections | Image Credit: @aaptimist_

85-year-old Bhide also enjoys a cozy relationship with Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis who sought his blessings before the elections in 2014. The incumbent CM of one of the largest states in the country had stopped his helicopter convoy to meet with ‘Guruji’ and discuss an ‘imperative political matter’.

In a video, PM Modi refers to ‘Guruji’ Bhide as his ‘inspiration’ and says, ‘Main Bhide Guruji ke aadesh ka palan na karu, ye sambhav kaise hai? (How is it possible that I do not follow the instructions of Bhide Guruji?)’

Bhima Koregaon violence isn’t the first instance of Bhide instigating caste-based violence. In 2008, he was surrounded with controversies when his followers thrashed movie halls for playing Jodha Akhbar. He is an ardent devotee of Chatrapati Shivaji and his speeches often stink of hatred for the minority community.

Like his companion, Ekbote too is known for propagating casteism. The 56-year-old comes from an RSS family, has 12 cases of rioting, trespassing, criminal intimidation and spreading enmity between communities. As per a report by Mumbai Mirror, he was convicted in five of these cases. His followers are known to carry illegal acts of cow vigilantism. Despite this, he ironically condemned the Bhima Koregaon violence, as did the RSS.

Two men with criminal pasts brought to halt a state and achieved what they desired – to force the nation to debate whether a battle that happened 200 years ago was ‘anti-national’ on part of Dalits or not. So much for ‘nationalism’.

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