Koregaon Violence – Putting History Under Scrutiny

Koregaon Violence

The onset of the new year has not been happy for Maharashtra. Dalits are boiling with rage all over the state and even outside it, peeved at the fact that a congregation of over 3 lakh Dalits were attacked by other people.

The Dalit community has been celebrating the victory of Koregaon on the 1st of January for many years. In 1818 on the same day, Maratha forces led by Bajirao Peshwa II fought with the British East India forces in Koregaon at the bank of a river named Bheema. The battle remained indecisive and numerically stronger force of Peshwa had made a retreat after a battle of 12 hours. A victory pillar was erected by the British originally as a means of asserting power. However, the members of the Depressed Classes attached it with considerable importance because it commemorated the death of soldiers, several of whom were Mahars (members of a then lower caste community). In their quest to rise politically and socially, they accepted this day as a symbol of victory for the depressed classes. They started celebrating 1st January every year as the victory day of Dalits over Peshwas, who had been held responsible for the plight of the so called untouchable castes. The first day of this year marked the bi centenary anniversary of the battle, and Dalits organized a formal celebration of this event. More than 3 lakh people had reached there to celebrate the event as ‘Shaurya Diwas’. Some people opposed this celebration because they held it indicative of the celebration of the British subordination over Maratha, and those celebrating it were labelled ‘gaddars’ (traitors).

Even though history dubs this battle as a part of the Third Anglo Maratha War, Dalits have avoided the word Maratha to ward off any possibility of a Maratha backlash against them and prefer to view it as a battle between the Peshwas and the untouchables. In fact, the battle was fought between the British and Marathas .

Historically, Pune was the seat of the Peshwa, who was the central figure in the Maratha Confederacy. However, later, the Peshwa had lost his supremacy and was ousted from Pune by the British forces. Bajirao Peshwa II was trying to recapture Pune with a strong force consisting of 28,000 men. They located small forces of the British in Koregaon and a contingent of 2000 jawans was sent to fight British forces consisting of 834 soldiers. The British forces gave a good fight and were determined to hold on to their position. Meanwhile, the Peshwa was informed that General Smith was approaching towards Koregaon with strong armies. The Peshwa retreated from the fight and the battle of Koregaon Bheema came to an end. Naturally, there was no winner of the battle, but after the surrender of Peshwa in June of the same year, the East India Company constructed a victory tower at the place, because the British forces had fought valiantly and did not allow Peshwa to advance towards Pune. Later on the British Victory Tower of Koregaon turned to be Victory Tower for Dalits. This was a result of a misplaced interpretation of history, because the British contingent was not solely made of Dalits, even though they were in good number. The names of 22 of the 49 dead soldiers have been identified as Mahar after analysing their names.

Regardless, Dalits have been celebrating 1st January as their Victory Day over Peshwas for many years, with no one to show clear objection. Hence, it seems a little odd as to why their celebrations were disrupted this year. Some organisations are now objecting to the celebration of this event, citing historical inaccuracy. Opposing elements are calling out the BJP for inciting the forces of Hindutva against Dalits. They may be partially true, but the relationship between Dalits and Marathas has also taken a nosedive in the last two years.

Responsible authorities within Maharashtra must stand up to create a peaceful atmosphere in the society and bridge the widening gap between the two numerically big social groups. Political forces must not be allowed to vitiate the situation further.

-Contributed by Kriti Prasad

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