Bhima-Koregaon remains a contentious issue between India’s conservatives and the Dalit community. Conservatives have long viewed Dalits as traitors for siding with the British colonizers, but Waghmare explains that Mahars had their reasons to fight against Peshwas who belonged to a high caste. Baji Rao II, governor of the area from 1795 to 1818, reserved special punishments for Dalits. “He removed all soldiers who belonged to the Dalit community from his army and used to humiliate them by tying pots and brooms around their necks. Dalits were oppressed under his regime,” Waghmare says. “The Mahars sided with the British army so as to end his oppression.” It’s important, he adds, to emphasize that in the Indian army, there is still a regiment named after the Mahars: the Mahar Regiment.
A memorial to the 500-odd Mahar soldiers who fought and won against the Peshwa forces, in what proved to be the final Anglo-Maratha War, paving the way for the British Empire in India.
SOURCE GETTY IMAGES
As the clashes a year ago make clear, the 200-year-old wounds from that battle still haven’t healed. In fact, they’ve gotten even deeper. “The victory, or the pillar, wasn’t always this important to the Dalit community,” says Prabodhan Pol, who teaches history at Manipal Academy of Higher Education in Karnataka. It wasn’t until 1927 that the memorial was taken seriously: That was the year B.R. Ambedkar, who led the team that wrote the Indian constitution and is the Dalit community’s most iconic leader, visited to deliver a historic speech. “He pointed to Mahar warriors who had fought against oppression and won,” Pol says. “That was what started a new phase. People started associating it with Mahar pride.”
Things ramped up again in 2005, when a group of young Dalits wanting to connectto history formed a committee to keep the victory’s memory alive. Since then, many Dalits across India have visited the site, with activists estimating that half a million come annually.
But a backlash to the Bhima Koregaon annual celebration by Dalits is also growing, as intolerance toward minorities and a staunch Hindu nationalism have become more mainstream, especially under the current government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In the wake of the violence on Jan. 1, 2018, five Dalit activists and 32 right-wing protesters were arrested and charged with instigating crowd violence. According to Pol, the battle that day was “a preplanned attack by the right wing,” who were smarting from increasing Dalit pride in the region, and the charges against Dalit leaders were trumped up. Meanwhile, the Maharashtra government withdrew charges made that day … against one of the right-wing leaders.
For the 201st anniversary of Bhima Koregaon, Dalits across India have spent weeks gearing up for celebrations. In Bhima Koregaon, history is very much alive.
- Maroosha Muzaffar, OZY Author