The commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the victory of the British forces against the Peshwa army at Bhima-Koregaon and the subsequent untoward incidents have generated much heat not only in Maharashtra but all over the country. Political activists and research scholars belonging to rival ideologies have been defending their point of view while interpreting the two centuries old battle in relation to the present context.
The controversial victory pillar commemorating British victory against the Peshwas in the battle of January 1, 1818, is located at Bhima-Koregaon on the banks of Bhima river on the borders of Pune and Ahmednagar districts. It is also known as Mahar victory pillar. That is because many of the martyred soldiers whose names are inscribed on the pillar are Mahars. Thousands of Dalits visit this pillar every year on January 1. It is said that Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar also visited this pillar many times.
The forces of British East India Company had captured Shaniwarwada, the seat of the Peshwa rule in Pune, on October 17, 1717. The East India Company had unfurled the British Union Jack at the historic palace. Later, British forces fought a fierce battle with the Peshwa army at Bhima-Koregaon on January 1, 1818. The Bombay Native Light Infantry Second Battalion was chosen to fight the battle. Most of the soldiers in the battalion were Mahars. It is argued that because of the animosity of the Mahars against the Peshwa, this battalion was selected to fight the battle. This view has been contested by some.
The Peshwa army, which had nearly 30,000 soldiers, had at that time decided to corner the British forces. The British forces, having around 800 soldiers, nonetheless, fought the battle fiercely, forcing the Peshwa army to retreat.
In his periodical ‘Bahishkrut Bharat’, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar has expressed the anger of untouchables towards Peshwas in following words. “The untouchables are loyal to the British and believe that the British rule means fair and just rule. During the Peshwa rule, untouchables were forced to wear a black thread to distinguish them from others and carry a pointed broom tied to their waist to clean the road of dust, and many atrocities were committed on them. Untouchables, who were fed up with the humiliating treatment meted out to them, sought refuge under the British rule.”
But can the act of the Mahars fighting against their own countrymen and siding with the foreign forces be termed as ‘anti-national’? In this regard, it is pointed out that the Peshwa army too had joined hands with the British forces to defeat Mysore’s Tipu Sultan. There are many similar instances of that era.
Some Dalit scholars and activists too, have opined that it would be unfair to attribute caste motives in the Bhima-Koregaon battle. The battle has to be viewed in the light of the prevailing situation then. The views expressed by Dr Ambedkar should serve as a guiding principle in this regard.
“The Mahars fought against the Peshwas for the British because they were given the worst treatment in society. Our ancestors, i.e. the Mahars, were forced to fight against their fellow countrymen (Peshwas) and this is not a matter of pride. But this was the outcome of the social situation prevailing at that time,” Dr Ambedkar has said.