“To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was.’ It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.”Walter Benjamin
On 1st January of every year, a large number of people visit Bhima Koregaon, a village in Pune, to pay homage to an obelisk. The monument, that was raised by the British East India Company in honour of the martyred soldiers who fought the Battle of Bhima Koregaon in 1818. It displays the names of forty-nine soldiers killed on the British side. Of those forty-nine, twenty-two names belong to the soldiers of Mahar caste which can be recognized by the suffix ‘nac’ or ‘nak’ used by erstwhile Mahar people.
Built as a symbol of British power, the monument has become a much-needed symbol of Dalit assertion with time. Today, it is part of the living memory for majority of Indians who form the Dalit-Bahujan community.
The story of the Battle
The battle of Bhima Koregaon was a part of the third Anglo Maratha war that started in the year 1817 and concluded in 1819. British East India Company defeating Peshwas, the last stronghold of Indian sub-continent.
After the first and the second Anglo-Maratha wars, the Marathas were organised in a loose confederacy with British residencies established in their capitals. The beginning of the third battle is traced from a conflict between the Peshwa and the Gaikwad in 1817 over revenue distribution, which was intervened by the British.
The British compelled Peshwa Baji Rao II to sign the Treaty of Pune, which meant to give up claims on Gaikwad’s revenues. In process, British also managed to acquire large parts of the Maratha territory. The treaty meant an end of Peshwa’s titular overlordship over other Maratha chiefs.
Peshwas retaliated by burning down the British residency at Pune. In a battle that ensued, Peshwas were defeated in the battle of Khadki (near Pune) on 5th of November 1817. The Peshwas left Pune for Satara and the company forces managed to occupy Pune completely.
After a long chase between Peshwas and the British, the Peshwas turned towards Pune in the late December of 1817, intending to take it back. This culminated into the battle in the village of Koregaon (near Pune), located on the banks of river Bhima (hence the name).
Peshwa army had 20000 cavalries and 8000 infantries. The army consisted of Arabs, Gosains and Marathas. The company, on the other hand called for a troop that comprised of 834 men from nearby Shirur. Of these 834, the British army consisted about 500 soldiers belonging the 1st Regiment of Bombay Native Infantry. Apart from Mahars, the troops had men from Maratha, Rajput, Muslim and Jewish communities.
Under the leadership of Captain Francis Staunton, the company troops managed to defend their post for almost twelve hours and ultimately Peshwa troops withdrew, anticipating the arrival of a larger British force. In the aftermath, the Peshwa surrendered its royal claims and accepted a pension and a residence in Bithoor. Although neither side won a decisive victory, the battle came to be remembered as a triumph for being one of the last battles of the war. Thus, making the battle of Bhima Koregaon to be recognized as one of the decisive battles of company victory over Peshwas.
Much of the significance of the battle comes from the huge gap between the numbers of the warring forces. Today, and even in the past, it forms a perfect David vs Goliath story.
Many scholars question narrative of caste given to the battle, some, even wary of it. However, this was inevitable given the caste atrocities under the Peshwai regime, infamous for forcing people from ‘lower castes’ to tie a broom behind their back and other such atrocities. Details of which are graphically imprinted in the memory of the people.
Shraddha Kumbhojkar, a history professor in Savitribai Phule Pune University, writes that Koregaon is significant because it demolishes the very construct on which the caste system is formed. The obelisk is the reminder of the bravery and strength shown by the so-called untouchables, and of the very virtue that the caste system claimed they lacked (Kumbhojkar, 2012).
When the obelisk was erected in 1851, 33 years after the battle, it was merely a symbol of British victory. Gradually, with the course of history, it has acquired a stronger meaning.
In the early decades of the 20th century, when activist Shivram Janba Kamble started organising meetings for the Mahars, the place started getting used for the meetings. The martyrs, seen as inspiration for carrying on the battle against injustice.
The monument, which had already become significant for Mahars rose in importance with the visit of Babasaheb Ambedkar on 1st of January 1927. This is when the role of the monument shifted from one narrative in the history, i.e., of ‘imperialism’ to another narrative of a battle against ‘internal colonialism’. It shifted from being a symbol commemorating all those fallen in the battle which also included Maratha, Rajput, Muslim and Jewish soldiers to the current connotation of Mahar pride (Sen, 2020).
The obelisk is also significant in the history of the Mahar Regiment. The Mahar Regiment was disbanded in 1892. It was done on the basis of the new martial race theory adopted by the British after the struggle of 1857. The battle of Koregaon and the obelisk standing as its testimony, were used by the early Mahar leaders Gopal Baba Walangkar, Shivram Janba Kamble and even Ramji Ambedkar (father of B.R. Ambedkar), to demand the restoration of Mahar recruitment in the British army. Later, in 1930 Round Table Conference, Ambedkar also reminded the British of these very soldiers who were integral to their victory of Indian subcontinent.
The Historical Debate
This piece of Indian history is an appropriate example of multilayered, multidimensional and subjective history. It also clearly shows how the past responds to the present…how, there comes a point when history blurs lines with myth and becomes a collective memory, as if a lived reality. The battle of Bhima Koregaon is no more a past now, it is the collective memory of Mahars, the Dalit community and is breathing and growing in the present.
One side of the narrative sees the Mahars or anyone fighting for the colonizers as traitors who helped the British acquire India. However, this blame is easily countered by the fact that there were no such notions of nation or nationality in those people. Neither was the Peshwas fighting for India, nor the Indian troops in the British army were against India. They were just soldiers fighting on either sides, for livelihood.
The most serious objection is taken for giving the soldiers, fighting in 1818, a caste consciousness. According to the Dalit Scholar Anand Teltumbde, it is misleading to say that Mahars were fighting against caste oppression in the battle of Koregaon. For him, those soldiers were simply fighting for their respective masters as their duties. It is an error to give the war an anti-caste colour as it defies the historical understanding of caste. As in reality, before the spread of education in the 19th century, even the Dalits saw caste as natural order. In fact, there is no evidence that the victory in the war brought any relief to the status of the Mahar people (Teltumbde, 2018).
While, Teltumbde is against giving the Mahar soldiers a loftier motive, Prof. Saroj Giri takes inspiration from Walter Benjamin to write:
‘We live in the present, but the past, as a mythical luminosity, is constantly swirling around. It might be the memory of a long-lost mythical relating to the world. Such a mythical relating was once upon a time a concrete lived reality, and it is only from the vantage point of a particular notion of the present that it appears and is likewise experienced as distant and fantastic. Deep inside the imaginary of the struggle against injustice, we often find such a concrete fantasy, an inner striving, corporeal and sensory, which is illuminated by the past but is of the present, in the present (Giri, 2021).
Prof. Giri also throws light on use of Sidhnak, the leader of the Mahars in the Battle of Bhima Koregaon, as a mythical hero of the Dalit community. He equates the rise of Sidhnak as a folk hero, like that of Birsa Munda or even Zapata of Latin America. He uses Walter Benjamin to show that what happened in the past, the ‘real motives’ of the Mahar soldiers, which is important for the rational history, is ‘simply not relevant here’. He writes about how the battle has ‘refracted through time and space’ and is in the consciousness of the present, of the current Dalit youth who bridges the distance between present and 1818 by acting today, and by recreating the story of the Battle in the current atmosphere (Giri, 2021).
While Teltumbde warns against mythmaking and reinforcement of the same caste identities the myth wants the crack, Giri sees no harm in it. For him, the story of Sidhnak and the glorious battle fought by Mahars is opening up new path, an alternative to the status quo with keeping the memory of past oppression alive.
India is a country of conflicting histories and narratives. Similarly, the battle of Koregaon has also been subjected to the conflicting memories and narrative of different communities, which also culminated in the conflict of the 2018 Bhima-Koregaon violence. The strength of the memory of Bhima-Koregaon has been beautifully and aptly documented in the 2017 ‘The Battle of Koregaon: An Unending Journey’ where every frame is a sea of people walking towards that monument which is the flame that inspires them to rise above oppression and fight against injustice (Waghamare, 2017). The role played by the monument may be limited in the past; but it appears that its significance is only set to grow.
Giri, S. (2021). Bhima Koregaon and the . Monthly Review, 23.
Kumbhojkar, S. (2012). Contesting Power, Contesting Memories. Economic and Political Weekly, 104.
Sen, D. (2020, May 16). On the History and Memory of the Battle of Koregaon. Retrieved from The Wire: https://thewire.in/history/battle-of-koregaon-memory
Teltumbde, A. (2018, January 2). The Myth of Bhima Koregaon Reinforces the Identities It Seeks to Transcend. Retrieved from The Wire: https://thewire.in/caste/myth-bhima-koregaon-reinforces-identities-seeks-transcend
Waghamare, S. (Director). (2017). The Battle of Koregaon: An Unending Journey [Motion Picture].