Battle of Bhima- Koregaon: 1818
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The battle: January 1, 1818
It was the last battle of the Anglo-Maratha war fought at Koregaon on the banks of Bhima river, hence the name Bhima Koregaon battle, on January 1, 1818 between the British East India Company and the Peshwa faction of the Maratha Confederacy. Peshwa Baji Rao II, defeated in the Battle of Khadki near Pune on 5 November 1817, hotly pursued by the Company forces, turned towards Pune. On his way, he ran into an 800-strong Company force. The Peshwa sent around 2,000 soldiers to attack the Company forces, turned towards Pune. On his way, he ran into an 800-strong Company force. The Peshwa sent around 2,000 soldiers to attack the Company force led by Captain Francis Staunton. The Company troops fought for the whole day, forcing Peshwa's troops to withdrew because they feared Company reinforcements.
A brief history
The Battle of Koregaon (aka Koregaon-Bhima battle, or Bhima-Koregaon battle) was fought between the British East India Company and the Peshwas army at Koregaon Bhima on January 1, 1818.
Legend has it that about 500 Mahar soldiers under the East India Company clashed with a 25,000-strong army of Peshwa Bajirao II.
Mahars, at this point, were considered an Untouchable community, and were not recruited in the army by the Peshwas.
Despite this, as per the Dalit version of the Koregaon-Bhima battle, Mahars approached Peshwa Bajirao II to let them join his army against the British. Their offer was turned down. That is when the Mahars approached the British, who welcomed them into their army.
The Battle of Koregaon ended with the British-led Mahar soldiers defeating the Peshwas. The victory was not just of a battle for the Mahars, but a win against caste-based discrimination and oppression itself.
In 1851, the British erected a memorial pillar at Koregaon-Bhima to honour the soldiers -- mostly Mahars -- who had died in this battle. On January 1, 1927, Bhimrao Ambedkar started the ritual of holding a commemoration at the site of this pillar, one that is repeated every year.
The battle took place at the village of Koregaon (population 960) 16 miles northeast of Pune, where 800 British troops faced 30,000 Marathas on January 1, 1818.
The story of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon on January 1, 1818 has come to be mediated by competing narratives of Dalit assertion against Brahminical oppression, and Indian ‘nationalism’ standing up to the colonial army of the East India Company. Dr B R Ambedkar visited the Jaystambh repeatedly, and said in a speech in Sinnar in 1941 that the Mahars had defeated the Peshwas at Koregaon. Despite British claims of having achieved “one of its proudest triumphs”, the outcome of the battle remains contested, and some Maratha histories have claimed it was the Peshwa army that was, in fact, victorious.
One of the earliest accounts of the battle was published in 1885 in the three-volume The Poona District Gazetteer, edited by James M Campbell, ICS, as part of the series of Gazetteers of the Bombay Presidency. This is what the Gazette recorded.
The battle took place at the village of Koregaon (population 960) 16 miles northeast of Pune, where 800 British troops faced 30,000 Marathas on January 1, 1818. Six months earlier, on June 13, 1817, Peshwa Bajirao II had been forced to cede large swathes of territory to the Company, officially ending the Maratha Confederacy. In November, the Peshwa’s army revolted against the British Resident at Pune, but was defeated in the Battle of Khadki. Pune was placed under Colonel Charles Barton Burr. At the end of December, Burr received intelligence that Bajirao intended to attack Poona, and requested help. The second battalion of the first regiment Bombay Native Infantry of 500 rank and file under Captain Francis Staunton, accompanied by 300 irregular horse and two six-pounder guns manned by 24 European Madras artillerymen, left Sirur for Poona at 8 pm on December 31, 1817. After marching 25 miles, about 10 the following morning, they came across the Bhima river the Peshwa’s army of 25,000 Maratha horse. The Gazette does not mention the caste of Indian soldiers in Staunton’s army, but later accounts say a sizeable number were Mahars.
The MARATHAS recalled a body of 5,000 infantry that had proceeded some distance ahead, the Gazette records. Three parties of 600 each — Arabs, Gosavis and regular infantry — supported by two guns, then besieged the British troops. Cut off from water and food, and after losing one of their artillery guns, some British troops were keen to surrender. However, the six-foot, seven-inch Lieutenant Pattinson led a counterattack to take back the artillery gun from the Peshwa’s Arab soldiers. Fierce fighting followed and, “as night fell”, the Gazette records, “the attack lightened and they (the British) got water. By 9 the firing ceased and the Marathas left”. Of the 834 British troops, 275 were killed, wounded, or missing. The Marathas lost between 500 and 600 killed and wounded. Subsequently, as Maratha strongholds started falling, Bajirao II went on the run, finally surrendering in 1823. The British kept him in Bithur until his death in 1851. His successor, Nanasaheb Peshwa, was the last of the titular heads of the Peshwai system.
Different narratives to the battle
A symbol of Dalit pride?
The battle has come to be seen as a symbol of Dalit pride because a large number of soldiers in the Company force were the Mahar Dalits. Since the Peshwas, who were Brahmins, were seen as oppressors of Dalits, the victory of the Mahar soldiers over the the Peshwa force is seen as Dalit assertion.
Dalit Matangs Fought For Peshwa: Scholar
There is more than one narrative to the legacy of the Koregaon Bhima battle as while Dalit Mahars fought as part of the British force, another Dalit community —Matangs—were represented in the Peshwa army in the politicised clash of arms that took place in 1818, said Abhinav Prakash, an assistant professor in Delhi University.
Prakash, a Dalit scholar, spoke of what he said were distortions and exaggerations in the accounts of the Koregaon Bhima war in the context of claims that the battle signified a caste assertion by Mahars against Brahminical oppression. These were attempts to push a Dalit-Brahmin divide, said Prakash who spoke at a function organised by BJP think tank S P Mukherjee Research Foundation on Saturday.
An agenda-driven account was being peddled, as according to Prakash, the celebrations of Koregaon Bhima were never a British commemoration, but have been projected as a recognition of Dalit valour and courage. “The Mahars fighting for the British against the Peshwas as a fight against caste oppression is a fallacy…another Dalit community, the Matangs, also fought, but in the Peshwa army. So whose narrative is the Dalit narrative?” asked Prakash, questioning the depiction of the battle as a Dalit versus upper caste affair.
“There’s a complete absence of Dalit and tribal history from mainstream history being taught today. The fact is that caste history, though anathema to the right-wing, needs to be highlighted and taught to the people,” said Prakash, adding that a failure to do so may well result in the narratives being appropriated by those who wanted to play on caste divides.
“We can’t deny the reality of caste,” he said, adding that history couldn’t be viewed through rigid orthodoxies. Stating that some of these claims are right-wing, Prakash, who teaches at Sri Ram College of Commerce, argued that they did not represent “real right-wing thinkers” but champions of orthodoxy. Prakash, who was associated with ABVP in his JNU days, describes himself as a right-wing Ambedkarite and has been vocal about appropriation of the Dalit discourse by non-Dalits.
The men who fought in the battle of Koregaon were the Mahars, and the Mahars are Untouchables. Thus, in the first battle and the last battle (1757-1818) it was the Untouchables who fought on the side of the British and helped them to conquer India." It was natural for Ambedkar to feel proud of the Mahar valour when the Mahars were considered nothing more than untouchables destined to do lowly work. Since then, a number of Dalits have commemorated the battle by visiting the memorial obelisk as a symbol of Dalit assertion against the Brahminical Peshwa forces.
The Koregaon Ranstambh (victory pillar) is an obelisk in Bhima-Koregaon village commemorating the British East India Company soldiers who fell in a battle on January 1, 1818, where the British, with just 834 infantrymen — about 500 of them from the Mahar community — and 12 officers defeated the 28,000-strong army of Peshwa Bajirao II. It was one of the last battles of the Third Anglo-Maratha War, which ended the Peshwa domination.
Role of Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar
Ambedkar’s visit to the battle site on January 1, 1927, revitalised the memory of the battle for the Dalit community, making it a rallying point and an assertion of pride. On 1 January 1927, B.R. Ambedkar visited the memorial obelisk erected on the spot which bears the names of the dead including nearly two dozen Mahar soldiers. This is what he said: "Who were these people who joined the army of the East India Company and helped the British to conquer India? ...the people who joined the Army of the East India Company were the Untouchables of India. The men who fought with Clive in the battle of Plassey were the Dusads, and the Dusads are Untouchables.
In 2005, the Bhima-Koregaon Ranstambh Seva Sangh (BKR-S-S) was formed to keep alive the memory of this episode in Indian history and pay homage to those among the Dalit community who fought for their self-respect in that battle.
From mere thousands in earlier years, today lakhs of visitors from across India come to pay homage at the site; there is a particularly massive representation of community members from Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat. One part of the tradition is that several retired officers of the Mahar Regiment come to do homage to this exploit of valour.
In 2018, the Elgaar (battle-cry) Parishad, an event celebrating the bicentenary of the battle irked some right-wing Hindutva and Brahmin organisations, who demanded that the city police prohibit its staging at the Shaniwarwada fort, the erstwhile seat of Peshwa power.
The Dalit–Maratha rift
Relations between the Mahars and the Peshwas, who were Brahmins, grew strained after the death of Baji Rao I in 1740, and reached their nadir during the reign of Bajirao Rao II, who insulted the Mahar community and spurned their offer of service with his army. This caused them to side with the English against the Peshwa’s numerically superior army.
Dalit scholars say Indian history is often recorded from a Brahminical perspective, which has resulted in Bhima-Koregaon and other battles in which Dalits fought, not getting their due. BKR-S-S members, though, point out the dangers of the reductive view of the battle as caste conflict, and cite historical records documenting Mahars fighting in the Maratha army since the times of Shiva-ji, and even fighting alongside the Peshwa’s forces, including in the third battle of Panipat and the battle of Kharda.
Some accounts say that Govind Ganapat Gaikwad, a Mahar, performed the final rites of Sambhaji (Shiva-ji’s son) after he was tortured to death and hacked to pieces on Aurangzeb’s orders in 1689.
What the opponents say
Ambedkar's pride in Bhima Koregaon belonged very much to that age. Ambedkar was a very original and provocative thinker. Some of his views were quite cogent but belonged to those very times. For example, many of his views on Muslims and Christians would be totally unacceptable in today's India. Second, it was not as if the British were kind to the Mahars.
In fact, the British had abolished the Mahar regiment after 1857 uprising. They started preferring upper castes whom they called 'martial races'. The Mahar regiment was restarted only during the Second World War. Third, the Peshwa soldiers who fought against the Company forces including the Mahars at Bhima Koregaon were mostly Arabs. Can those Arab soldiers be seen as fighting to save the Brahaminical regime of the Peshwas? Moreover, a lot of the Mahars too fought alongside the Peshwas. If The ompany forces were pitted against lower-caste Sikhs, would the Mahars have refused to fight against fellow Dalits? There are innumerable incidents when Hindus fought on the side of Muslim forces against Hindus. The naked naga sadhus, who belong to the Shaiva tradition of Hinduism, had fought on the side of Ahmed Shah Abdali in the Third War of Panipat against the Peshwas.