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Battle of Koregaon : Lessons in Unity

(written by @TrueIndology and @Dimple_Kaul)

It is unfortunate that in the year 2018, India is witnessing caste clashes which, if unchecked, could blow into a major civil war. We are seeing Media and “Youth” politicians like Jignesh Mevani and Rahul Gandhi adding to the conflagration of caste politics.

This is what Rahul Gandhi tweeted:

The current President is a Hindu who comes from the Dalit community and he is the chief executive. He became the President when RSS/BJP are ruling at the Centre. Yet, a PM aspirant tweeted this falsehood.

Also read: Twitter locks account of True Indology as it exposed NDTV’s distorted claims of communal harmony in Jammu and Kashmir

To top it all, our Media that is perpetually on a spree of “Breaking News”, has added fuel to the fire by portraying it as a “Dalit vs Hindu“ issue.

For a really long time, we have been wanting to highlight how History has been, and still is, twisted by vested interests to exploit, existing or imaginary, fault lines within the Indian society. Most of the times, we have found media outlets acting as catalysts. They act as a platform for disseminating atrocity content. One such example of manufactured atrocity porn that was doing the rounds on Social Media came to our notice.

In the last few years, the fifth column has been working hard to foment and hype inter-caste fissures among Hindus. These entities (vested interests) in India, often aided from abroad, keep attempting to exploit internal, existing or imaginary, fault lines of the Indian society. They rely extensively on atrocity content to promote distrust among communities or groups of people. National and Global media and myriad “scholars’ of Indology and “South Asian Studies” have also been found to be acting as conduits.

These forces are determined to inculcate the feeling of victimhood internally among some communities within Hinduism to ensure that unity in the Hindu society does not get fortified. They also try to create groups based on faith and gender.

The Koregoan battle is just one of the many battles fought between the British and the Marathas. But suddenly it is in the news. Why should this battle, hardly an indecipherable footnote of history, be in the news now? Because, the fifth column has been trying hard (without success) to search for one battle in History where Dalits battled Brahmins. There are no such battles. This is the only such event, the facts of which, when twisted provide a good template to write atrocity porn – demonize one community (Brahmins) and inculcate the feeling of victimhood in another (Mahars/Dalits).

As we will show in the article, Koregaon was NOT a battle between Dalits and “Upper Castes”. The British did NOT win in this battle. More importantly, we will show that this “Dalits against non-Dalits” narrative, where only the former are oppressed, and only the latter are oppressors, is the most misleading misconception perpetuated over the years to paint Hinduism as a proponent of segregation.

We are writing this post not only to refute this article, but also as a case study to highlight how you can identify atrocity content. In that way, it is a rebuttal to all those posts that use this set template!

The column begins with complete falsehood.

 The commemoration and celebration of Bhima Koregaon revolves around the defeat of Peshwas by the untouchable soldiers of the colonial army at that time.

The fact is that the battle was between the British and the Peshwas. Fact also is that the Peshwas were NOT defeated in this battle. We have the documentary evidence of James Grant Duff, a soldier and prominent historian of that time, to corroborate the same.

Even if we forget Duff’s written evidence and believe that the British won the battle, how does it become a Dalit victory instead of a British victory? Did the British side have even a single Mahar/Dalit in any prominent position in this battle? Can they name one Dalit lieutenant fighting for British in this battle? The answer is an emphatic NO.

The British did not give any Dalit such position. If Mahar foot soldiers being a part of the British side makes it a Mahar victory, then India has undoubtedly won both the world wars! And why stop at that? A creative mind could also argue that the First War of Indian Independence in 1857 is also a Dalit victory over Brahmins since Mazhabi Dalit Sikhs and Bombay regiment Mahars of British Army defeated the mutiny led by Brahmins such as Mangal Pande, Rani Lakshmi Bai, Tanttya Tope and Peshwa Nana Saheb.

However, since fiction is not our forte, we will stick to facts. And the fact is that it cannot, by any stretch of imagination, be considered a British win. It was a British retreat. Even the British had initially not claimed it as a victory. During the course of Parliamentary debates in March 1819, the British had described their feats at Koregaon as follows

“In the end, they secured not only unmolested retreat, they also carried off their wounded”

If anything, far from a “victory”, the British failed in their mission. The British on January 1, 1818, took their troops from Seroor towards Pune with an intention to invade and conquer the Peshwa capital. They were unexpectedly intercepted by Marathas midway at Koregaon. They were heavily outnumbered. Yes, both the British and their sepoys, (both Dalit and Non Dalit), fought bravely and inflicted casualties on Marathas. But they also had to suffer many casualties and abort their Pune mission to retreat back to Seroor[1].

And how did British show their gratitude to these Dalits who had laid down their lives? They stopped recruiting Mahars in their Army in 1892, citing the reason that “Mahars are not a martial race but low-caste untouchables[2]”.

Further, most of the nomadic and former “untouchable castes” were classified by British as “Criminal Tribes”. All members of castes were declared inherently “criminal” and restrictions were imposed on their movement. All male members of these communities had to report weekly to local police[3]. As Stephen Cohen shows, the British after conquering India simply dismissed “untouchables” as “useless soldiers”. They drew sharp caste lines by recruiting “handsome men from high castes”:

“Why bother to recruit the “dhobi [an untouchable washerman caste battalions,” one series of articles in the Pioneer argued, if they could not be trusted against the formidable Pathans. Untouchables were docile creatures, perhaps suitable for internal guard duty or labor battalions, but otherwise useless as soldiers….. “largest, handsomest, and cleverest looking men were undoubtedly the high castes”

When British stopped recruiting Dalit Mahars in British Army because of their “Aryan” and “Martial race” theories, the Mahars sent a request to British wherein they claimed they were Kshatriyas and requested British to enroll them. It is to be noted that Mahars of British Army were nothing like Jignesh Mevanis of today. Ambedkar’s father was also a Mahar soldier and he was a devout Hindu. He kept reciting the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. It is ironical that the current day “Dalit” Yuva Netas are glorifying the British and their victories.

The column further states,

Acknowledging and remembering this battle – by turning up in such large numbers and assembling at the site – actually runs counter to the normative aspect of the caste system, which does not allow space to a Dalit to act as a militant.

Ancient Hindu scriptures like the Manusmriti have mentioned very clearly that a Dalit, or the lower caste Shudras and the Ati-Shudras, do not have the right to even have this force in their defence. Koregaon remembrance also goes against this very idea of what we call caste normalcy.

It challenges the dominant Hindu-nationalist perspective about Dalits – as a polite, manageable community silently suffering the existing caste hierarchies and caste injustice. By celebrating Koregaon in this manner, Dalits are saying ‘No’. They are saying: “We will celebrate the militancy that is part of our history”. Upper castes have either stifled our histories, or twisted them because they don’t find them suitable for continuing their narrative of Hindu nationalism. To retain their hold on history, they reject the notion of parallel histories.

You cannot miss the atrocity porn 101 in display above. A marked characteristic of atrocity writing is that it unfailingly projects the past into the present. The column, written in the 21st century, uses a made-up victory of an incident involving Mahars in the 19th century , to make the commemoration of an “imaginary” British win, a part of Dalit struggle.

Moreover, the column says that the Hindu society did not allow Dalits to equip themselves (“militarize themselves”)  and carry arms. Interestingly, these claims are nullified by Mahars themselves. According to tradition of the largest section of Mahars, Somavamshi Mahars, their ancestors fought with Pandavas in the Mahabharata war[4].

If they were not allowed to fight or defend, how did this tradition come about?

One could dismiss the tradition as pure legend, but we cannot ignore that Mahars fought in Shivaji’s Army[5]. Or that Shivnak Mahar was gifted the village of Kalambi by Rajaram, Shivaji’s son. Or that Shivnak’s grandson, also named Shivnak Mahar, saved the life of  Pureshwaram Bhau in the battle of Kharda in 1795 against Nizam. In fact, when some people objected to Shivnak Mahar’s presence in the Maratha camp, the Peshwa’s Brahmin advisor Hiroji Patankar told them that in warfare there should be no concern for caste[6]. Nagnak Mahar captured fort of Vairatgad from Muslims and gave it to Rajaram. He was made Patil of Satara[7].

Making these facts public would spoil the narrative that helps fuel riots. No wonder, we have not heard the caste warriors proclaim these documented realities.

Any sane person would be shocked by the felicitation of the “supposed” victory of a Colonial power from another country over natives facilitated by fellow citizens. What makes it sickening is that the British Army consisted of people from various communities and not just the Mahars. Similarly, as noted by British observers like Major Dirom, the Peshwa Infantry consisted of people from low castes. Therefore, even when soldiers from either side were killed, it included Indians from various communities. It also means that the Mahars of the British Army fought against the Dalits of the Peshwa Army.

How does it then become some Mahar against Peshwa battle instead of a British versus Indians battle? The “Mahars” of the British forces also killed Indians (who included Dalits) of the Peshwa Army and this is  celebrated in 21st century India!

Have you found anyone glorifying Shivnak Mahar? You won’t, for, glorifying him takes the wind out of the sails of these forces that want to create caste wars in India.

One may ask as to how did the Mahars end up in the British Army? It is not as if the British ran some training college and recruited candidates from there! There is a long history of Mahars serving in the Maratha Army, for, the Peshwas recruited them in good numbers. Mahars capitalized on this experience in Peshwa’s army, became acquainted with warfare and were able to enlist themselves in British Army[8].

It is to be noted that the Mahars and Peshwas had a cordial relationship. To begin with, Peshwa Madhavrao in c.1770 CE abolished Veth or extraction of forced labor from lower castes/classes. Every kind of service began to be paid in cash[9]. Significantly, Veth in Peshwa domains was abolished 50 years before slavery was abolished in the British Empire.

When Madhavrao was born, Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao had granted 300 hectares of tax free land to “lower caste” communities like Kolis, Ramosis and Mahars. Under these Mahars and other “lower castes”, many Hillmen were posted as guards[10]. Madhavrao’s deed was not without historical precedent. Already during Shivaji’s time, his Brahman commander Mahadaji Nilkanthrao bestowed a naik vatan of Purandar fort to two Mahars. 40 guards were placed under the command of each Mahar[11].

One incident particularly illustrates the social condition of Mahars under Peshwa rule. In 1748, the Mahars of Paudkhor district appealed to the district official as follows:

It was the custom that Vatandai Joshi officiates as the priest at the marriages of us Mahars. In other districts too, a Brähmana is to officiate at the marriages of Mahars. However a dispute over the transaction (denen ghenen) between us and Joshis arose and Joshis stopped officiating at our marriages. This state of affairs has been continuing for some 15 or 20 years. So we beg you to restore the matter as before, taking the custom of other districts into consideration[12].

Basically, a group of Brahmans of Paudkhor district had refused officiating at Mahar marriages owing to some dispute. The Peshwas did not take kindly to this gesture and ordered these Brahmans to officiate at Mahar weddings (ASS 1-74). They even levied a fine of 10 rupees and forced the Brahmans to officiate at Mahar weddings

This does not seem to be an oppressive behavior towards Mahars. It was only after relentless appeals by Brahmans that an enquiry was conducted and the Brahmans were given the option of not officiating at Mahar marriages for this district, although they always had to officiate for Mahars and other Dalits in other districts.

It is to be noted that Mahars enjoyed great prominence in certain rituals. When Panwar Rajputs celebrated Narayan Deo festival, they invited Mahars to partake the first Prasad[13].

In the Shanti festival, it was Mahars who played prominent role. In British India, 20 Mahars wanted to convert to Islam, but turned back on being refused to be admitted into Mosque[14].

One big tendency of the so-called caste warriors is to bracket everyone from the “low caste” as “Dalits” and create an illusion of a Dalit against non-Dalits society, where only the non-Dalits “oppressed” Dalits. Nothing can be farther from truth. Many authors have documented how caste behavior was practiced even within the so called “low castes”. One Dalit sub-caste ill-treating the other (considered lower in social order), was largely prevalent and no amount of white-washing can falsify this fact.

It is to be noted how the Mahars themselves ill-treated the Mangs (whom the Mahars considered lower to them). To begin with, Mahars did not accept food from the castes such as Mang and Bhangi, whom the Mahars considered to be polluted[15].

When a Mang bridegroom rode a horse as against a bull, the Mahars made an official complaint against them. According to Mahars, only their grooms had the right to ride the horses and not those of Mangs . Mahars sent appeals to Peshwa urging him to prohibit Mang grooms from riding horses and stay content with riding bulls[16].

Horse was a status symbol and Mahars felt only they and not the Mang were entitled to this privilege. Mahar superiority over fellow Dalit Mangs had nothing to do with Varna or Smriti. No Smriti says Mahars had any privilege over their fellow Dalit Mangs. In support to their appeal, the Mahars did not refer to any Smriti but pointed to an existing state of things and existing relative tribal order of their society. As Mahars enjoyed cordial relations with Peshwa, their request was accepted and Mang grooms were forbidden to mount horses.

Is it any surprise, then, that Mang considered Mahars as their arch enemies and delighted in decapitated the heads of Mahars? The Gazetteer observes, “The proudest moment of a Mang’s life is said to be when he hangs a Mahar”[17]. By contrast, both the Mahar and Mang employed Brahmans wherever available. What was common to Mahars and Mangs was they  respected the Brahmans and followed Hindu traditions. It was a Hindu festival named Shanti dedicated to Mother Goddess which made Mahars and Mangs as well as Dalits and non Dalits put aside their differences and celebrate the festival together, acting as a unifier.

Looking at caste with colonial glasses makes one overlook the more obvious aspect of Tribalism. In fact, it was British who solidified tribal caste boundaries. Yes, the British initially recruited Mahars because in early decades of 19th century they were not in any position to choose. As we have seen, the British stopped Mahar recruitment by 1892 and preferred “handsome high caste men” in army. Introduction of postal services dealt a blow to traditional jobs of Mahars as “messengers”. Thus like many other low castes, Mahars had to migrate to urban centres of British India. In this environment, they became low paid labourers in their traditional professions. The recruitment to menial jobs were done on basis of caste and caste divisions were reinforced like never before.

In colonial hospitals and medical colleges, many of the north Indian funerary specialists known as Doms were employed as mortuary attendants and dissecting-room assistants. In textile production too, mill hands were often from the groups which had come to be identified as ‘impure’ or unclean[18].

Far from the fluid, open-ended labour and tenancy relationships in rural environments of Peshwa’s Maharashtra, the Dalits became subject to caste conventions like never before in towns of British India [19].

Colonial British officials like Alexander Robertson depicted the preceding Peshwa age as the one when Dalits had to lead a horrible life with no opportunities. They justified the colonial rule by depicting the British as liberator of “depressed classes”. However, the reality is strikingly different. Far from the days of Peshwa Madhavrao when Mahars could have large vatans, contemporary British manuals on house management instructed British housewives to recruit domestic servants of “correct” caste origin.

In early colonial period, forests were felled and “tribal” people were disarmed/subordinated. Ploughing this land brought the pastoralist tribes against the tillers. British industries led to stagnation of traditional artisans. British modernization and introduction of roads, railways and ports created demand for cheap labour. The British maintained large cantonments, larger than anything done by previous polities. They needed a large number of manual scavenging labour as well as cheap labour for their tea plantations. The British recruited them from groups like Mahar, Bhangi and Chamar, whom they invariably referred to as “sweeper classes”. Caste notions of purity and pollution were increasingly invoked to serve the new demand.

Thus, we agree with Indologist Susan Bayly when she says that untouchability as we know it is largely a product of British colonialism

Untouchability as we now know it is thus very largely a product of colonial modernity, taking shape against a background of new economic opportunities including recruitment to the mills, docks and Public Works Departments, and to the labour corps which supported both the British and sepoy regiments[20].

Instead of making Manu the villain and attributing every blame to his Smriti, perhaps we need to wake up and read all the texts that are painted as fountainhead of discrimination. Caste discrimination existed and exists even now in our society. This is an undeniable fact and we should all work towards eliminating it. Instead of attributing all the blame of discrimination on one Smriti and one community, we should ask how much of our inherent tribalism was responsible. We should also ask whether by blaming one community we are only rekindling the same tribalism and furthering Caste animosities.

This is what we need to be aware of, and rise against. Please make sure that this is your year of awareness. Do not allow vested interests to divide the great tradition of Sanatan. Explore. Find out for yourself if what they are demonizing is indeed wicked or simply a stick for them to beat and divide us with. Arise, awake, and stop not till the goal is reached.

We stand with Dalits in general and Mahars in particular. We are proud of their martial history and wish to remind them of their Mahabharata tradition. We caution them against forces who are bent on destroying the social fabric of our society.

We leave you with these lines from the Kathopnishad:

उत्तिष्ठत जाग्रत प्राप्य वरान्निबोधत,
क्षुरासन्न धारा निशिता दुरत्यद्दुर्गम पथ: तत् कवयो वदन्ति|

Arise! Awake! Approach the great and learn.
Like the sharp edge of a razor is that path,
so the wise say−hard to tread and difficult to cross.

References :

[1] Sharaddha Kumbhojkar, Politics, Caste and remembrance of the Raj pp.40

[2] Revival of Buddhism in Modern India Page 81

[3] Bates, Crispin (1995). “Race, Caste and Tribe in Central India: the early origins of Indian anthropometry”. In Robb, Peter. The Concept of Race in South Asia. Delhi: Oxford University Press. p. 227.

[4] The Tribes And Castes Of The Central Provinces Of India Vol IV pp 132.133

[5] Jadunath Sarkar, Shivaji and his Times, P.363

[6] KV Kotawale, politics of the Dalits. 1974 pp 142-145

[7] V.Longer, Forefront for Ever: The History of the Mahar Regiment p.12

[8] Christophe Jaffrelot,  Dr Ambedkar and Untouchability: Analysing and Fighting Caste p.19

[9] GS Sardesai, New History of the Marathas: The expansion of the Maratha power, 1707-1772 p.346


[11] Ibid P.70

[12] Ibid P.73

[13] The Tribes And Castes Of The Central Provinces Of India Vol IV pp 131

[14] Ibid P.139

[15] Gazetteer of the Bombay presidency 1885 pp.440

[16] 1776. SSRPD VI-816

[17] Gazetteer of the Bombay presidency 1885 pp.443

[18] Susan Bayly, Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age pp.226

[19] Ibid pp.226

[20] Ibid pp.226

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