The logical fallacy of celebrating ‘Dalit victory’ at Battle of Koregaon

“History is written by the victor and not the vanquished”

The victor adds colour to the history that suits his or her reasoning and the way he or she wants to set the narrative. The way this coloured history is told or taught to the current generation has its own ramifications. Ramifications in how the generation perceives and propagates the narrative to future generation.

A community with a history of persecution and imposed social disability is bound to hold grudge towards the oppressor. In a socially diverse country like India, it becomes more pivotal to form the narrative carefully, but more important than that, truthfully.

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Recently, to commemorate the “Watershed moment for Dalit community in their struggle against caste prejudices”, newly elected Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani along with JNU student and alleged separatist Umar Khalid attended the bicentenary of the Bhima-Koregaon battle of January 1, 1818.

For the uninitiated, the battle was fought between British East India Company and Peshwa Baji Rao II. It is celebrated as a “Dalit victory” because East India Company had Mahar (a Dalit caste) soldiers while Baji Rao II was a Brahmin.

It comes as little surprise that these casteist leaders are using a 200 years old battle to reignite caste debate which will garner votes for them, however it raises few eyebrows when acclaimed commentators on social media and in the mainstream media also paint Battle of Koregaon as a “Dalit victory over upper caste oppressors”.

These commentators have significant following and considerable influence on their audiences. Hence it becomes imperative to dissect and separate fact from fiction. Sample this or this in the mainstream media or the tweets below, which I value more:

Some of the claims like “Dalits were ordered to tie a broom round their backs so that their footprints can be swept” are argued to be having no documentary evidence:

However, that is is secondary issue, and also, one can not deny the atrocities Dalits in general were subjected to and are still made to suffer in some parts of India. It is not in scope neither in interest of this article to dissect documentary evidence in history books.

This article tries to bring your attention to a glaring logical fallacy that some commentators assume while Battle of Koregaon as a “Dalit victory over upper caste oppressors” because British army had Dalit soldiers and Peshwa was a Brahmin.

It is too simplistic, naive, and even sinister.

There is certain ideology even in a war. A soldier is not fighting to douse his personal grudge. A soldier fights under a flag. That’s the basis of war conventions and that is why there is certain dignity accorded to war prisoners.

The soldier is neither your enemy nor your criminal. He merely represents a flag. The soldier didn’t kill your people. The flag, the country did. Apologies, if this sounds like Gurmehar Kaur, but in fact it’s exactly the opposite. Pakistan, indeed, killed her father and not the war neither the Pakistani soldier. There is no logic to assume that Mahar soldiers were not fighting for a flag but a personal battle.

But even if, for argument’s sake, we assume that a soldier is fighting his personal battle, this has to apply on both sides. For example, in light of the above argument, if I am to assume that the Mahar soldier was actually fighting caste oppression and not merely following British orders as he was bound to by being employed in a British infantry, I have to apply the same corollary to the other side too. The Mahar was not fighting the Peshwas or the Maratha flag. He was fighting against an individual, a foot soldier, a Maratha soldier who was in all probability an Arab (Muslim), as described herehere and here.

How is it then a battle against caste oppression? In fact, it could be said that it was a Dalit vs Muslim battle, not between two Hindu castes.

From the book ‘Rise and Progress of the British Power in India’ by Peter Auber

In fact, not only that the Peshwa army that fought in Koregaon contained majority of Arabs (Muslims), even the British East India Regiment of Bombay Native Infantry was not a Mahar exclusive regiment. There is no British document substantiating that the Bombay Native Infantry was a Mahar exclusive or Mahar dominated regiment. One of the demand of Ambedkar in 1932 was to induct more soldiers from Mahar community and that’s how Mahar Regiment came into force in 1942.

The obelisk (stone pillar), which a commemorative construction post the ‘victory’ and seen today as a ‘Dalit monument’ by some, named Captain Staunton and praised the British Army in general when it was made, and not Dalits or any foot soldier for that matter. This fact is recorded in this gazette by the British:

Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency

The message on the obelisk (stone pillar)

So it was always a war for the British. The portrayal of the battle as a “Mahar/Dalit victory” is a later development; a result of Dalit activism and celebration of ‘alternative history’.

If you see the battle as a defeat of Peshwa army of the Maratha Confederacy, the victor has to be a flag and not a caste or a person, which is the British East India Company.

All I am saying is, you can’t be selective in picking up belligerents of a war. While on one side, you pick the flag, the other side can’t be a foot soldier. It has to be a flag as well. Or if you pick foot soldiers, apply the same to the other side. So it was, either British vs Peshwas or Mahar vs Arabs. It can’t be Mahar vs Peshwas. Take your pick.

Footnotes:

  1. Mahars served Marathas as well:

    From the book ‘Dalit Movement in India and Its Leaders, 1857-1956’ by Rāmacandra Kshīrasāgara
  2. As is claimed generally, the war didn’t result in any decisive victory for either side:

    From the book ‘Peshwa Bajirao II and The Downfall of The Maratha Power’ by S. G. Vaidya
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