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Bhima Koregaon: India at crossroads

A K Biswas

The countrymen saw the fangs of Brahmanical obscurantism while the dalits in tens of thousands gathered this year at Koregaon to celebrate the bi-centenary of victory in battle fought on the banks of the river Bhima in Poona district of Maharashtra, on January 1, 1818 resulting in conclusive defeat and eclipse of the Peshwa rule. Akhil Bharatiya Brahman Mahasangh and Udaysinh Pashwe, a descendant of Peshwas asked the Pune Police to ‘deny permission for the event’ to the organizers. The Pune Nagar Hindu Parisad, Shivaji Pratishthan and Samasta Hindu Aghadi, (All Hindu Front) joined the Brahman Mahasangh in denunciation of the bi-centenary celebrations as “unconstitutional and anti-national.”[1] The Brahmanical forces are an ominous threat to Indian democracy.

Research scholar Ardythe Basham of University of British Columbia observed in her doctoral thesis (1985) that a small force of “500 men under the command of Captain F. F. Staunton fought without rest or respite, food or water continuously for twelve hours against a large force of 20,000 Horse and 8,000 Infantry of Peshwa Baji Rao II”. Battle of Koregaon, according to her, became a part of folklore, serving as an example of “Mahar Dalit valour.” A significant portion of the British Army’s 21st Regiment of the Bombay Native Infantry, which fought at Koregaon had Mahar soldiers. “The names of the 21 Mahars who died in the battle were inscribed on the war memorial. The battle was a turning point in the third Anglo-Maratha war, and established the British firmly on Indian soil.”[2] The mere fact that Mahars, who were butt of Peshwa hatred and revulsion were mainstay of their decisive defeat by the East India Company riles them deeply even 200 years down the line. This sums up the essence of the Bhima Koregaon battle.

Reviewing the history of British conquest of India, Dr. Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar stated that the battle of Plassey which laid the foundation of their Empire in 1757, the Dusadhs, an untouchable caste of Bihar fought under the command of Robert Clive and the Mahars of Maharashtra against the Peshwas in Koregaon.[3] The battle in Koregaon brought down curtain on the Peshwa rule. Prolific writer and military historian General S K Sinha in an illuminating article wrote that Robert Clive had visited Patna prior to the battle of Plassey and recruited 1500 Dusadhs for the army of East India Company. [4]

Gross treason of untouchables?
“There are many,” observed Dr. Ambedkar, “who look upon the conduct of the untouchables in joining the British as an act of gross treason.”[5] The Akhil Bharatiya Brahman Mahasangh, the descendant of Peshwas and their co-travellers articulated the same aversion against untouchables who fought for the British in conquering India. Ambedkar added that not only did the untouchables enabled the British to conquer India, they enabled the British to retain it. The mutiny in 1857 was an attempt to destroy British rule in India. So far as the army was concerned, the mutiny was headed by the Bengal Army---bereft a single Bengali---comprising upcountry men. The Bombay Army and the Madras Army remained loyal to the Company and it was with their help that the mutiny was suppressed. The Mahars were the native elements of the Bombay Army whereas the Pariahs were the native muscles in Madras Army. Both were untouchables.[6] Dr. Ambedkar justified the conduct of the untouchable castes who joined the Armies of the British that conquered, subjugated and retained hold over India. “Treason or no treason, this act of the untouchables was quite natural. History abounds with illustrations showing how one section of people in a country have shown sympathy with an invader, in the hope that the newcomer will release them from the oppression of their countrymen.” [7]

As rulers the Peshwas were tyrannical and prejudicial against the untouchables. Should the bi-centenary celebrations of victory in Koregaon battle, resulting in the eclipse of Peshwa rule, nonetheless be termed as anti-national? To the Mahars, the fight was indeed a struggle for their social emancipation. But the Akhil Bharatiya Brahman Mahasangh and its accompanists want to erase every vista of achievement, glory and contribution of the untouchables from pages of history. This is actually a pattern obtaining a pan-Indian trend. To cite an earlier illustration, we may state how historians and litterateurs shied away in documenting the role Chandals of Bengal played in repelling Aryan invasion of Eastern India. A cryptic note of C. J. O’Donnell on their valour stated that, “............the long-limbed Chandal........was the active and successful enemy of the Aryan invader and there is little trace of actual conquest, by the early Hindu kings beyond the Bhagarithi, except in the riparian districts along its eastern bank.”[8] Distortion of history, carried out by skilled hands leaving no trace of historical truths, began very long ago. The great glory of Chandals (who in 1911 were re-designated as Namasudras) against Aryans was targeted for wiping out from history. Koregaon, no surprise, is now on the agenda of the same forces.

Their loyal Highnesses
In his magnum opus (1881), Loke Nath Ghosha stated that "When Ali Vardi Khan was succeeded by Siraj-ud-Daullah, Maharaja Krishna Chandra (Ray) was on the side of the English with the object of establishing their power and took active part in the battle of Plassey. The assistance which Maharaja Krishna Chandra rendered to the British was so far satisfactory that he received the title of "Rajendra Bahadur" from Lord Clive with a present of 12 guns used at Plassey, which are still to be seen in the Rajbari of Nadiya."[9] Nadia zamindar’s treasonable action had enormously gratified Robert Clive, the founder of British Empire at Plassey in 1757 to earn gift of 12 guns used in the battle. Surprise of surprises is that nobody yet charged him with treason! He was indeed the chief architect of conspiracy that ultimately brought Nawab Suraj-Ud-Daullah down.

This was not all.

The colonial masters till 1877 conferred salutes, badge of honour of Baronetcy and Knighthood, titles and honorary distinctions on at least 735 Indian princes, chiefs, zamindars, and nobles, since its early settlement in Indian subcontinent. Highest number gun salute given to any Indian was 21. Seven Indians were favoured with 21-gun salute. The lowest number, 9-gun salute was earmarked for seventeen Indians. In between 19 gun-salute was sanctioned for four Indians; 17 for 6; 15 for 7; 13 for 6; 12 for 2; 11 for 3 and finally 9 for 17 Indians.[10] Titles and honorary distinctions conferred on favourite and loyal Indians included Rajendra Bahadur, Maharaja, Maharani, Maharaja Dhiraj Bahadur, Rao, Rao Saheb, Sirdar, Sirdar Bahadur, Nawab, Nawab Bahadur, Khan, Khan Bahadur, Sawai, etc. besides Knight, Baronet, etc. from the east to the west, from north to the south of the subcontinent. They were Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Jains, etc. both men and women. Some of them, the most favoured, were addressed as His Highness or Her Highness. They were a formidable body of remorseless quislings. They invaded the veins and arteries of the body politic; molded and mobilized the public opinion, grabbed and exploited the resources and riches, besides various institutions of power and authority of the country to their advantage. The masses suffered at their hands.

Hindu God under alien master
Infidelity or patriotism?

The Peshwas collapsed at Koregaon 15 years after their humiliating overthrow from Orissa in 1803. Under orders of the Governor-General Lord Wellesley, an English army conquered Orissa in a 14-day campaign ending on September 18, 1803. Though devout Brahmans, the Peshwas mindlessly taxed Hindu pilgrims of Jagannath Temple at Puri. The pilgrim-tax was imposed by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.[11] Indian historians and political class portray the Mughal Emperor only as the villain but are stone-blind to see Peshwas extracting the same tax from the Hindu pilgrims! Celebration of defeat of the same Peshwa at Koregaon, in the given context, is questioned by the new Peshwas, how come?

When the victorious Army on march to capture Orissa under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Harcourt reached Pipli, on the outskirt of Puri, a delegation of Brahman priests of Jagannath Temple waited upon him at his camp and surrendered Jagannath Temple at his disposal. According to Swami Dharma Teerth [Parameswara Menon (1893-1978) in pre-ascetic life] in his erudite work, History of Hindu Imperialism (1941), “The oracle of the Puri Jagannath temple proclaimed that it was the desire of the deity that the temple too be controlled by the company, and the latter undertook to maintain the temple buildings, pay the Brahmins and do everything for the service of the deity as was customary.”[12] The prodigious Lord Jagannath embraced alien masters and patrons with perfect equanimity, starting off a honeymoon lasting till 1840!

The East Indian Company took charge of the temple soon thereafter. A highly successful and unique Brahman-Christian joint venture, the first of its kind, began there and then on the shores of Bay of Bengal. The Government enacted several Regulations aimed at management and administration of the Jagannath shrine. A vast section of Hindus, held as untouchables including the wealthy but degraded Pirali Brahmans of Calcutta, was barred entry into the Jagannath temple. The privileged Hindus were classified into four categories based on rate of tax between rupees 10 to rupees 2 per head payable for entry. Hunter noted that “.......not less than 20,000 men women and children live, directly or indirectly, by the service of lord Jagannath.”[13] The deity’s servants, divided into 68 categories, were entitled to pay out of the alien, Christian) hands.[14] The puritanical priestly class, though practitioners of untouchability, did not suffer any qualms of conscience. No industry, commercial establishment or business house, either on the east or west of the Atlantic in 1872, it may not be an exaggeration to state, boasted of employees as large as those in the service Jagannath! A cursory look at the table-1 for an idea of the joint venture of the East and West at Puri may be of interest, if not rewarding.

Table-1  [15]
showing a statement of pilgrim tax collected and expenditure incurred on administration and upkeep of Jagannath temple, Puri by the East India Company between 1806-07 to 1830-31
(in Indian rupees)

Year

1806-7
1810-11
1811-12
1812-13
1813-14
1814-15
1815-16
1816-17
1817-18
1818-19
1819-20
1820-21
1821-22
1822-23
1823-24
1824-25
1825-26
1826-27
1827-28
1828-29
1829-30
1830-31

Gross collection

  1,18,253
73,438
93,172
51,049
87,159
2,08,520
53,725
60,294
94,020
80,951
1,65,951
60,031
1,17,559
2,33,248
67,013
74,958
2,79,491  
73,806
94,363
1,29,277
1,25,126
1,16,217

Total Charges
(Expenditure)
42,666
60,703
43,558
55,709 (Net charges)
48,674
72,825
42,578
50,600
52,360
46,550
47,604
45,205
47,824
51,630
41,713
45,202
55,562
47,164
46,411
54,501
15,759
1,78,511

Net receipts
(Surplus)
75,587
12,645
49,794
(-) 4,600
38,485
1,35,668
11,147
9,694
41,160
34,401
1,18,287
14,824
69,735
1,81,618
22,300
29,756
2,23,829
26,642
45,952
74,776              1,09,367   
(-) 37,706

The average gross annual collection of tax during 22 years amounted to rupees 1,16,074; rupees 54,973 was spent on the temple and a balance of rupees 61,101 went to swell the Company exchequers. The Company posted an average profit of 52.6% per annum during the period. Religion provides the most potential field for profitmaking in India. Hunter had rightly claimed that pilgrim tax as “an important item of our revenue from Orissa”. [16]

While the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb is known for his bigotry in persecuting Hindus neither the Peshwas, nor the East India Company nor even the priests of Jagannath temple in Puri who were accompanists and accomplices in extorting and exploiting the Hindu pilgrims earned ire of Indian critics. Neither the Peshwas nor the priests of Jagannath temple were ever portrayed as anti-national or infidel for taxing Hindu pilgrims. Why nobody questioned the priests for surrendering Jagannath and His Temple at the disposal of the East India Company which used the Hindu shrine for pure commercial pursuit? How did the action of priests not amount to criminal breach of trust of tens of thousands of Hindus?

Alongside Puri, incidentally, in three years between 1812-1815, tax collected from pilgrims at Gaya amounted for Rs. 6,00,734; in 1815-16 a sum of rupees 73,053 at Allahabad and rupees 19,000 at Tirupati by the Company. The Raja of Khurdah, who was the traditional custodian of Jagannath Temple, Puri was paid 5% of the gross tax collected by the Company. The Maharaja of Tikari, Gaya, on the other hand, was more fortunate to receive 10% of the tax.[17] The Vishnupad temple on the river Falgu at Gaya belonged to the Tikari estate.

There was, however, more to the episode of conquest of Orissa.

The priests of Puri sold their deity Jagannath for crumbs
The conquest of Orissa by the East India Company was preceded by a letter addressed to Lieutenant Colonel Campbell, Commander of North Division of the British Army. A month ahead of the campaigns was to begin, Governor General Lord Wellesley wrote on August 3, 1803, interalia, as follows:

“The situation of the pilgrims passing to and from Jagannath will require your particular attention, you will be careful to afford them the most amiable protection and to treat them with every mark of consideration and kindness.

“On arrival at Jagannath, you will employ every possible precaution to preserve the respect due to the pagoda, and to the religious prejudices of the Brahmans and the pilgrims. You will furnish the Brahmans with such guards as shall afford perfect security to their persons, rites and ceremonials and to the sanctity of the religious edifices, and you will strictly enjoin those under your command to observe your orders on this important subject with utmost degree of accuracy and vigilance.

“The Brahmans are supposed to derive considerable profits from the duties levied on pilgrims, it will not, therefore, be advisable at the present moment to interrupt the system which prevails for collection of those duties. Any measures calculated to relieve the exactions to which the pilgrims are subjected by rapacity of the Brahmans, would necessarily tend to exasperate the persons whom it must be our object to conciliate. You will, therefore, signify to the Brahmans that it is not your intention to disturb the actual system of the collection of the pagoda. All the same you will be careful not to contract with the Brahmans any engagements, which may limit the power of the British government to make such arrangements with respect to the pagoda or to introduce such reform of existing abuses and vexations as may hereafter be deemed advisable.

“You will assure the Brahmans at the pagoda of Jagannath that they will not be required to pay any other revenue or tribute to the British government than that which they may have been in the habit of paying to the Mahratta government, and that they will be protected in their exercise of the religious duties.

“In every transaction relative to the pagoda of Jagannath, you will consult the civil commissioner, whom I have named for the settlement of province of Orissa.

“You will understand that no property, treasures, valuable articles of any kind contained in the pagoda of Jagannath or in any religious edifice or possessed by any of the priests or Brahmans or persons of any description attached to the temples or religious institutions is to be considered as a prize to the army. All such property must be respected as being consecrated to religious use, by the customs or prejudices of the Hindoos. No account is to be taken of any such property, nor any person be allowed to enter the pagoda or sacred buildings without the express desire of Brahmans.

“You will leave a sufficient force in the vicinity of Jagannath, under the command of an officer, whom you will particularly select and in whom you can place perfect reliance, for the execution of the directions contained in these instructions.” [18]

The above facts warrant no elaboration nor elucidation as they are self-explanatory. In an illuminating illustration of diplomacy for appeasement of the Brahmans engaged in priestly duties of Jagannath temple, the Governor-General had put to effective use of his clear vision regarding the extraordinary greed and inordinate avarice of his target. The priests jumped to grab the words of honour flowing from the Company’s highest authority given in writing. We have no information or material to suggest that there were backdoor parleys or understanding between the East India Company and the mandarins of Jagannath before the campaign to capture Orissa to allay all apprehension or ambiguity for entering into such a unique experiment for joint venture. But facts on record do indicate that the Company since long had an eye for conquest of the province.

The surrender of temple was a mystery. Prolonged backdoor parlays might have preceded the actual surrender of Jagannath by the avaricious priests. “Lord Wellesley expressly enjoined our troops, when they started to occupy the province in 1803, to respect the temple and the religious prejudices of the Brahmans and pilgrims [……….] Our General communicated these order to the priests of Jaganath when he entered the province; and a deputation of Brahmans accordingly came to the camp, and placed the temple under our protection, without a blow being truck.” [19]

The letter of Wellesley was translated and circulated widely in Orissa. The result was spectacular--- silent surrender of the deity, claimed as the Lord of the Universe by the priests and the people of Orissa! Strangely, nobody questioned the wisdom or justification of the treacherous action of the priests.

Did the Jagannath's priests exploded a grotesque illusion?
Not long ago, Justice A R Dave of the Supreme Court of India, was quoted by Press Trust of India as declaring that, “If I were a dictator, I would introduce Gita in Class I.”[20] His Lordship might have intended to impart moral instruction ab initio to Indian school-going children. There could be tens of thousands of men who, with abiding conviction, have likewise reposed faith in the Gita, their holy book. Many more recite often the soul-stirring assurance Lord Krishna held out to His devotee Arjuna: “As and when dharma is in danger in Bharat (India), to protect the pious, holy and righteous men and to crush the evil and wrongdoers with the aim of re-establishing dharma (religion), I appear on the universe again and again.”[21] This British attack on His holy temple was the most appropriate occasion for Lord Krishna to fructify the promise outlined in The Holy Geeta. But He lacked in action to fulfil His assurances.

Puri Jagannath Temple is said to be the home of Lord Krishna, His siblings Balabhadra (Balaram) and Subhadra. Was not the sacred shrine desecrated by the takeover and domination of an alien power? Or did not the control and taxation of pilgrims of Jagannath temple by Peshwas go against the grains of the tenet of Gita to invite the displeasure of Lord Krishna for their overthrow? Why did not Lord Krishna’s omniscient and omnipotent Sudarshan chakra thunder and crush the British invaders and their quislings who were none but the priests of the temple for conspiring against Him and His siblings? No question from any quarters perhaps were ever raised. This only means that the tall claims made in the holy Gita were grotesque illusion created by vested interest. They are comparable to manifesto of political parties issued before elections in India. Political promises in India are honoured more often simple in breaches without accountability. Lord Krishna in the Gita did not distinguish Himself from the political class of India.

We can conclude by citing fascist dictator Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf (1923):
“All propaganda must be so popular and on such an intellectual level, that even the most stupid of those towards whom it is directed will understand it... Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way around, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise." [22]

Did Hitler borrow his ideology from the sacred Gita? Why and how sacred is the Gita if the priests of Jagannath proved its futility so nonchalantly and conclusively?

Notes:
1. Raja Sekhar Vundru, Monument at Koregaon: Maharashtra battlefield is a reminder: Caste stereotypes of valour are misplaced, The Indian Express, January 2, 2018.
2. Writings & Speeches of Dr B R Ambedkar, vol. 12, pp. 85-87.
3. Though I read the article of General Sinha while in service of the state of Bihar, the details of reference regrettably are misplaced.
4. Writings and Speeches of Dr. B R Ambedkar, op. cit. p. 86.
5. Ibid., p. 86.
6. Ibid.
7. Census of India, 1891, vol. III, p. 42.
8. Loke Nath Ghosha, The Modern History of The Indian Chiefs, Rajas, Zamindars etc. Part II, J N Ghosh & Co., Calcutta, 1881, p. 363. William Hunter perhaps was the first to document this information in his Statistical Account of Bengal, vol. II, Districts of Nadiya and Jessor, 1875, published from London. 
9. Ibid., pp. 610-611.
10. Peggs, James, Pilgrim Tax in India: Facts and Observations relative to The Practice of Taxing Pilgrims, second edition, London 1835, p. 5.
11. Hunter, W. W., Orissa, vol. I, London, 1872, p. 128.
12. Col. Laurie, Puri and The Temple of Jagannath, article in The Calcutta Review, vol. X, September 1848, p. 251 & 261.
13. Biswas. A K, Did Ambedkar Appreciate Puri’s Jagannath? Ambedkar denied entry into Jagannath Temple, article in Mainstream, Vol. LV, New Delhi, July 22, 2017.
14. Peggs, op. cit.
15. Col. Laurie, Puri & The Temple of Jagannath, article in The Calcutta Review, vol. X, pp. 238-239, 1848.
16. W. W. Hunter, Orissa, vol. I, London, Smith Elder & Co., 1872, pp. 122-123.
17. The Times of India, Aug 2, 2014.
18. Free translation of the verses of Geeta by this writer.
19. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, 1923.
20. The Times of India, Aug 2, 2014.
21. Free translation of the verses of Geeta by this writer.
22. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, 1923.

A retired IAS and former Vice-Chancellor, Dr. A K Biswas is a social anthropologist and freelance analysit and commentator of sociocultural issues, may be reached at anwesan4@gmail.com.

Feb 07, 2017


Dr. A K Biswas biswasatulk@gmail.com

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