‘‘Mahar Dalit Valour’’

The Battle of Bhima-Koregaon

A K Biswa

The country 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 organisers. The Pune Nagar Hindu Parisad, Shivaji Pratishthan and Samasta Hindu Aghadi, (All Hindu Fronts) joined the Brahman Mahasangh in denunciation of the bi-centenary celebrations as "unconstitutional and anti-national". 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". 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. 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.

"There are many", observed Dr Ambedkar, "who look upon the conduct of the untouchables in joining the British as an act of gross treason". 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. 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".

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, one 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". 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.

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". 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.

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.   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.

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. Thoughdevout Brahmans, the Peshwas mindlessly taxed Hindu pilgrims of Jagannath Temple at Puri. The pilgrim-tax was imposed by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. 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". The prodigious Lord Jagannath embraced alien masters and patrons with perfect equanimity, starting off a honeymoon lasting till 1840!

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.   The Vishnupad temple on the river Falgu at Gaya belonged to the Tikari estate.

The priests of Puri sold their deity Jagannath for crumbs.

[A retired IAS and former Vice-Chancellor, Dr A K Biswas is a social anthropologist and freelance writer and commentator on sociocultural issues, may be reached at]

Vol. 50, No.32, Feb 11 - 17, 2018