The violence in Maharashtra over the January 1st celebrations by Dalits commemorating the Battle of Bhima Koregaon – in which the Mahar Dalits employed in the British Indian Army claimed victory over the Brahmanical Peshwa forces led by Baji Rao – II – has opened a Pandora’s box of division that does not bode well for the country. Patentedly, since it is a Dalit mobilization, BR Ambedkar’s legacy was invoked – misguidedly and in a way that even Ambedkar would oppose if he were alive today.
The immense violence that has gripped Maharashtra since then, should raise several questions in the minds of people. Why did the violence break out this time only, when these celebrations have been happening for the last 90 years? Since Ambedkar is being so vilely and divisively invoked, what exactly does history say about Ambedkar’s views on the Bhima Koregaon battle and the events around that time? And finally, why was the BJP not able to handle the crisis adequately and, as usual, why did it go on the defensive in the face of Dalit agitators?
These questions must be answered to get a fuller understanding of the event. But at the outset, let us dismiss all the politically motivated machinations around the protests by the Congress and NCP who tried to cash in on the protests by claiming that it was a Dalit versus Brahmin agitation rather than Dalit versus Marathas. Assuredly, this illogical and desperate claim will not ensure more votes for the opposition parties. Just because the battle fought 200 years ago was with the Brahmin Peshwas does not mean that the current agitation pits Dalits against the Brahmins. It is a well-known fact that Marathas and Dalits are always at loggerheads. For the last 20 years, the oppressors and enemies of Dalits were never Brahmins, but the OBCs, Marathas and other landowning sub-castes, including in ‘Dravidian’ states themselves!
In fact, even the current Maharashtra agitation has brought angry Marathas on the streets against the Dalits and has snowballed into their classic demand of dilution of the SC/ST Atrocities Act, which provides protection to the Dalits. These obvious fault lines cannot be ignored. The Congress and Jignesh Mevani will gain nothing by making villains out of the Brahmins, who are not connected to the present crisis.
Yet, the Congress continues to do so – at its own peril. This – to answer some of the questions raised above – was one of the main reasons why the agitation started in the first place. This time around Mevani publicized his pending visit to Maharashtra for the January 1st in advance and made it clear that he had a political agenda. In the event itself, he and Umar Khalid – a JNU student booked for sedition in 2016 – gave inflammatory speeches, trying to incite the Dalits and telling them that the real battle has to be fought on the streets. This – along with reactionary disruptions by right-wing organizations labelling the event as ‘anti-national’, due to Mevani’s presence and discourse – provided a violent, explosive cocktail mix which snowballed into riots.
The BJP also failed to handle the crisis effectively. They seem to have reacted to Mevani’s impending arrival and its implications and, in reaction, putting up a show of impartiality, issued statements saying that the government will ensure that the Bhima Koregaon celebrations will proceed unhindered. When an event – which had otherwise gone peacefully unnoticed for the last 90 years – had garnered so much attention in advance and opposing camps had already trained their guns of political opportunism on each other, what other outcome could have been expected? The most prudent course for the government would have been to not let Mevani enter Maharashtra on valid legal grounds, since his presence posed a threat to law and order. Or failing that, once this controversy did start, the government should have opposed Mevani strongly and head on without pussyfooting around defensively.
The BJP needs to be sure that it cannot, indeed should not, replicate the Congress policy of falling on its knees to appease the minority castes and religions. The minority castes – mainly, the Dalits – have always mostly stood by the BJP and have been more staunch supporters and ground workers for Hindutva than the Brahmins or the Baniyas. There is, therefore, no need of any kind of appeasement arising out of the misplaced thinking that someone like Mevani – who is, reportedly, funded by the radical Islamist outfit Popular Front of India, based in Kerala and the leader of love jihad offences – poses an actual threat.
It is also important to be aware of the actual events surrounding the Bhima Koregaon battle – especially for the benefit of those pro-Ambedkar activists who are spreading a machinated version of history to pit the Dalits against the Brahmins.
There was nothing unusual about this battle, which was fought on January 1st, 1818, between the Peshwas and the British Army. The British Army recruits consisted, in majority, of Indian soldiers belonging to the Mahar caste, which was heavily oppressed and brutalized during the Peshwa rule. The outcome of the battle was inconclusive, but was claimed as a victory by the British since they were considerably outnumbered by the Peshwas. This battle was interpreted by the Mahars resolved on claiming their dignity through their warrior class status and fighting and defeating the Peshwas – that is why Dalits have celebrated it, with Ambedkar starting the tradition by paying tribute to the Mahar soldiers at this site in 1927.
But then Ambedkar had always fought for the rights of the Mahars. His own father was deployed in the British security forces. At that time, in 17th century, when India, after passing through the divisive yoke of Muslim rule, was the fiefdom of independent princely kingdoms ruled by selfish princes, regionalism was all that mattered. There was no conscious sense of fighting for the nation. Each kingdom sought to defend its own fiefdom and later these princes became loyal stooges of the British government. So, for these kingdoms, the enemy could be anyone – today, some Mughal ruler or some other Hindu prince and tomorrow the British East India Company.
For precisely this reason, the 1818 battle was of so small a moment. Every community – not just the Mahars – were on some side or the other and the alliances kept changing, according to necessity and circumstance. Shivaji’s army had lot of Mahars. Similarly, during the rule of Bajirao – I, Mahars were present in the Peshwa army too. But today, our vitiated discourse is depicting it as if the Mahars fought as equal partners of the British by deliberately siding with the enemy to defeat the Peshwas. This was absolutely untrue. Mahars were living in extremely poor condition and for them the British Army was nothing more than a source of employment, since many of their traditional occupations were threatened under the British rule.
If indeed the Mahars viewed the British favorably as their liberators – as Anglophile reformers like Jyotirao Phule have sought to project – then the whole country, including the Dalit communities, would not have united for the freedom struggle. In 1818, the British Raj as an enemy was hardly a recognized fact as it become after 1857. In fact, in the 1857 battle, Mahars deserted the British and fought with the uniting country. After that, the British de-listed the Mahar regiment and, in their usual racial way, declared them to be ‘non-martial’ races.
Similarly, if indeed the Dalits sought to make common cause with the British – as Left-wing historians of today like to say – then Ambedkar would never have rejected Christianity by saying that it would strengthen the colonial stranglehold on the nation. To quote from Ambedkar, “If one converts to Christianity he ceases to be an Indian. The brotherhood in Islam is confined to the Believers; that is, only to Muslims. It cannot promote universal brother-hood. I will not convert to either of these religions. I will convert to one of the religions that are born here, in this country India.”
If there is one thing that cannot be disputed about Ambedkar, it is his extremely staunch and uncompromising nationalist position – which transcended religion also. He rejected both Christianity and Islam, even though the Nizam of Hyderabad also reportedly offered him monetary incentives to convert to Islam.
And yet, despite his rejection of Christianity and despite his love for the country, his self-proclaimed followers today are leaving no stone unturned in completely misinterpreting and perverting his political philosophy.
How then do we reconcile Ambedkar’s position on the Mahars in the context of the 1818 battle?
The deliberate sense of community pride – as is being imputed to the Mahars because of a small event – was manufactured much later. As we know, Mahars were part of the British army out of economic convenience and deserted it during the 1857 battle, while the British also racially de-listed them. In 1927, Ambedkar tried to pressurize the British to accept the Mahars in the army. And he was joined in this cause by none other than prominent Hindu Mahasabha leaders, like Veer Savarkar and Dr. Moonje. In fact, in 1929, the Hindu Mahasabha called for the reservation for Scheduled Communities in the police force. In 1931, Savarkar even presided over a Mahar conference at Ratnagiri. After Independence in 1947, Ambedkar made the Sanskrit statement yash siddhi the logo of the Mahar regiment and its war cry as Hindustan ki Jai (Neelakandan 2018).
The British and the politicians and vested interests in present-day India have tried to distort this history – making it a simplistic case of Dalits siding with the British against the bad Brahmins. They have also imputed false impositions on Ambedkar’s role which – in the Mahar regiment case – he fought in close collaboration with prominent leaders of Hindutva.
In his concluding speech in Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar said, “What perturbs me greatly is the fact that not only India has once before lost her independence, but she lost it by the infidelity and treachery of some of her own people…Will history repeat itself? It is this thought which fills me with anxiety. This anxiety is deepened by the realization of the fact that in addition to our old enemies in the form of castes and creeds we are going to have many political parties with diverse and opposing political creeds. Will Indians place the country above their creed or will they place creed above country? I do not know. But this much is certain that if the parties place creed above country, our independence will be put in jeopardy a second time and probably be lost for ever. This eventuality we must all resolutely guard against. We must be determined to defend our independence with the last drop of our blood.”
Ambedkar ended with a plea for placing the nation’s interests above everything else – the exact same project that Modi government started out with and must stick to. His ominous prediction – based on the personal suffering and havoc inflicted on him by Gandhi and the Congress – that India’s political parties will use caste and creed to undermine the country and jeopardize its freedom, came true as the post-Independent Indian politics unfolded. Today, our politics is only about caste and creed. The nation never finds a mention – except in Narendra Modi’s discourse. But then, as events at Bhima Koregaon and the casteist mobilizations during Gujarat elections showed, even after three years of firm rule, Modi is still fighting the odds.
Neelakandan, Aravindan. 2018. Swarajya. January 3. Accessed January 12, 2018. https://swarajyamag.com/ideas/koregaon-memorial-what-does-it-really-signify.