Bhima Koregaon: A tale of new soldiers fighting old caste wars
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Jan 12, 2019-Saturday
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Bhima Koregaon: A tale of new soldiers fighting old caste wars

Narratives of the battle vary wildly, but most historians agree that the British army comprised 500 Mahars, the most populous of the Dalit sub-castes in the state.

india Updated: Jan 12, 2019 07:30 IST
Dhrubo Jyoti and Nadeem Inamdar
Dhrubo Jyoti and Nadeem Inamdar
Hindustan Times, Bhima Koregaon
Bhima Koregaon,Battle,BR Ambedkar
People visit Jay Stambh to pay tribute at Koregaon Bhima on occasion of 201st anniversary of the Koregaon Bhima battle in Pune on January 1, 2019. (Pratham Gokhale/HT Photo)

As the sun set on 2018, Rama Athawale had not a moment to spare. The activist had spent a frenetic week searching for a caterer to help her fix 200 kilograms of pulao and find a large banner of BR Ambedkar for the most important day of the year for her: Shaurya Divas (Day of valour), when she and her husband Ashok travel to Bhima Koregaon to feed people.

This has been Athawale’s New Year’s Day routine for a decade, but this time was different: It is the first time she was going back after her family was almost killed by a rampaging mob that burnt down their home and shop – and unleashed violence that killed one person, injured 40 and sent ripples of Dalit anger surging through India. “I was scared at first but then thought I couldn’t be defeated. I am alive because of my community and we are on the side of justice,” she said.

Anjali Gaikwad and her daughter Sushma Ohol share the sentiment. They have become sort of community icons after Ohol filed a FIR naming right-wing leaders Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide, for the violence. Columns of people wait outside their doors to take a selfie, young men fall at their feet, and families brave the harsh sun to thank them for their courage. “It feels good to see so many people getting to know about our history, and coming to see it,” said Gaikwad.

Athawale, Gaikwad and Ohol are just three of the hundreds of ordinary people who mounted a wall of resistance after last year’s attack on the celebrations stung the community.

The battle of Bhima Koregaon was fought on January 1, 1818, between Peshwa Bajirao II, with an army of 20,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry, that vastly outnumbered the 800-odd men commanded by Captain FF Staunton of the East India Company. Narratives of the battle vary wildly, but most historians agree that the British army comprised 500 Mahars, the most populous of the Dalit sub-castes in the state.

Today, the battle is a symbol of Dalit pride against casteism, embodied by the Peshwa rule under which Dalits were forced to carry a spittoon on their neck (so that their spit wouldn’t touch the road) and a broom on the back, so that their dust couldn’t pollute Brahmins. Central to the dispute is a tussle for culture and history that lies at the heart of Maharashtra’s politics. One school of thought claims the battle of Bhima Koregaon was won by the Peshwa forces and that the celebrations are a recent, Maoist, phenomena. Anand Dave of the Akhil Bharatiya Brahman Mahasangh called this an increase in “anti-Brahmin sentiment”. “The Peshwas were not Brahminwadi, they were Hindu kings,” he said.

A bigger battle has broken out over a nondescript grave in Vadhu Budruk, five km away. The grave belongs to a Mahar peasant named Govind Ganapat Gaikwad, who, according to Dalit thinkers, gave an honourable burial to Chhatrapati Shivaji’s son Sambhaji in 1689 after Aurangzeb’s forces had mutilated his body. This is an important moment, said Islampur college professor Sachin Garud, because Shivaji is seen by anti-caste thinkers as a supporter of the lower castes.

In an election year, this tussle over history is throwing a giant shadow on politics. Scheduled castes form roughly 12% of Maharashtra, and in a close election, are often the swing vote. Prakash Ambedkar has tied up with the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul-Muslimeen this time. “Though his party has never received more than 1% vote, he has emerged as the tallest Dalit voice. If the alliance can ensure a transfer of vote, they can make an impact in 20-25 assembly seats,” said Harish Wankhede, an assistant professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The biggest loser might be RPI (A). Siddharth Dhende, a senior RPI (A) leader, admitted the association with the BJP might hurt the party but puts his hopes in a Rs 100 crore project that seeks to upgrade Bhima Koregaon to national memorial status, build approach roads, install lights, create gardens and landscaping. Wankhede also said the scheduled castes are not homogenous. “The Mahars or neo-Buddhists have a traditionally strong secular base and are with the RPI (A) or Congress. The Matangs have both Ambedkarites and right-wing elements and the Charmkars (leather workers) are with the Shiv Sena or the BJP,” he said.

In the 2014 election, the BJP received a significant chunk of Dalit votes. “But the trust in BJP has eroded because there has no social or economic progress. So, the opposition may benefit,” Wankhede added.

First Published: Jan 12, 2019 07:30 IST