Two centuries ago, a battle was won by the troops of the East India Company at Koregaon under British command, and with that concluded the Third Anglo-Maratha War effectively making the British in India the masters of the sub-continent. It is also being interpreted as the annihilating the rule of the Peshwas by the Mahars, recognized as a martial community.
The Peshwas were running the Maratha empire with the descendent of Shivaji ensconced in Satara a titular head, but over time, the Brahminical orthodoxy of the Peshwas gave the Maratha empire an altogether a different, casteist flavour. The period is also of dual authority, the royal seat a pageant and the effective rulers from Pune, the Peshwas.
The British army in India comprised both natives and the English, the majority of the foot soldiers being Indians. There were hardly any mixed battalions or platoons with personnel from both races at the level of the soliders, but both were broadly in that sense, ‘British Army’. Were the locals who joined did so because they had a grouse against their rulers as a quiet but felt rebellion? Or a livelihood?
The narrative in play now is that spurned by the Peshwa’s administration to employ them in their army, the Mahars chose to join the British which was seeking to curb the Marathas. The fact that of the dead listed on the memorial, 22 were Mahars is cited as the basis of the account. That the troops which were taken to Koregaon had majority of Mahars. Was it a deliberate British design? Historians may want to study this.
Since 1927 when BR Ambedkar visited the victory memorial - a tall obelisk in Koregaon, the battle site - and his later references at the Round Table Conference, it was the “untouchables” who won the wars for the British, both the Battle of Plassey and the Third Anglo-Maratha war’s battle of Koregaon, and invested it with a new meaning.
Dalits had been visiting it even prior to Ambedkar’s.
The mischief played at the site this new year by Marathas set off a new war, a war of arson and violence on the streets when the Dalits took to the streets. The community was seized with ire at the Marathas – at least their fringe organisations which are gaining ascendency in the State from the time protests emerged against James Laine’s book on Shivaji – for beating up Dalits. It also centred on the vandalization of a memorial to a Dalit who had performed the last rites of Shambaji despite Aurangzeb’s anger that anyone should deal with the dismembered body of the Maratha warrior. The Dalits take pride in both – the defeat of Peshwas who are a proxy to the Maratha ruler, and the act of defying the Mogul king on behalf of the Marathas. Thus, the issue gets mixed up. History, however, has many truths and their interpretations.
The sum of it all is that Maharashtra has now been thrown into a cauldron of competing casteism. Marathas are seeking dilution of the Untouchability Act and demanding quotas for them despite ostensibly being a landed community with access to power. The Dalits are uncomfortable with the Marathas seen as not only seeking the competing reverse discrimination as job quotas. And now, both see the BJP-rule as one of Peshwas because like them, the Chief Minister is a Brahmin. In between, the other backward classes are in dismay.
It is not clear if the non-Right political formations have egged on the Dalits as believed. Dalits as a political grouping are scattered into several factions of the Republican Party of India. Their consolidation would definitely produce a new faultline in the socio-political platform. It could attempt to neutralise the gains of one faction, of Ramdas Athawale who has tied up with the practitioners of Hindutva, first with the Shiv Sena and then deserting it for an alliance with the BJP.
Dalits themselves need to consolidate their numerical strength into a political platform of their own but have not been able to, except that Athawale alone has gained. And such a development, it can be conceded, would add more to the non-BJP and non-Sena formations. Seeing the new fractures, the Congress has already spoken of regrouping with the NCP for the next round of elections.
However, these likely outcomes apart, the fact remains that the Dalits in Maharashtra, though scattered in small factions, have for the first time shown their muscle on a scale that was witnessed during the start of the New Year. Their distress at being long ignored, mal-treated, and left behind in the social order, supressed but seething, has found a vent. It is unlikely to be calmed easily.
When the media initially ignored the vandalization of Govind Mahar’s tomb in Vadhu Budruk, about 3 km from Koregaon, and even the assaults at Koregaon, and treated the bandhs as an inconvenience to traffic movement in cities like Mumbai, they felt outraged. A tectonic event in the caste formations of Maharashtra with its political dimensions as well was misread.
They don’t like it. And understandably so.