Bhima Koregaon the False Icon of Dalit Aspiration


The recent violent clashes between the Hindutva fascist groups and the Dalits in Maharashtra created a nationwide stir. The conflict that started over the celebration of the two hundred years of the battle of Bhima Koregaon, an event, which is seen as an event of Maratha humiliation by the upper-caste Hindutva followers, while is considered as an event that showcase “Dalit liberation” in the Ambedkarite world, shows how fruitful the British colonial policy of “divide and rule” is, even to this day.

The narrative and counter-narrative around the battle of Bhima Koregaon are founded on the very wrong reasons; however, they look good when seen from the prism set by the British colonial rulers and now used by the Hindutva fascists as well as the so-called Dalit messiahs, like Ambedkar, who helped consolidate and legitimise the British colonial rule on India and Maharashtra by lauding it as a “liberating” factor for the Dalits, oppressed by the caste-system of the feudal Hindu society for centuries. A battle fought between two oppressive powers in Bhima Koregaon cannot be a matter of pride for any caste or social group that seeks liberation from oppression and exploitation.

In the battle of Bhima Koregaon, fought on 1st January 1818, the British East India Company’s 800-strong army under the command of Captain Francis Staunton, fought against a 2000-strong army of Peshwa Baji Rao II, who tried to attack Pune, while he was chased by the British forces after his defeat in the battle of Khadki.

Peshwa Baji Rao II was the only ruler of the Maratha confederacy who was reluctant to give up his sovereignty over the kingdom of Pune to the British East India Company after the Company officials favoured other Maratha rulers. His hostility towards the British colonial rulers was based on the discrimination his government faced and there was no question of nationalism in this antagonism.

The Peshwa had to withdraw from the battle of Bhima Koregaon after 12 hours of fighting, anticipating the heavy reinforcement of the British troops under Brigadier General Joseph Smith. While 275 men of the British died in the battle, the Peshwa lost nearly 500 of his men. The colonial rulers erect an obelisk in the memory of those who had fallen in defending its interests in Bhima Koregaon, which is called Rana Stambha.

The names featured in the obelisk has 22 Mahars, who were untouchable Dalits recruited by the British East India Company in its Bombay Native Infantry. The Ambedkarites hype this battle as a “war of liberation” fought against Brahmanical despotic Peshwa rule under the command of the “civilised” British colonial rulers, who have been painted as the saviours of Dalits and harbingers of caste equality by the so-called Dalit rights activists since the time of Ambedkar.

The battle of Bhima Koregaon is painted from a sheer caste angle by the Ambedkarites, without showing the political and economic causes that led to this confrontation between the two armies. While the Ambedkarites show it as an achievement for the Dalits, the upper-caste Marathas, the Brahmins and other sections of the elite caste Hindu society show it as a war for national liberation of India from colonial rule led by Peshwa Baji Rao II and the victory of the British invading army as the humiliation of India.

Both of these views carry a sort of politics that is used to legitimise one form of oppression, i.e. either colonial or feudal, as the better option than the other, which makes both of them and their proponents wrong, if seen from the anti-colonial and anti-feudal perspective of the working class and the toiled people.

If we analyse the claims of the Mahar leaders like Ambedkar, who claimed that the British liberated the Dalits by recruiting them in its colonial army and who also claimed that the Dalits will liberate themselves only by educating themselves and by supporting the British by joining the administration and the army, rather than demanding freedom from colonial rule, then we will see that the claims were not just wrongly founded but were in the best interest of British imperialism.

The claim that it was the British colonial rulers, who gave employment opportunity to the Mahars in its military and hence liberated them by opening a new horizon of career opportunity for the persecuted community, is utterly wrong, politically and historically.

The Mahars were not the most persecuted caste among the Dalits of Maharashtra but were better off than most of the Dalits, who were subcategorised into untouchables, unapproachable and unseeable. The latter being the most persecuted community. The Mahars were untouchables and they were forced to carry a pot tied around their neck so that they can spit in it, instead of the road, which would be rendered unwalkable for the upper-caste men if the Mahars spit on it.

The Mahars were not only recruited by the British but long before them, the Maratha leader Shivaji and the Peshwas also recruited them in their infantry. The Mahars were known as a mercenary or militarist community and the root of this categorisation can be traced to a period long before the East India Company reached Maharashtra and started colonising it. The poor and ostracised Mahars got an opportunity to earn more by becoming soldiers and guards, since the times of Shivaji and this opportunity was provided to them because their labour and loyalty was cheaper than the Shudras, who would be generally hired as footsoldiers for the upper-caste rulers.

They killed and died for their masters, whoever paid them or hired them to slaughter enemies. The Mahars remained deprived of knowledge and wealth for a long period. However, the advancement of colonial rule and the expansion of the colonial army of the British East India Company, especially the Bombay Native Regiment, helped the Mahars to gain economically more than other Dalit communities as they got better salary and a meagre share of the booty of wars waged on behalf of the Company. They reached a higher status within the Dalit community and became a dominant community by the mid-19th century.

Ideologies like nationalism, democracy or social-liberation were not present among even the well-learned upper-caste Hindus or elite Muslims of Maharashtra or other parts of the Indian subcontinent at the beginning of the 19th century, forget among the Dalits or Shudras, who were even prohibited from learning or getting educated under the Brahmanical feudal rule. The British recruitment drive didn’t help them either.

Evil practices like the caste system, social segregation and untouchability were prevalent even within the British colonial camp, both during the East India Company’s and later under the British imperial government’s rule. The colonial rulers were not here to demolish the feudal socio-economic structure over which the superstructure of the casteist society existed, as they did in their homeland. The reason was obvious, the British colonial rulers wanted to build up a strong feudal economy to nip the bud of independent and indigenous capitalist development and prevent a capitalist revolution in the Indian subcontinent so that, unlike America, India remains under its jackboot and domination for centuries.

The policy of divide and rule was used by the British colonial rulers to consolidate their rule by exploiting the communal antagonism that existed between the caste Hindus, who overruled the Shudras and the Dalits using their caste and class privilege (land holdings and economic activities like trading and commerce), and the Muslims, who had a political upper-hand until the beginning of the colonial rule.

The major threat posed to the British East India company’s colonial ambition came from the staunch anti-colonial rulers like Nawab Siraj Ud-Daulah of Bengal, Tipu Sultan of Mysore and others, rather than the Maratha rulers, who after and during the Anglo-Maratha wars ceded their territory and sovereignty to the British in return of their titles and their dominant feudal status protected by the East India company.

The British used the divide and rule policy more vigorously, at the grassroots level, ever since the Great Revolt of 1857 shook the foundation of its rule over India and forced the British government to take over the control of the Indian colony from the East India company. The policy of divide and rule, which was first employed by the company to stir up antagonism between the warring rulers of different kingdoms that were formed out of the Mughal empire, was later employed in the post-rebellion India to stir up communal tension, riots and fratricide, which would help the British rulers to weaken and wreak the anti-colonial unity of the people.

The Mahars who fought the Peshwa army in Bhima Koregaon didn’t wage any battle against the caste system and didn’t fight with the aim of liberating themselves from the shackles of the Brahmanical autocracy. They believed, like the majority of Dalits of that period, that their birth is a result of their past sins. They accepted the Brahmanical humiliation and even their ostracised life under the European rulers. They fought with the sole aim of earning money, to sustain their families. They did this simply because they had no other employment opportunity and they had hungry stomachs to feed. 

Though the Ambedkarites portray the army of Peshwa Baji Rao II as the Brahmanical force, the army of the Peshwa  had a majority of Arabs, who were hired Muslim mercenaries, and also a contingent of Mahars, who fought under the saffron banner of the Peshwa rule. They fought and died defending the Peshwa, a Brahmanical bigot. Even the British East India Company forces had many upper-caste men fighting alongside the Dalit Mahars against the Peshwa army.

Thus, the narrative of the Bhima Koregaon battle as a caste liberation war is based on an absolute distortion of history by the creed of Ambedkar, who always glorified the British colonial rule to hoodwink the Dalits, lest the latter join the ranks of anti-colonial revolutionary struggle in the post-Bolshevik Revolution period.

Apart from the Ambedkarite narrative on Bhima Koregaon, the other fallacy of history comes from the Hindutva clan, which is led by the fascist RSS and its Maratha auxiliary, the Shiv Sena. The Hindutva camp that commands the allegiance of the elites of the dominant Maratha community, which has an antagonistic relationship with the Dalits, portrays the 1818 battle of Bhima Koregaon as a nationalist struggle against the British rule by an Indian ruler.

This claim, like all other claims made by the RSS-led Hindutva camp based on the distorted history of India, is absolutely hollow. The Peshwa wasn’t fighting to free India or even Pune from British rule, rather he was trying to come to bargaining terms with the East India Company. The concept of India, as a nation, was non-existent in the 19th century and the deposed ruler was fighting the battle, while he was chased by the British East India Company, only to bargain a better deal with the East India Company that defeated him in Khadki. Peshwa Baji Rao II later surrendered to the British and in return of a title, went to live in retirement, a historical fact that spoils the modern Hindutva fascist brigades’ attempt to depict him as an anti-colonial figure.

The RSS is the fountainhead of Hindutva fascism in India and it was founded by the British secret service by employing approvers, British secret service agents, Brahmanical puritan Marathas, Gujaratis and North Indian Hindi-speaking Hindu upper-caste elite men to disturb the attempts of building communal harmony among the workers and peasants of the country, which was undertaken by various revolutionary organisations.

Fascinated by Hitler and Mussolini, the RSS takes its inspiration from the Maratha confederacy, an arch-reactionary feudal kingdom and the organisation’s saffron flag is a modified replica of the Maratha banner. As the organisation, which was filled with British agents and double-dealers during the period of anti-colonial struggle, lacks any suitable anti-colonial face, so it tries to usurp the legacy of anti-colonial figures from all hues of politics, from the left-wing revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh-led Hindustan Socialist Republican Association to the right-wing forces of the Congress, as its own. So it’s not surprising to see that the RSS men worshipping Bhagat Singh and Vallabhbhai Patel at the same time, even when these two had serious contradictory political views and goals.

Thus, a figure like Peshwa Baji Rao II, who fought one battle with the British, only to give up and surrender later, is widely hyped by the Hindutva camp as an icon of anti-colonial struggle, while the same RSS and its offspring organisations loathe the real anti-colonial fighters like Siraj Ud-Daulah, Tipu Sultan, Tantia Tope, Lakshmibai, Bahadur Shah Zafar and others.

Since violence broke out on 1st January, after the Hindutva fanatics attacked the Dalits, when the latter tried to  commemorate the second centenary of the 1818 battle, the Ambedkarites and the RSS are trying to portray the battle of Bhima Koregaon from their own perspectives, showing their camp or caste in the brightest shade, and thus they are glorifying a battle between a deposed monarch, who had no real “nationalist aspiration” against the British East India Company, and the Mahars, who simply did their job under the leadership of their colonial masters, who treated them no better than the Brahmanical Maratha rulers, to score political brownies.

Actually, the battle of Bhima Koregaon and the subsequent domination of the British colonial rulers over the country using a native battalion consisting of the poor masses, who were used to kill their fellow countrymen, of all castes and tribes, and also to rape their countrywomen as the henchmen of the colonial rulers, shows the success achieved by the foreign colonial masters on the Indian soil by using the policy of divide and rule and by exploiting the abject poverty caused by its own notorious economic policies.

The employment of the Mahars in the British colonial army wasn’t an incident of Dalit pride, but was the change of their lords, from the casteist Brahmanical Peshwa rulers to the ruthless and utmost racist British colonial rulers. The result of colonisation of India didn’t bring the Dalits to the verge of liberation, as Dr Ambedkar would claim, rather it tied them more strongly with the chains of feudalism, comprador capitalism born out of the womb of British colonial rule and foreign imperialism, which would use the antagonism between different communities and castes to disunite any nationalist unity of patriotic forces against its hegemony on India.

Today, as the Modi government sells India to foreign imperialist powers with far more aggression than his predecessors, when the feudal oppression and exploitation has intensified even after the 67 years of the rule of Ambedkar’s Constitution, which was supposed to free India from its feudal past, and when the domestic comprador capitalists are able to exploit the country’s labour and resources with impunity, it is important to unite the majority of the country, i.e. the poor and landless peasantry, the working class, the urban and rural poor against these enemies of the people.

Only by waging an uncompromising struggle for democracy and socialism that the people from the oppressed communities and exploited classes can achieve their socio-economic and political liberation. The honey-dipped words of equality and liberal values that Ambedkar and his creed would project as the true path of liberation for the Dalits, tribals and other oppressed people, falls flat every time the ruling classes alters them or rebukes them out of their class interest.

By eulogising the British colonial rule, hyping the battle of Bhima Koregaon as a liberation war for Dalits, the people can’t be allowed to be taken for a merry ride by the Ambedkarite forces, who are, under the pretext of fighting caste oppression, breaking the unity of the people on similar lines like the Hindutva fascist RSS and the Muslim fanatics.

It’s high time that the Dalits, who are under their influence, are freed from their clutches by the forces of progress, democracy and radical change. The progressive left and democratic forces, which unlike the Ambedkarites or the Hindutva fascists, represent the interest of the broad masses of the poor and the toiled people, a majority of whom are Dalits, backward caste people, Muslims, Christians and tribal masses, must appeal to the people with a concrete anti-feudal and anti-colonial agenda, which will help in building up a massive struggle to free the people of India, the majority of whom are peasants, from the feudal oppression and also from the oppression of foreign imperialist plunder and comprador capitalist exploitation, the principal enemies of the country.

The faster it’s started the better it would be for the future of the toiled people and also for the cause of building a better, egalitarian, just, democratic and independent country. The Dalits will be then able to see through the prism of democratic struggle and get out of the myth built around the battle of Bhima Koregaon, a shameful battle which the East India Company used to extend its colonial rule over Maharashtra and the whole Indian subcontinent, the venomous rule, which tightened the grip of feudalism, comprador capitalism and foreign capital on the country for centuries to come. The true liberation of the majority of the Dalits can only happen on the battlefields of class struggle against foreign corporations, Indian comprador capitalists and the feudal landlords.

An avid reader and a merciless political analyst. When not writing then either reading something, debating something or sipping espresso with a dash of cream. Street photographer. Tweets as @la_muckraker

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