A painting of Peshwa ruler Baji Rao.
Explainers

What Was the Bhima Koregaon Battle & Why Are There Protests Now?

Protests and violence gripped Maharashtra on 1 January 2018, after activists, some carrying saffron flags, attacked people gathered at Bhima Koregaon. One person died in the violence, many others were injured and over 40 vehicles were damaged.

Dalits from all walks of life were in Bhima Koregaon, about 40 kms from Pune city, to commemorate a 200-year-old battle in which the Dalit-dominated British army defeated Peshwas in Maharashtra.

The agitation that followed the violence led to local train services in parts of Mumbai being shut down. Maharashtra Chief Minister Fadnavis has assured an inquiry into the violence and the death.

What Was the Bhima Koregaon Battle?

The Battle of Koregaon took place on 1 January 1818 in the village of Koregaon, Maharashtra, between troops of Maratha ruler Baji Rao Peshwa II and 800 troops of the British East India Company.

Baji Rao II, Peshwa Ruler, Maratha Empire
Baji Rao II sent 5,000 troops to attack Pune. Upon seeing merely 800 troops of the British East India company at Koregaon, Peshwa Baji Rao withdrew the 5,000 troops and sent three infantry divisions of 600-800 soldiers each, or 2,000 troops approximately.

The soldiers of the East India Company successfully fought the Peshwa troops, preventing them from advancing into Pune. After a 12-hour-long battle, the loss of 600 men, and fearing reinforcements from Pune, Baji Rao II withdrew his troops from Koregaon and gave up his efforts to attack Pune.

The battle is considered by many prominent Dalit thinkers, activists, and writers to be a significant point in Dalit history as a triumph for the community which had faced oppression under Peshwa rule, says Professor Shraddha Kumbhojkar, faculty at Pune's Savitribai Phule University.

Why Did The Battle Take Place?

The Peshwas had established themselves as overlords of the Deccan till the end of the 18th century. Mohammed Tarique, in his book 'Modern Indian History', explains that by 1802, the British East India Company had entered into treaties with Maratha rulers of the Deccan, which included the Peshwas of Pune, the Scindias of Gwalior, the Holkars of Indore, the Gaekwads of Baroda, and the Bhonsles of Nagpur.

Under the treaties, these former rulers ceded a large number of their rights of lordship, revenue, and other privileges.

Tarique adds that Peshwa leader Baji Rao II – who was the last of the reluctant Maratha leaders – was defeated by the British in the Battle of Khadki in November 1817 and had escaped to Satara.

Baji Rao, cornered after being pursued by British Colonel Smith for two months, turned his focus and his 30,000-strong army to Pune at the end of December 1817.

Who Were the Mahars?

Dr BR Ambedkar with members of the Mahar regiment in a file photo

Historically, Mahars were considered untouchables. But the nature of their work, often in administration or military roles, situated them with upper castes quite regularly, writes late historian AR Kulkarni in Intersections: Socio-Cultural Trends in Maharashtra.

Maratha King Shivaji recruited a number of Mahars into the Maratha army in the 17th century. The Mahar men often served as guards or soldiers, writes Richard White in The Mahar Movement's Military Component.

Satchitananda Kadlak, Vice President, Bhima Koregaon Ranstambh Seva Sangh said, in an interview with The Hindu, that the Mahar community even fought alongside Peshwa forces in many battles, including the third battle of Panipat.

However, relations between the Mahars and Peshwas turned sour after Baji Rao II reportedly insulted the community by rejecting their offer to join and serve in his army.

Why Is the Battle Significant for Dalit Rights?

Dr BR Ambedkar had visited the site on 1 January 1927.

In the 19th century, Peshwas were considered high-caste Brahmins, while Mahars were considered untouchables, says Professor Shraddha Kumbhojkar.

“The Peshwas were notorious for their persecution of Mahars. Mahar Dalits faced several injustices under the Peshwa rule,” she adds. This victory, therefore, was significant for the Dalits who had been marginalised and oppressed for so long.

A 60-foot-commemorative obelisk, to honour the fallen soldiers of the Bombay Native Infantry, was erected at the battle site and inscribed with the names of 49 soldiers. Twenty-two of the names mentioned in the list belonged to people from the Mahar community.

While it was built by the British in 1818, the obelisk was carried on the Mahar Regiment's crest till as late as 1947.

Even Dr BR Ambedkar visited the site on 1 January 1927, on the 109th anniversary of the battle.

Why Is There Violence Over Bhima Koregaon Now?

The event commemorating the 200th anniversary of the battle had been met with protests even before 1 January, with a number of right-wing groups – such as the Akhil Bhartiya Brahman Mahasabha, Hindu Aghadi, and Rashtriya Ekatmata Rashtra Abhiyan – opposing the event as anti-national and casteist, The Wire reported.

Jyoti Jagtap, who worked to organise an event to commemorate the battle, said to The Wire, “The commemoration is a call to all Indians to rise against forces that are promoting hatred and violence on caste lines. We have seen the lynching of Muslims and Dalits over allegedly carrying beef. Rohith Vemula committed suicide. The battle is not against anybody, but against a particular ideology.”

Violent protests near Pune as an aftermath of the incident on 1 January.

“The British army had people from all castes, including Mahar, Maratha, and even Brahmins. The Peshwa army too had people from all castes, including Maratha and Mahar. This was a war between the British and Indian rulers, and not between Mahars and Peshwas as is being told. So what are they celebrating? The victory of the British over the Marathas?” said Anand Dave, President, Akhil Bhartiya Brahman Mahasabha, in a statement to The Wire.

Rahul Sonpimple, leader of Dalit-Bahujan student group, BAPSA, explains in an article for The Print, “They are calling it 'anti-national’ because Dalit and Ambedkarite groups are going to visit the Shaniwar Wada(the headquarters of the Peshwas). Dalits are saying that we ended the brutal rule of the Peshwas, and this is our celebration. It is questioning the dominant notion of nation and nationalism. This is making the upper-caste groups in Maharashtra anxious.”

(With inputs from The Wire, The Print, The Hindu, Sites of Imperial Memory: Commemorating Colonial Rule in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, The Mahar Movement's Military Component, Intersections: Socio-Cultural Trends in Maharashtra, Historical Dictionary of India, and Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency Volume 18 Part 3)