Let’s Rewind 200 Years to Understand Bhima Koregaon Violence
(This article was published after the Bhima Koregaon protests that took place in and around Pune in January 2018. It has been republished from The Quint's archives in the light of the recent crackdown on five activists.)
Bhima Koregaon is tense. The spark started on 1 January from Pune and reached all parts of Mumbai and Maharashtra. However, to understand the violence and its meaning, we have to go 200 years back.
Mahar is a Dalit caste in Maharashtra’s Koregaon area. Peshwas, who are Brahmins, had applied a martial law against the Mahars. According to the law, Mahars were ordered to tie a broom around their waists and a pot around their necks.
The broom was meant to sweep away their footprints and the pot to prevent saliva from falling to the ground. Atrocities against Dalits were also common.
In those days, the British ruled all parts of India. They already had treaties with the Peshwas of Pune, the Scindias of Gwalior, the Holkas of Indore, the Gaekwads of Baroda and the Bhosle kings of Nagpur.
Now they had to control Peshwa Bajirao II. The British found soldiers from the Mahar community, who were fully prepared to take on the Peshwas or the Marathas.
Koregaon is situated on the banks of the river Bhima, which is about 40 kilometers from Pune. Bajirao decided to send 5,000 soldiers to attack Pune. But when he came to know that the British had just 800 soldiers, he changed his mind. Bajirao sent three infantry divisions, which comprises around 2,500 soldiers by some estimates. A deadly war was fought with the British, who were under the leadership of Captain Francis Stonton.
The Mahar soldiers, who were outnumbered, won the war on the back of their courage. After nearly 12 hours of war, the Peshwa army had to step back. The war is remembered for the valour of Mahar soldiers.
Historians and Dalit thinkers consider this a big event in the history of Dalits. It became a symbol of victory over the Peshwas, who had suppressed them.
The British built a memorial in Koregaon in memory of the soldiers. Names of 49 soldiers who were killed in the Koregaon war were carved in the memorial, out of which 22 belonged to the Mahar caste. The memorial became a symbol of the rebellion against the Peshwas.
On 1 January 1927, Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar visited the memorial. Since then,1 January became a day of celebration for the Dalits. People from all over the country go to Koregaon every year and bow down to the heroes on the memorial.
According to media reports, a few years ago, the Poona Horse Regiment of the Indian Army had put a 'roll of honour' on the pillar in 1965 and 1971.
A rumour spread on social media about the removal of this ‘roll of honour’ just before the 200th celebration of the war this year. On 1 January 2018, there was an attempt to stop Dalits from celebrating. The violence began on the streets and now the fire has reached all parts of Maharashtra.
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