Afterlife of Battle of Koregaon more important than life of event as Maharashtra's Dalit-Maratha clashes show

After the fracas over Padmavati, a cinematic rendering of Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s Padmavat — itself a belated rendering of Alauddin Khilji's siege of Chittor in 1303, memory is again at the centre of politics. This is because memory — a curious substance lost on history — is itself deeply political both in its resonance and identitarian articulation. As history and historians attempt to distance themselves, often for good reason, from the dangerous faces that memory can, and does wear, they find themselves distanced from memory, and in turn, from the remembering and the remembered.

Beneath history's veneer of certitude rests the vast world of memory, and it is this world that is lived, unlike historical narrative, in dimensions more intricate and an intimacy of profound texture. One is not arguing, as has been, that history is fictive imposition; precisely the contrary, in fact, for history, by emphasising that certain narratives are of greater veracity than others, can bolster the political critique of corrosive ideologies. Yet, and this has been a widely reiterated criticism, in precisely this emphasis, history can also silence the assertion of significant identities as they are being asserted, especially if they address grave historical injustice. In addressing the unfortunate incidents at Bhima-Koregaon, it is imperative that this be remembered.

File image of Monday's Bhima-Koregaon incident. 101Reporters/Geeta Desai

File image of Monday's Bhima-Koregaon incident. 101Reporters/Geeta Desai

The Battle of Koregaon, as a specific episode in the Anglo-Maratha Wars of the 18th and 19th Centuries, needs no historical introduction. Succinct accounts of the conflict have, however, been composed. What is important to state here is that the afterlife of the event was more important than its life, for neither side triumphed decisively. The British and the Marathas both found it reasonable, if not urgent, to forget the battle for their own reasons.

The eventual decline of empire forced on Britain a reconsideration of its imperial pursuit, and over the years, this reconsideration has become remorse or unimportant, with many exceptions. The Marathas have taken to forgetting as both historical and sentimental engagement with defeat — this is apparent in the reconfiguration of Pune, the yesteryear stronghold of the Peshwas, into an urban metropolis renowned as a hub of software and information technology. Much of the outrage that underlies the attack at Bhima-Koregaon is a radical disruption in systematic forgetting.

This memetic disruption is premised on the supposedly decisive role of the Mahar ('untouchable' by caste) regiment in the army of the East India Company leading to the humiliating defeat of the brahmin Peshwas, and to that end, a defeat of their historical persecution of the Mahars by rendering them untouchable, punishing them more frequently and gravely for offences, and denying to them every possibility of dignity and socio-economic aspiration. More than the triumph of the East India Company — the centrepiece of outrage in certain quarters, it is the defeat of the Peshwas that the Mahars commemorate, even as they witness the continuation of their own oppression.

The coming of BR Ambedkar, the foremost anti-caste intellectual of modern India and incidentally, the son of a retired army officer, coincided with the Mahar regiment’s protest against the colonial state and enmeshed it with and into the wider social, economic, and political struggle of 'Dalit' castes and communities. The obelisk — a site of imperial memory, became a monument of Mahar protest, for it supplied, in Shraddha Kumbhojkar’s poignant words, the 'historical evidence' that the subordinated could, if they so willed, unsettle and possibly overthrow the powerful.

In The Untouchables and the Pax Britannica, Ambedkar revisited the Battle of Karegaon to argue that the untouchables were instrumental in the emergence of colonial power and on that merit, the protests of both their regiment and their broader community must be acknowledged. Ambedkar's commemoration so became the pilgrimage of marginalised individuals and their communities — a celebration that is profoundly notable for the massive proliferation of Ambedkarite literature that marks these as festivals.

In the sense of history, this is, of course, untenable, even if the inscriptions at the memorial suffixed -ca (and therefore, Mahar) are taken to be reliable — the thesis being that inscriptions at the obelisk memorial commemorating the martyrs have several names ending with "-ca"; this suffix, it is said, was associated with the Mahars and therefore evidences the predominance of their participation in the Company army. But the inscriptions, historians believe, are not very reliable to make such an argument because it reflects the present into the past — the "-ca" suffix could mean many other things.

This is not to deny that the Mahar regiment played a significant role in the battle, but that memory overstates it; it is certainly true that the Mahar regiment was a formidably prominent fighting force in the colonial army, securing for the Britannic Company critical victories in Multan, Kathiawar, and in wars with Afghans. This historical function of the Mahars as a fighting force weakens memory, for Mahar troops were recruited in the Peshwa army in appreciable measure — the other prominent social group in the latter being the Arabs. The Company deftly utilised the Mahar regiment to crucial political ends, but as soon as certain sections of the regiment joined forces with the revolt of 1857, recruitment ceased.

In the Victorian racism that followed Company rule, as Bernard Cohen has illustrated, 'martial' races were identified and fervently recruited, particularly the Gorkhas. Mahars were dubbed 'non-martial' and it is the Mahar regiment’s protest against this characterisation that enabled Ambedkar to carve a wider anti-caste politics; in the mass conversion to Buddhism that would follow many years later, the Mahars would be at the forefront. One need not agree with Anand Teltumbde’s recent piece to acknowledge that caste radicalism is difficult to trace in the Mahar regiment’s involvement in the Battle of Koregaon.

But while the Company did appear to be invested in the perpetuation of caste, it was also tremendous in its promise for 'mobile' caste groups from marginalised backgrounds; Independence from the British could then be seen as the mere return of upper-caste masters. In his critique of the most indolently used term 'identity politics', Teltumbde dissolves caste consciousness because he does not find it to be radical. But caste cannot be whisked away.

In the world of this memory, events at Bhima-Koregaon can be intelligible. But by what name may we call them? Mridula Chari sees it as a skirmish between the 'saffron' — Maratha and Hindutva groups, and the 'blue' of Ambedkarite groups. Significant, therefore, is the targeting of Maratha houses by 'Dalit' groups as the former found themselves accosted and isolated by the force of the crowd. "I am so angry, no matter what happens, I am going to burn down a Dalit house tonight," declared Ashok Dherange, president of the Shiv Sena in Shirur (Pune), cheerfully adding, "I don’t care if you write this." This is in line with what seems to be the official interpretation of events being peddled by the mainstream in the media. In this version, the events take the face of a riot in which both agony and culpability are shared.

But journalist Dhrubo Jyoti, in conversation with Firstpost, had vehement reservations. An eyewitness to the events as they unfolded at Bhima-Koregaon, Jyoti recounts that they "arrived on bikes, and in big numbers at around noon, chanting multiple slogans in the name of Bhavani and Ram". In such testimony, the event is configured as an attack, not a riot — metaphorical of the 'ancient' Mahar persecution that continues, albeit transformed, to this day. This is because the word riot, in its connotation, presupposes an equitable dynamic of power, which, Jyoti emphasises, is forever lopsided against the vulnerable.

Speaking of power, however, also calls into question the involvement of Rahul Gandhi and others into the political practice, given their caste positions and the historical complicity of the Congress party. These are questions yet undiscovered, concerned as mainstream narratives remain in the depiction of this 'riot' and the obfuscation of violence that declares even the memory of the marginalised to be criminal.

In poignant remembrance, Jyoti speaks of a "79-year-old Ambedkarite woman who said she came there every year. Why, I asked. 'You are young,' she said, 'You won’t understand. Do you think we could exist without this battle? We are here because of this. How can I not come?'.” What violence can undo this memory? What history can understand it? To weld the two together, perhaps there is recourse in Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon’s moving utterance aamhihi itihas ghadavla: we, too, made history.


Updated Date: Jan 04, 2018 13:09 PM

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