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Bhima-Koregaon clashes have their roots in 200-year-old history: All you need to know about its significance to Dalits

Editor's note: Wednesday's protests in Mumbai occurred two days after the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon. Below is an article we published last week to act as a primer about the Koregaon battle. It's being republished in light of Wednesday's clashes.

Monday will mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon, where the Marathas led by Peshwa Bajirao II clashed with the British East India company.

The battle, which took place in Koregaon, a small village 25 kilometres from Pune, pitted 800 British soldiers against 30,000 Marathas. However, fearing that the British may send reinforcements in the form of a larger battalion, the Marathas withdrew after a 12-hour standoff. In all, about 1,000 people died in the battle.

However, the reason this particular skirmish between the British and the Marathas is remembered even today is because the local Mahar community fought alongside the British against the Marathas. Even today, as mentioned in a report in Scroll, many Dalit communities see the battle as being the first step in their struggle against caste-based oppression.

 Bhima-Koregaon clashes have their roots in 200-year-old history: All you need to know about its significance to Dalits

File image of Radhika Vemula. YouTube

The Mahars' status had seen a precipitous drop since the days of the first Maratha ruler, Shivaji, who used to recruit them in his army. However, two centuries later, when the Peshwas — who were Brahmins of an orthodox bent — took charge of the Maratha kingdom, the position of the Mahars in society worsened considerably.

They were considered untouchable and were prevented from joining the Maratha army. The article mentions the Mahars offered their services to Peshwa Baji Rao, but when he refused, they switched loyalties to join the British.

Today, on the site of the battle, exists a pillar erected by the British to honour those who died in battle. Most of the names mentioned here are of Mahar soldiers who died fighting for the British. Thousands of Dalit men and women visit the site of the battl, on the banks of the Bhima river on 1 January every year.

This year's celebrations

The celebrations are subdued every year, and would have been so this year as well, but for a distinctly political hue it has gotten in recent times. Rohith Vemula's mother, Radhika, is planning to visit the spot on 1 January, 2018, to launch an umbrella coalition of people from Dalit, lower caste and minority communities to take on what she has termed the "new Peshwas": The Hindutva forces like RSS and BJP.

As mentioned by another report in The Hindu, Radhika will be present at the 'Elgaar Parishad' in Pune's Shaniwar Wada fort on 31 December, and among the speakers expected to be present at the occasion are JNU student activist Umer Khalid, BR Ambedkar's grandson Prakash, who is also a leader of the Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh. Newly elected Gujarat MLA and Dalit worker Jignesh Mevani and social activist Soni Sori are also expected to attend.

Speaking ahead of the event, Jyoti Jagtap, member of Bhima-Koregaon Shauryadin Prerana Abhiyan, the organising committee, said they chose Shaniwar Wada as the venue because it represented the seat of the Peshwa empire. "The parishad would serve as a forum for speaking against cow vigilantism, khap panchayats, and persecution of liberals by saffron forces. We have deliberately chosen Shaniwar Wada, the seat of the Peshwas, as a reminder that the Peshwai mentality and the ethos of Brahminical superiority it posited, was oppressive," Jagtap was quoted as saying in the report.

Unsurprisingly, right-wing organisations have opposed the celebration, saying it will create differences among various castes. According to The Indian Express, Hindutva outfit Pune Nagar Hindu Sabha has opposed the programme and called it "anti-national". A letter released by the outfit said it is unconstitutional to consider a democratically elected government the "new Peshwa".

The Akhil Bhartiya Brahman Mahasangh and Udaysinh Peshwa, a descendant of the Peshwas, have asked the Pune Police to deny permission for the Shaniwar Wada event, the report mentioned.

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Updated Date: Jan 04, 2018 15:26:55 IST

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