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The British East India Company, the Hindu right and a battle over oppression

In early January, lower caste Indians in Maharashtra gather to commemorate a battle. This year, they were attacked. 

On New Year’s Day in 1818, Peshwa Baji Rao II, the ruler of the Peshwa faction of the Maratha Confederacy, which covered much of central India, led a 28,000-strong force towards Pune, a city on the west coast (and a metropolis today). His aim was to recapture it from the British East India Company. At the village of Bhima Koregaon, however, he was halted by a small Company force numbering 800.

Rao II sent 2,000 of his finest infantrymen to capture the village, but the outnumbered Company soldiers held them off till eventually the Peshwa forces withdrew, fearing the arrival of a larger British force.

This would be one of the last battles of the Third Anglo-Maratha war, which established the firm hold of the British Empire on India. Consequently, the British erected a 60 foot commemorative obelisk at the site, inscribed with the names of the 49 company soldiers who died in the battle. Of those soldiers, 22 belonged to the Mahar community, viewed as “untouchables” by traditional Hindu caste hierarchy. Intended as a symbol of British political and military power, over the last century the memorial has become a symbol of Dalit resistance and the site of an annual pilgrimage for thousands of Dalits from Maharashtra (and elsewhere).

The idea of Indian citizens celebrating a British victory may seem curious if viewed through a modern nationalism vs imperialism lens, but as is often the case, history is more complicated than such easy binaries suggest.

So too, is the present day. If you skimmed through the headlines in the Indian mainstream media over the last couple of days, you would be excused for thinking that the recent protests in Maharashtra by various Dalit groups were either a) a spontaneous explosion of undirected rage or b) an insidious plot to break up the unity of India by assorted anti-national forces (which includes everyone from the Indian National Congress party to the communists to the erstwhile British empire).

“Cops Look On As Mob Holds City To Ransom,” screamed the headline on the front page of the Times of India, the country’s biggest English language newspaper. “Dalit Protests Shut Down State, RSS Blames ‘Breaking India’ Brigade,” was the headline in the Indian Express.

Dalit groups – the name means “oppressed” and denotes those previously denigrated as “untouchables” – did indeed hold a strike on 3 January 2017, in which hundreds of thousands of protesters turned out all over the state of Maharashtra. And while the protests were largely peaceful, the odd incidents of vandalism and violence referenced by those headlines did happen. But conveniently lost in all this breathless coverage of blocked highways and “Dalit violence” is what the people on the streets were protesting.

On the morning of 1 January 2018, two centuries after the battle at Bhima Koregaon, a group of men holding saffron flags and wearing saffron shirts (allegedly from Hindutva organisations) attacked Dalits on the way to the tiny village that has become a symbol of the Dalit struggle against caste oppression. One person died in the violence, at least four more ended up in the hospital, and scores of cars, homes and stores were vandalised. And yet most of the media coverage has focused not on this initial act of aggression, but on the response to it.

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To understand the violence at Bhima Koregaon, one needs to go back to the history of the Maratha empire, which informs much of contemporary politics in the state of Maharashtra. From the mid-1650s onwards, the warrior king Shivaji Bhonsle (also known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj), fought a series of battles against the Adishahi Sultanate of Bijapur and the Mughal Empire, carving out what would become the Maratha Empire. Though Shivaji revived many ancient Hindu political traditions and encouraged the use of Marathi and Sanskrit in his court, his rule is also considered by many as relatively egalitarian. He, and his son Sambhaji, recruited many Mahar soldiers in their armies, elevating some to positions of privilege.

But by the mid-1700s, after a series of succession struggles, the Peshwas – originally a subordinate equivalent to a modern Prime Minister – became the de facto rulers of the Maratha empire (and later the Maratha confederacy). Orthodox “high-caste” Brahmins, the Peshwas stopped the recruitment of Mahars. Their rule was notorious for their persecution of so-called “untouchables”. Mahars were forbidden from moving about in public spaces, forced to tie brooms behind their back to wipe away their footprints and wear pots under their necks to collect their spit. Meanwhile the East India Company recruited heavily from the Mahar community, providing them with opportunities for employment and education that did not exist under Peshwa rule. 

Over the years, the battle of Koregaon – an against the odds victory against the army of the Peshwa oppressors - became a symbol of the bravery and strength of the Mahars, a counterpoint to the dehumanising narrative imposed on them by the caste system. This narrative was further cemented by no other than Dr BR Amebdkar, a founding father of the Indian republic and the foremost leader in the struggle for Dalit emancipation in the 20th century. On 1 January 1927, he led a commemoration of the battle at the memorial site, starting a tradition that has continued until today.

Whether or not the battle of Koregaon was actually fought over caste oppression is open for debate. Writing in The Wire, political analyst and civil rights activist Anand Teltumbde argues that this interpretation was a necessary myth constructed by Ambedkar in his efforts to build a strong anti-caste movement (Shraddha Kumbhojkar has a more detailed examination of the battle of Koregaon as a site of contested memories). But myth or not, the Koregaon memorial is now a symbol of Dalit assertion and the ongoing battle against caste oppression.

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With this year being the 200th anniversary of the battle, the celebrations at Bhima Koregaon were much bigger than usual. On 31 December, a number of Dalit organisations joined together with Maratha organisations to commemorate the battle with a conference called Elgaar Parishad. Held in none other than Shaniwar Wada, the historical seat of the Peshwa empire in Pune, the conference aimed to raise awareness about the recent rise in caste atrocities across the country. (Such incidents include the burning of 25 Dalit houses in 2016, after Dalits objected to the higher caste Rajputs playing loud music during a procession).

Once again harking back to the battle of 1818, anti-caste activists termed the ruling Hindu-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), its sister organisation, the militaristic Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and other such groups, “the new Peshwas”. The pointed historical analogy hit the mark. “This hurt the Brahmin and Peshwa sentiments a lot, that Shaniwarwada was occupied by 100,000 Dalits who were addressing issues of social equality and freedom,” says Pune-based musician and activist Sujat Ambedkar, the son of prominent anti-caste politician Prakash Ambedkar and the great-grandson of Dr BR Ambedkar. Before the conference, Ambedkar was warned that Hindu right activists might attack.

In fact, the conference, held under police protection, went off without a hitch. But the next morning, as people made their way to the memorial site at Bhima Koregaon, they found themselves under siege. Video footage shows men holding saffron flags pelting stones at vehicles and attacking people with blue flags (saffron is the colour adopted by Brahminical Hindutva and Maratha groups, while blue denotes Dalit and Ambedkarite groups). By most accounts, the violence continued for more than five hours before the police brought the situation under control. By then, several people had been injured, with at least five needing hospitalisation. One of them, 28-year-old Rahul Phatangale succumbed to his injuries a few hours later.

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At its heart, the violence at Bhima Koregaon is not just about contested versions of ancient history, but about the resonance that history still holds today. Shivaji Maharaj himself remains a towering - and strongly contested - figure in contemporary Maharashtrian politics. In the 19th and early 20th century Shivaji, with his struggle for Hindavi Swarajya (Indian self-rule or Hindu self-rule), was resurrected as a proto-nationalist figure. His battles against the Muslim Mughal empire made him an icon, with right-wing historians and ideologues portraying him as the Gau-Brahman prati-palak (the protector of cows and Brahmins). At the same time, anti-caste social reformers celebrated him as a ruler dedicated to the upliftment of the poor and the lower castes. Meanwhile the Marathas themselves see Shivaji as a symbol of Maratha warrior pride, a progressive figure who challenged Brahminical hegemony. By contrast, the Peshwa rule that followed was seen as representing Brahmin ascendancy over the Marathas.

All of these competing narratives also easily map onto the complex electoral calculus that characterise contemporary politics in the state. For most of the past half century, politics in Maharashtra has been about the power struggle between the socially and politically dominant Marathas, and their Brahmin opponents. The Dalits, who make up 10 per cent of the state’s population, have largely aligned with the Marathas against their common caste enemy, although this alliance has not been without its own clashes.

In 2014, the BJP – and its ideological mothership, the RSS – came to power in both the nation and the state on a platform that combined economic development and right-wing Hindu beliefs. Faced with a Brahmin as Chief Minister – and the increasing acceptance of the RSS ideology – some Maratha groups and leaders feared the return of Brahmin hegemony. Over the last couple of years, Marathas have mobilised in large numbers, taking out anti-government marches that protest an agrarian crisis and rising farmer suicides, but also often characterising the ruling BJP regime as “Brahminical”.

By this time, Maratha relations with the Dalit movement were at a low (the ostensible trigger for the protests was the rape and murder of a Maratha woman, by three Dalit men). But recently, there have been signs of a rapprochement. Dalit and Maratha leaders recognise that an inclusive non-Brahmin movement represents a powerful ideological counterpoint to the BJP’s resurgent Hindu nationalism. The conference at Shaniwar Wada had been organised not just by Dalit activists, but also had the support of Maratha political organisations (who would also support the 3 January 2018 strike, a fact conveniently ignored by pro-BJP media outlets).

A Maratha-Dalit alliance would be a formidable challenge to the BJP’s dominance in a state that numbers more than 112 million. The aggressive response to the commemoration of the battle of Bhima Koregaon may be explained in part by the Hindu right’s interest in nipping such an alliance in the bud. Sujat Ambedkar, the caste rights activist, claims that Hindu right activists tried to stir up trouble by telling Marathas in the neighbouring villages that the “Peshwas were only the kings, but the soldiers were Marathas”. As he puts it: “So the remembrance of the battle is a celebration of Dalits beating Marathas, it’s a celebration of your defeat. That’s what created the anger.”

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There is more than one version of what happened at Bhima Koregaon. The right-wing Hindu activists that have been arrested for orchestrating violence have said the allegations against them are false. The RSS has put out statements condemning the violence and blaming it on “divisive forces”, while the BJP’s spokespersons have blamed the “incitement politics” of the Indian National Congress.

The case against the activists is ongoing. But it is instructive to note that it is the above statements, rather than the claims of the Dalit eye-witnesses that have found credence within sections of the Indian media. Times Now and Republic TV – the two most openly right wing, pro-government channels on air – chose to focus on a speech by a Gujurati politician and anti-caste activist Jignesh Mevani, in which he said the fight against casteism would be won on the streets. The fact that two right-wing Hindu leaders had already been booked for “orchestrating violence” received little mention.

Both channels are now openly partisan cheerleaders of the ruling party. But the ostensibly “liberal” media also chose to refer to Bhima Koregaon as “clashes” or “riots”, with the implication that both sides were equally responsible. CNN News 18 went so far as to refer to the Bhima Koregaon incident as “Dalit violence”, which is akin to calling Russian invasion of Crimea a “Ukrainian attack”. Such a narrative is politically convenient, not just to the ruling right-wing Hindu party, but also the privileged urban upper caste audience. Yet it ignores the complex interplay of competing histories, caste politics and rising caste atrocities that brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets.

This wilful blindness to the ground realities of caste is one of the byproducts of an Indian media that is dominated by upper caste Hindu men. A 2006 survey by journalists and media academics found that despite being only 8 per cent of the population, upper caste Hindu men constituted as much as 71 per cent of the key decision makers in Indian media. Not one of the 315 senior journalists surveyed were Dalit. Things are no better today. In 2017, Sudipto Mandal wrote an excellent piece for Al Jazeera which, among other things, said that over 10 years of searching he found only eight Dalit journalists in the Indian English media. Only four of them were still in journalism when he wrote the piece.

It’s no surprise that – whether through conscious casteism or unconscious bias – the Indian media consistently reinforces the narratives and prejudices of the upper castes, downplaying both the reality of caste oppression and the resurgent Dalit resistance. If journalism is the first draft of history, then it is a distinctly biased one. “We are sure that the media and the government will project it as violence initiated by our people,” said one female Dalit protester, quoted in the Indian Express. “In the end, only we will be penalised.”

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.