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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. 

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Game of Stones: The power struggle at the heart of British curling

Dynasties, scandal and “the curse” behind the scenes of the only Olympic sport you can play while eating pizza.

At the 1980 annual Canadian men’s curling championship, the Calgary competitor Paul Gowsell ordered a pizza mid-play. With tangled red hair down to his shoulders, a thick beard and in his signature plaid trousers, Gowsell – or “Pizza Paul” – had become a cult curling figure in the late Seventies.

“The rebel of the curling world” was known for his drinking and partying on the curling circuit, and rocking up to tournaments – or “bonspiels”, to give them their proper name – in his battered VW van.

Legend has it that a stray olive from his pizza on the ice lost his opponents the game that day.

Since Gowsell’s heyday, curling has professionalised. It became an official Winter Olympics sport in 1998 (the previous and only time it had this status was in 1924), but remains one of the most peculiar competitions of the season.

“We do get made fun of a lot” 

The brooms, frantic brushing, screaming from the “skip” (the captain of the team in charge of strategy), gliding on one knee, and even the equipment itself – 44-pound lumps of granite known as “stones”, which look a bit like old-fashioned irons – make for bizarre watching, as competitors release their stones before the “hogline” in an attempt to reach the “house”: the target at the end of the rink.

The etiquette is to shake hands before a game, and say “good curling”.

Its quirks are not lost on curlers, who appear to embrace the gentle mockery of their sport. The array of outlandish patterned trousers worn by the Norwegian men’s team brought a goofy humour to Pyeongchang (pink hearts for Valentine’s Day were a particular hit), inspiring an entire Facebook page of half a million Likes dedicated to their legwear. Meanwhile, the moustachioed and red-hatted US curler Matt Hamilton has been memed as Mario by his own team.


A veteran curling commentator I speak to, who does not want to be named because he remains closely involved in the sport and wishes to speak frankly, says comedic takes on curling – like the 2010 episode of The Simpsons “Boy Meets Curl”, in which Homer and Marge accidentally discover their innate talent for the game – “generally help promote the sport”.

“People definitely make fun of it! There are a lot of awesome personalities in curling and I think part of it is because we do get made fun of a lot. You kind of have to have a really good sense of humour to curl,” says John Cullen, a 32-year-old Canadian comedian and competitive curler in the world-ranked Team Joanaisse.

Every time the Winter Olympics come along, curling manages to entrance audiences. It’s one of the few sports to be played for the entirety of the Games because of its “round robin” structure (where each country has to play the other, at least once).

Curling benefits from a lot of airtime. Matches can last three hours, and there are mixed doubles as well as separate men’s and women’s tournaments.

But it also captures our imagination because, unlike figure skating or alpine skiing, we feel like anyone could have a go. Curlers don’t all look like athletes. The dedicated viewer can watch them chatting, see their anguished facial expressions – and hear them swear when they mess up.

“You still have people who make the Olympics who’ve got a bit of a belly”

“It has a big appeal for people because it seems – even though it’s not – like a game you could play, if you’re just a regular person watching the Olympics,” says Cullen, who has curled for 20 years. “Every Olympics, people think to themselves, ‘OK, if I started curling tomorrow, I could be in the next Olympics’.”

A bit like darts, he adds: “Curling is a lot more physically demanding than darts, but when you watch darts on TV, you think ‘oh these guys are drinking, they’re not in shape’.

“It seems accessible in a way other sports don’t… Curlers now are more fit than ever, but you still have people who make the Olympics who, yeah, they’ve got a bit of a belly, or they don’t really look like they spend that much time in the gym. They just kind of look like regular people.”

Adding to curling’s relatability, there are two real-life couples in the mixed doubles this year, and you can watch them bicker as they play. Norway’s girlfriend-and-boyfriend outfit Kristin Skaslien and Magnus Nedregotten admit to having heated arguments on the ice (she never sweeps for him, as far as I can tell from watching one of their games – you go, sister), whereas Russia’s wife-and-husband duo Anastasia Bryzgalova and Aleksandr Krushelnitckii have had their bronze medal tarnished by the latter’s suspected doping.

When a doping scandal reaches your sport, you know it’s made it.

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Traced back to 16th-century Scotland, the sport nicknamed the “Roaring Game” – because of the sound of rolling across ice – was played socially with stones on frozen ponds and lochs by farmers in winter, when no farming could be done.

Competitions between neighbouring communities began in the 18th century, when Rabbie Burns would play and even wrote some poetry about it, and Scots took the game across the country with the arrival of the railways. They later exported it to places as far as North America and New Zealand.

But it took until 2002 for the general public to notice curling in Britain. The Great British women curlers’ unexpected gold at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City transformed attitudes towards the sport – it was the first time Britain had won gold at the Winter Olympics since Torvill and Dean’s Bolero ice dance in 1984 at Sarajevo.

 “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms”

An audience of 5.7 million people watched the tense final live on the BBC, when five previously unknown women from Scotland beat Switzerland with the final throw – since dubbed the “Stone of Destiny” – played by the skip, Rhona Martin.

“It definitely put curling on the map. We used to get wee write-ups in the back of the paper and that was it,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Ayrshire. “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms, and curling your hair, whereas now people see it as a sport because they’re more knowledgeable about the game.”


Rhona Martin delivering the Stone of Destiny. Photo: Getty

A flag-waving crowd greeted her team when they landed in Heathrow – adoration they hadn’t been expecting. They received a congratulatory message from then Prime Minister Tony Blair (“You have captured the imagination of the whole of the UK”), appeared on everything from Lorraine Kelly’s sofa to Ready Steady Cook, were put up at Claridge’s and received MBEs from the Queen, and sat in the royal box at Wimbledon.

Curling fever didn’t last long, however. The women returned to full-time work or being full-time mothers. Talk of a Hollywood movie about their victory died. Two of the five endured intrusive news reports about their marriages breaking down, and Martin (now Howie after a subsequent marriage) was at one point a “single mother living on benefits”, as put by one of her agents.

This became known as the “Curse of the Curlers”, according to the Guardian. Indeed, Howie’s gold medal was stolen from the Dumfries Museum four years ago, never to be recovered.

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Has the curse on British curling finally been lifted?

Two dynasties of curling champions dominate Team GB this year: the Muirheads and the Smiths. Both are Scottish farming families from Perthshire, both have two or more siblings on the Olympic curling teams, and all the competitors are children of world champions: they grew up on farms about 40 miles apart, and were regulars at their local rink.

“We’re all super-competitive”

The only member of the men’s team who is neither Muirhead nor Smith, Kyle Waddell, comes from another Scottish curling dynasty: his grandfather Jimmy was European curling champion in 1979.

Eve Muirhead, skip of the women’s team, is the current queen of the dominant Muirhead dynasty. The three-time world medallist, now 27, was the youngest ever skip to win a Winter Olympic medal, when her team took bronze at Sochi in 2014. Her brothers Tom and Glen on the men’s team are making their Olympic debut.

The Muirheads’ father Gordon, a sheep farmer, is a world champion who competed at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Eve was inspired to begin curling at the age of nine.


The Muirhead siblings on their farm. Photo: Getty

Kyle Smith, the skip of the men’s team, is head of the curling house of Smith. His younger brother Cammy is on the same team. Their father David, a dairy and potato farmer, was a world champion skip in 1991, and their uncle Peter (known as “Pistol Pete” in the curling world, for his sharp-shooter-like accuracy) represented Team GB at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

Known as Team Muirhead and Team Smith, they still help out with their respective families’ farming duties. While training for the Olympics, Kyle Smith fed the calves before going to the gym in the morning or milking at weekends, and the Muirhead brothers combine their sheep farming duties with training (they’re missing the lambing season to be at the Olympics). But Eve – who also plays golf and the bagpipes – prioritises curling practice.


The Smiths and Muirheads playing together. Photo: Getty

The Smiths are trailing the Muirheads medal-wise and see themselves as “the underdogs”, but there’s more rivalry between siblings than between the two families, who often play on the same team.

“I know we’re all super-competitive,” Eve tells me down the line from Pyeongchang. “We all support each other to the bitter end. To have my two brothers here is really special, I guess it makes this Olympics a little bit more special than the other ones.”

Just last season, the Muirhead brothers were on different teams and went head-to-head, competing for the same Olympic spot, which made working together on the farm temporarily tough. They had to check up on each other’s flocks while the other was training to beat them.

“Our local rink has unfortunately now closed down”

“I have learned how to wind him up over the last year so I have a few tricks up my sleeve,” Thomas, the younger Muirhead, quipped at the time. All the Muirhead siblings are so competitive that no board games were allowed at home.

Curling isn’t seen as a “posh” sport, like skiing (although curling clubs have been linked to freemasonry in the past), and it’s likely that such a small pool of talent is down to the sport’s decline rather than a privileged elite.

Eve Muirhead tells me that her “local rink at Pitlochry” – where she played as a child – has “unfortunately now closed down”, and this is part of a trend in Scotland. At curling’s peak in 1993, Scotland had 31 ice rinks which offered curling. The number is now down to 22.

The veteran curling commentator I speak to says the Olympics have benefited the sport’s image, but the money spent on elite competitive curling “to ‘buy’ GB medals” in this country “hasn’t helped grassroots curling much; only a few curlers benefit”.

It’s even starker in countries with no curling legacy. China has just two curling clubs for a population of 1.4 billion and still sends teams to the Olympics. Cullen confirms this, from his experience of international play. “Once curling got us [Canada] in the Olympics, a lot of countries recognised this as an opportunity to get a medal,” he says. “So what they’ve done in some of those cases in China, Japan, Korea, is they’ve found athletes from other sports and converted them into curlers.”

***

But this doesn’t mean curling is easy; it just makes it a more competitive sport. With my only background in curling being an episode of Pingu I watched as a child (he sweeps with his foot, the innovator), I rounded up some colleagues and went to the Sliders Social Fun and Games Club at Queens ice rink in West London to try it out for myself.

The banging beats, disco ball, and giant projected episode of Pointless on a rink-side screen didn’t exactly scream 16th century loch, but we pulled on our studded grippy rubber soles and took to the ice.

While one colleague discovered that she was “actually sick” (her words) at curling, most of us found the stones impossibly heavy and rolled them nowhere near the target.




New Statesman staff curl

The author attempts to curl

After a few failed attempts, I tried a double-handed curl, but that didn’t work at all. One bolder team member developed a special “one-knee thrust” move, which worked quite well.

Even the brushing was quite tough, because you fear falling over at any moment. Some men on the neighbouring rink told us we were “rubbish”.

Essentially, curling is really hard. A lesson that adds to its status as history’s most misunderstood sport. But its players remain dedicated, and audiences engrossed. As Rhona Howie, the master of the “Stone of Destiny”, tells me: “Never, ever give up, and keep fighting, one stone at a time.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.