Why you should care
Historically persecuted Dalits in India are asserting their identity in a country rife with caste-based violence.
On Jan. 1, 2018, thousands of people identifying as Dalit — traditionally India’s marginalized social caste — gathered at the Koregaon war memorial in Pune, Maharashtra. The Dalits are one of India’s most historically persecuted communities, but this event was an observance of a rare victory. At the memorial, which is referred to as the victory pillar, or Vijay Stambh, people started pelting the gathered crowd with stones. Groups wielding saffron flags, a symbol of right-wing Hindu nationalism, clashed with the Dalits, and the ensuing violence injured several people and killed one. Buses and police cars were torched as police fired tear gas shells into the mob. In the wake of the violence, massive protests by Dalits took place across India.
Exactly 200 years earlier, something similar had happened.
On Jan. 1, 1818, 500 soldiers from a marginalized caste in India, the Mahars — a subsection of the Dalit community, formerly known as “untouchables” and who converted to Buddhism in October 1956 — joined forces with 334 soldiers from Britain’s East India Company to fight a battle against the high-caste Peshwas, 28,000 strong, at Koregaon. They won. It helped the British army consolidate its rule in India. But for the Dalit community, it was a victory to reclaim their humanity from the oppression of the Peshwas.
As the clashes a year ago make clear, the 200-year-old wounds from that battle still haven’t healed. In fact, they’ve gotten even deeper.
At the site of the battle, the British erected a pillar, the Vijay Stambh, listing the names of the 49 dead soldiers, including 22 Mahar soldiers. Since that New Year’s Day crushing of the Peshwas, despite being soundly outnumbered, the site has become a symbol of pride for the Dalit community.
Somnath Waghmare, a documentary filmmaker who has chronicled the history of what is now known as the Bhima Koregaon battle, says, “Fighting the Peshwas and winning against them was a big victory against caste oppression.” He adds, “Bhima Koregaon was the first significant Dalit battle against a caste system that is still rampant in contemporary India.”
Bhima-Koregaon remains a contentious issue between India’s conservatives and the Dalit community. Conservatives have long viewed Dalits as traitors for siding with the British colonizers, but Waghmare explains that Mahars had their reasons to fight against Peshwas who belonged to a high caste. Baji Rao II, governor of the area from 1795 to 1818, reserved special punishments for Dalits. “He removed all soldiers who belonged to the Dalit community from his army and used to humiliate them by tying pots and brooms around their necks. Dalits were oppressed under his regime,” Waghmare says. “The Mahars sided with the British army so as to end his oppression.” It’s important, he adds, to emphasize that in the Indian army, there is still a regiment named after the Mahars: the Mahar Regiment.
As the clashes a year ago make clear, the 200-year-old wounds from that battle still haven’t healed. In fact, they’ve gotten even deeper. “The victory, or the pillar, wasn’t always this important to the Dalit community,” says Prabodhan Pol, who teaches history at Manipal Academy of Higher Education in Karnataka. It wasn’t until 1927 that the memorial was taken seriously: That was the year B.R. Ambedkar, who led the team that wrote the Indian constitution and is the Dalit community’s most iconic leader, visited to deliver a historic speech. “He pointed to Mahar warriors who had fought against oppression and won,” Pol says. “That was what started a new phase. People started associating it with Mahar pride.”
Things ramped up again in 2005, when a group of young Dalits wanting to connect to history formed a committee to keep the victory’s memory alive. Since then, many Dalits across India have visited the site, with activists estimating that half a million come annually.
But a backlash to the Bhima Koregaon annual celebration by Dalits is also growing, as intolerance toward minorities and a staunch Hindu nationalism have become more mainstream, especially under the current government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that is now seeking reelection. In the wake of the violence on Jan. 1, 2018, five Dalit activists and 32 right-wing protesters were arrested and charged with instigating crowd violence. According to Pol, the battle that day was “a preplanned attack by the right wing,” who were smarting from increasing Dalit pride in the region, and the charges against Dalit leaders were trumped up. Meanwhile, the Maharashtra government withdrew charges made that day … against one of the right-wing leaders.
For the 201st anniversary of Bhima Koregaon, Dalits across India have spent weeks gearing up for celebrations. In Bhima Koregaon, history is very much alive.
(This article has been updated since it was initially published on January 1, 2019.)