Asia Life

India’s Bhima Koregaon: A Battle of Narratives

Recent Features

Asia Life

India’s Bhima Koregaon: A Battle of Narratives

The Koregaon riots show how the same historical event can be seen from different perspectives.

India’s Bhima Koregaon: A Battle of Narratives
Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Knitin777

Two battles were fought at Bhima Koregaon, one 200 years after the other. The first took place in January 1818, when the forces of the Maratha army of King Baji Rao II and units of the East India Company clashed at the village of Koregaon. In January 2018, the bicentennial celebration of the battle turned into a riot between members of two castes. Physical violence aside, the 2018 Koregaon riots show how the same historical event can be seen from very different perspectives and how history is important in social processes.

Was the Koregaon battle a major victory that shattered an empire, enslaved a country, freed a nation, or at least vanquished an army? Hardly.

The third Anglo-Maratha war (1817-1818) was one of the high points of the gradual, century-long conquest of India by the British East India Company. The Marathas, whose dynasties had earlier ruled over a few kingdoms in western India, emerged as one of the most formidable rivals of the British and it took the Company three wars to defeat and partially subdue them. One of the battles of the third Anglo-Maratha war was fought at the village of Koregaon – now a town called Bhima Koregaon in the Indian state of Maharashtra (the Bhima River passes next to it).

In January 1818, the army of Maratha King Baji Rao II encountered a much smaller Company force led by Captain Staunton near the village of Koregaon. The British units managed to hold off the attackers for some time but suffered significant losses. Upon hearing of the movement of another, much larger British force, the Maratha army moved out of the vicinity of the village and then Staunton’s men withdrew as well. Neither army was broken; neither side chased the other away. The battle may have been important, but it was not decisive.

The British administration later established a memorial at the place of the battle, the plaque calls it “one of the proudest triumphs of the British army in the East.” This is simply propaganda. Three Indian kingdoms of Marathas were defeated in the fights that took place after Koregaon and the whole war resulted with the East India Company taking over power in large parts of western India but the Koregaon clash was neither Britain’s proudest moment nor a triumph.

So who is actually commemorating the battle in modern, independent India? It’s not British tourists, it’s not the Indian administration, it’s not the Marathas. The most notable celebrations are organized by the members of the Mahar caste. The Mahars are perceived as a low caste and are considered untouchables (Dalits). In the period of the Anglo-Maratha wars, many Mahars lived under the rule of the Maratha kings and, just like other Dalits, were subject to social oppression by the dominant upper castes. Some of the Mahars decided to join the East India Company during the third Anglo-Maratha war and Mahar soldiers were present at the Koregaon battlefield on the British side.

It was only much later, in the 20th century, that some socially active Mahars began to commemorate the battle. It is assumed it was mainly due to the activities of the late Bhimrao Ambedkar (Ambavadekar), a Mahar and a famous Indian politician and social reformer (as well as a towering authority on legal affairs who was one of the fathers of the constitution of India). Ambedkar was one of the leaders of the Dalit movement in India and was a vocal critic of the upper caste orthodoxy, the traditions of which were responsible for the oppression of Dalits. Ambedkar is still a role model for many Indian Dalits. His decision to commemorate the Koregaon battle may be one his lesser known and less important choices; nevertheless, it turned the memory of the battle into one of the symbols of the Mahar movement.

January 1, 2018 marked the passing of 200 years since the battle and Mahar activists gathered at Koregaon for the anniversary. This year, however, the celebration of the battle turned into a battle itself.

As Mahars clashed with the members of the Maratha caste, the violence spread into other parts of the state of Maharashtra and left one person dead, many wounded, and plenty of property destroyed. The Marathas are not a high caste in the traditional hierarchy, but are considered higher than the Mahars; they are also one of the most demographically dominant groups in Maharashtra and many attach much importance to the past glory of the Maratha kingdoms, which the British had defeated.

To make matters more complicated, in the aftermath of the fracas there were claims that the rioting Marathas were mobilized against the Mahars by the people close to the Hindu nationalists and/or by Brahmins (priests, members of a high Hindu caste). The Hindu nationalists, in turn, claimed that the riots were caused by “anti-national” elements and Mahars who had been close to the Maoists insurgents.

We could therefore spot a third, nationalist narrative of the battle. The Hindu nationalists could portray the original Koregaonbattle as the struggle of the Indian nation against the invading British. Thus, commemorating the battle by the Mahars was possibly perc ived as both dividing the Hindus (as it focused on caste divides) but also dividing Indians (as it focused on the fight of an Indian community against an Indian kingdom alongside the British). It should be stressed, however, that what the Hindu nationalist sources dubbed as “anti-national” were the activities that led to the riots, and not the vision of the battle as such.

Thus, we have at least three visions of the battle and none of them is accurate. The East India Company and later the colonial administration depicted the Koregaon clash as grand victory, which it wasn’t. Some of the Mahars apparently perceive it as a symbol of the social struggle against the upper castes, which it was not. The nationalists perceive the Maratha struggles against the East India Company a part of the national resistance, though there was no united Indian nation at that time.

Some of the Hindu nationalists also perceive the Maratha kingdoms as the custodians of Hindu traditions. Some of the members of the Maratha caste also perceive the period of Maratha kingdoms as the time of the greatest glory and political unification of their lands and their community. Thus, when the Mahars are commemorating Koregaon , some nationalists may perceive it as anti-national; some Hindu nationalists may perceive it as dividing the Hindus; and some Marathas may perceive it as anti-Maratha and anti-Hindu. Thus, a small and forgettable clash like Koregaon can be simultaneously perceived as a struggle between the East India Company and a Maratha kingdom, a fight of Dalits against the upper castes, and a battle of Indians against Indians and of Hindus against Hindus.

It is true that the Dalits were often harshly or even cruelly treated by the upper castes in the Maratha kingdoms in the 19th century, as indeed they were in many states and many periods of Indian history. But it does not make Koregaon a part of their struggle against the upper castes (not historically, though it has become a part of this struggle symbolically). The Dalits have the right to point out the atrocities of the past and to demand better treatment and rights in the present. The Mahars have the right to commemorate the members of their community who served in armies and lost their lives in battles. But the Koregaon battle, apart from its little strategic importance, should not offer many reasons to cherish, as the war ushered in the supremacy of the rapacious East India Company. To be sure, Mahars do not at all commemorate Koregaon for its importance for colonial rule and the later British administration did not socially liberate the Dalits. Yet, it is probably also true that the social injustice in Hindu society motivated some of the Mahars to join the ranks of the Company forces.

Careful reading of historical sources seldom offers clear-cut divisions and black-and-white pictures. The Maratha kings were Hindus and patrons of Hindu traditions; the Brahmans had a very strong influence in the Maratha kingdoms, including in the administration. But it does mean that the Anglo-Maratha war was a clash between Hinduism and Christianity (and nobody sees it this way), nor does it make Koregaon a battle between low-caste Mahars and the defenders of the upper caste Hindu traditions – the Marathas. The reality was much more complex. There were various communities on each side of the conflict and as long as we perceive them as communities only, and not people, we risk all kinds of simplifications.

The East India Company army consisted of British soldiers and European mercenaries but primarily of Indian men, drawn from a number of groups and regions. The Maratha army included not only the representatives of upper castes and the low-castes Marathas, but also Rajputs from Rajputana, members of the tribes such as Bhils, and even Muslims. Despite the religious overtones of the royal Maratha court, Arab mercenaries played an important part in the Maratha army. It was actually the Arab infantry that stormed the village of Koregaon when Captain Staunton’s men were stationed in it. Yet nobody would have thought of such nonsense as perceiving the encounter as a one between Muslims under a Hindu king against low-caste Hindus under Christian officers. And this is just one example how a selective use of data and a generalized view of people as members of a community can build a stereotype of a historical event.

Even the “right to commemorate,” which I mentioned earlier, is problematic. As stated, the majority of the East India Company army in India consisted not of the British, but the members of various South Asian communities. The Mahars, the Marathas, the Sikhs, the Gurkhas and so many others have the right to remember the martial traditions and courage of their forefathers. But from the lens of the modern Republic of India, from the perspective of the narrative of the Indian nation, they were Indians fighting Indians, Indian soldiers suppressing rebellions of other Indians. It is obvious that the Indian state focuses on glorifying struggles against the British, such as the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857-58 (though of course in this case if we will use the modern notion of the Indian nation; Indians also fought against Indians during that rebellions). But should that national perspective suppress the right to commemorate the fallen of both sides? I think in that case it should not.

But does the “right to commemorate” extend to the British history of conquests all over the globe? India tolerates the existence of the colonial-period obelisk at Bhima Koregaon , although the memorial directly glorifies the “triumph” over Marathas. Other such monuments stand across India; apart from other relics of colonial propaganda, such as the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata. I do not see a reason to glorify the ruthless colonial conquests and should the Indian administration decide to remove the plaque from the Koregaon memorial and put another plaque in its place, it would have a full right to do so. But would a change of the plaque cause yet another conflict — between the Mahars and the Indian state? Hopefully not but this can’t be ruled out either. It would all depend on the wording and the interpretation of each party but, after all, there is a vast array of narrative options between the grandiose eulogy of the British deeds (available at the present monument) and a downright condemnation of everybody that took part in the conflict on the side of the Company (which hopefully will not happen).

By the standards of how nations deal with past oppressive regimes such as colonial powers, the Indian state is very liberal with the British legacy. Many of the former communist states or former Soviet republics in Eastern Europe have done much more to remove the statues and other symbols of the Soviet period. But commemorating the fallen soldiers should not be identified with glorifying the regime they were fighting for. Removing the statue of Queen Victoria would not have been the same as removing the Koregaon memorial, and removing the plaque from the memorial would not have been the same as removing the memorial. Mahars at Koregaon might have not been fighting for Dalit liberation, and the Maratha army of Baji Rao II was not defending the Indian nation, but the majority of the East India Company soldiers were probably not fighting the wars for ideological reasons either. It is hard to imagine they enlisted with the sole objective to enhance the glory of the British empire. Over the centuries, the foot soldiers on both sides of endless human conflicts mostly fought because they had to – forced to serve, or forced to defend their country, or forced into the army for the pay. As long as they did not serve for ideological reasons or were not cruel, the reason to commemorate the fallen soldiers of each side should be that they were humans, cast and crushed by the winds of history. This should be the reason to allow a degree of neutral commemorating of the foot soldiers of an enemy army, as long as it is done without glorifying their states and the ideologies that drove the conflicts. Their belonging to a particular religious, ethnic, and social group is an important fact as well but perceiving them as only members of a community makes them less human, not more.