The Bicentennial celebration “Elgaar Parishad” of the Battle Koregaon by the Dalits, Muslims, Christians and Bahujans, both by organizations and individuals, at the Shaniwar Wada in Pune on December 31, followed by a march toward Bhima Koregaon 40 km from Pune, have seen opposition from the right-wing organisations. These organizations had the audacity to call the event, and the organizations and people celebrating it, as ‘anti-national’ and casteist (or reserve casteism(t)). This reactionary opposition to the actions of the Dalit-Bahujans organizing and celebrating 200 years of ‘burying Peshwai’ (translated from “पेशवाईगाडली” in Marathi, used by the Dalit-Bahujans to commemorate the battle)is manifestation of upper caste hegemonic cultural opposition to the challenges posed by Dalit-Bahujans in their fort of cultural supremacy, of which Shaniwarwada and Pune are symbols of. It is much less an exposition of the same rattling narrative of conflicting memories which the upper-castes have come-up to hold and sustain the pillars of their cultural juxtapositions and challenge the truths which are antithetical to their own narrative.
This piece is not a reaction to the reactionary opposition of the right-wing groups.My aim is not only to highlight the fallacies in the claims made by such groups in the context of broader tension between Dalit-Bahujans, but also to cull out what Battle of Koregaonreally signifies for Dalits.
Peshwas won the Battle and other rhetoric
Bhima-Koregaon has been on the list of manufacturing histories of the Right wing since the 1970s, where in the book Mantravegla (Inamdar, 1969), a Brahmin author claims that it were the Peshwas who won the battle of Koregaon. Recently, an undertone of victimhood can be seen in the statements of the President of Akhil Bhartiya Brahman Mahasabha where he claims that, 1) It were the British who waged the Third Anglo-Maratha war, Battle of Koregaon being a part of it; 2) That even Peshwa army had people from all castes including Maratha and Mahar; 3) “organisations are trying to defame the Peshwa calling them oppressors of Dalits and lower castes.”; 4) “The war was between British and Indian ruler and not between Mahar and Peshwa as is being told. So what are they celebrating? Victory of British over Marathas?”.
If one glances through the history, the Peshwa rule in the aftermath of the Second Anglo-Maratha War, was marked with compromises, which lead to the decay of the Maratha Empire. The internal conflict within Maratha rulers made them seek help of Britishers time and again at the cost of making substantive concessions in form of giving up substantive territories and political powers. The successive treaties, Treaty of Salbai,1782; Treaty of Bassein, 1802 and the Treaty of Pune, 1817, and Peshwa’s non-adherence to their commitments led to the Anglo-Maratha wars. The Peshwas thus were only titular heads under the British Empire, and the victimhood assertion is baseless when looked at from the prism of history.
The second statement made by the president and many other like proponents of Mahars being part of Peshwa army needs contextual understanding. Chatrapati Shivaji, the founder of the Hindavi Swaraj, included Mahars as an essential part of his armies due their valour, loyalty and trustworthiness. As Peshwa’s gained effective control over the Maratha Empire, they also inherited the loyal and trustworthy Mahar warriors, but never actively recruited Mahars. Rather untouchables faced worst kind of persecution during the Peshwa’s orthodox Brahminic rule, where the untouchables were made to tie brooms behind their backs to sweep up the dust of their footprints and to tie pots in front on their necks to collect their spittle.Infact, Mahars refused to serve Peshwas in their armies, as a protest against such rampant social oppression.
In Law, truth is the best defence against ‘Defamation’. The third claim of Right-Wing organization regarding “defaming” Peshwas falls flat on the ground for being a flawed fallacy. As stated above, the untouchables faced worst form of social exclusion and discrimination during the reign of Peshwas. Thus, Peshwas are not being defamed as their horrific deeds against Dalits are a matter of essential historical facts and do not need much substantiation in light of enough historical evidence.
What does Battle of Koregaon signify?
The significance cannot be construed as mere symbolic. To put it simply, the Battle of Koregaon is not only a victory of Mahars over Peshwas, but is normatively a manifestation of voice of Dalit-Bahujans against annihilation of caste. Dalit-Bahujans do not commemorate the victory of the colonial power over Peshwas, but celebrate victory of annihilating the regime which perpetuated worst form of casteism and social exclusion, by their forefathers. The semantics of personal experiences of discrimination and social exclusion faced by us is central to our visit to Koregaon, as in Dr. Ambedkar’s own words, “I am proud that I am a Mahar. Mahars are a brave caste…The Victory pillar at Koregaon is the testimony of victory”.The victory here is to show what Mahars (and Dalits) can achieve in terms of annihilating the political and social power which perpetuated caste based discrimination against them.
The continuing experiences of discrimination faced by Dalits-Bahujans, Muslims and minorities on caste, religious and cultural lines is the root which gives water to the blooming Dalit assertion for human dignity. I wonder if the intensity of Dalits paying homage to Koregaon would have been the same if the society was, in Ambedkar’s pragmatic view, ‘casteless and devoid of caste based discrimination’.That not being the case, be it the clogged pipes of justice, or the injustices in all spheres of society, Dalit have to assert at each and every step, at very basic, their human identity. The rampant atrocities against Dalits, on-going practice of untouchability in many parts of India, rise of fascism, mob-oriented killings by the Right-wing groups, among others, draw millions of Dalit to the place where they defeated the system which ruthlessly discriminated against us. Dalits with their own capacity, when they were given an opportunity, annihilated the casteist regime.
Koregaon thus is one of the central landmarks of Dalit socio-cultural assertion in the backyard of Brahmnical hegemony, Pune, which is the cultural capital of Maharashtra for the upper-castes. It gives a sense of confidence to the Dalit groups, and it is a place where the Savarnas can’t question the ‘ability’ of Dalits in whatever sense, as the large part of Dalit experience still goes in upper castes considering Dalits unworthy of everything, expect doing menial jobs like manual scavenging.
The argument of the Right-wing that such Bicentennial celebration is casteist towards them stands refuted as the Dalit assertion, deriving from Dr. Ambedkar has never been against one particular case, but has been towards the systemic discrimination by the upper-castes in India. The use of terminology of reverse casteism is thus problematic and faulty, as the struggle for emancipation of Dalits against the marred realties of caste based discrimination is not a form of discrimination against a caste or a group, but is against the very system of Chaturvarna.
Importance of hosting Bicentennial celebration at Shaniwarwada, Pune:
Shaniwarwada, Pune, was and is still considered a darling of the Brahmical hegemony, the seat of Peshwa Empire. It is at this very place, where the Peshwa rulers drafted and reinvented the notion of purity and forced Dalits into the extreme margins of the society and oppressed Dalits like very few others. As the Battle signifies at the least over-throwing and burying of such oppressive Brahminical oppression, in the cultural conflict between the Dalits and upper castes, this celebration is the much needed open confrontation and challenge to the Right-wing’s discrimination against Dalits in Contemporary India.
The social and cultural meaning of hosting the venue goes even deeper. The modern day caste based discrimination is manifested as the “New-Peshwai” by Dalits across India, in particularly Maharashtra. The Dalit struggle for emancipation is to its centre a struggle for uprooting the New Peshwai or annihilating caste. The pride taken by the Right-wing in the Peshwa rule and Shaniwarwada as the best preserved symbol of Peshwa Empire, is also an indication of the castiest culture, which still persists today. There cannot be a better place and time to give momentum to the common struggle of Dalit-Bahujans, and minorities against the New-Peshwai, as it broadly indicates the willingness of Dalits to hit the core of oppressive socio-cultural regime through “यलगार” (which translates to a war cry to commence attack), which denies millions basic human dignity.
Dalits assertion as anti-national
Branding Dalit-Bahujan assertion as anti-national is at the least, without any controversy, manifestation of casteist mentality. At the very basic we have to ask a question which Dr. Ambedkar asked, “How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation?”. For Dr. Ambedkar Nationalism was definitely not Hindu nationalism, as it lies in the root of fraternity, social endosmosis and human dignity, and caste is antithetical to his idea of nationalism. Dalit struggle for emancipation is to achieve a caste-less and discrimination less society, which will lead to social assimilation. In turn the branding tactics of the Right are core casteist, as they are discriminatory towards democratic actions of the Dalits and the marginalized.
Dr. Ambedkar’s tremendous foresight on constitutional morality plays a significant role in the anti-national debate. Anti-national test indicates clash of societal conception of diverse interests, where dissent, unequal opinions is termed as anti-national. In terms of morality, Constitutional mandate directs us to promote equality, fraternity and observe dignity amongst our fellow Indians. If we bring our personal conception of morality in harmony with constitutional morality ‘we the people’ will observe growth in social solidarity and peace. In Dr. Ambedkar’s words “Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realise that our people have yet to learn it.”
The Right-Wing fails the test of scrutiny from Dr. Ambedkar’s sight on nationalism and constitutional morality, and normatively speaking it raises a question of whether the Dalits are, or the Right-Wing is anti-constitutional and ofcourse, anti-national?
Asang Wankhede is a Felix Scholar and a LLM Candidate at SOAS, University of London