Bhima Koregaon: the battle continues even after 200 years

Rahul Vaidya

Bhima Koregaon Victory Pillar.jpg

a few days before The Elgar Parishad (conference) was to be held in Pune by
many Dalit and progressive organizations to commemorate 200
anniversary of battle of Bhima Koregaon
[1]; it
was certain that it would not sail through smoothly, especially with BJP government in
power. With Shaniwar Wada (the palace of Peshwas, and seat of their rule) as
the venue where this show of Dalit assertion scheduled to be held, and Jignesh
Mewani and Umar Khalid as speakers at the event; it was no wonder that BJP-
Sangh pariwar tried hard to thwart the program. Attempts were made to cancel the event citing it as threat to law and order
situation. Descendants of Peshwas were brought into the picture- who termed it
as ‘mockery of Bajirao Peshwa and others who sacrificed their lives for the
Keeping aside the fact that Bajirao Peshwa II sustained his flamboyant lifestyle on
pension provided by East India Company for long time; the curious invocation of
nationalism, and attempts to link it to Peshwai were by no means new, nor

all this, Elgar Parishad on 30th December was immensely successful.
Mewani and Umar called for people to take to streets to defeat the New Peshwai
of Brahminical Hindutva and Capitalist exploitation. It was anticipated that
Sangh-BJP would try to create ruckus in the program, and would try to raise the
‘anti-national’ bogey at some point or the other. What was not anticipated was
the larger plan which would be unleashed; independent of whether the Elgar
Parishad took place or not, any frivolous ‘anti-national’ quote the Parivar
would get to harp upon or not. The violence unleashed on Dalits on 1st
January 2018 was not ‘riot’, were not ‘caste clashes’, were not ‘lumpens taking
to the streets’. It was a plot to widen the gulf between castes and further the
Hindutva agenda. The little media coverage it received only helped the Hindutva
forces to escape relatively unscathed from national attention, while the
Maharashtra Bandh called in protest of this was brandished as another instance
of how Left-Dalit progressive protests are nuisance, divisive and dangerous to
national unity. This anti-Left, upper caste-class bias of media was nothing
new. And under the present dispensation, the last figment of being politically
correct also has been done away with. So, no wonders over there.

and Bhima Koregaon
that as it may. As I mentioned, it is important to shift focus from Pune (Elgar
Parishad) and Mumbai (Maharashtra Bandh) to the events at Vadhu-Budruk and
Bhima-Koregaon: past and present.  Vadhu
Budruk is the place near Pune where Shivaji’s son Sambhaji who was killed by
Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. This place was discovered by historian V.C. Bendre in
1939. It is quite interesting that Sambhaji’s last rites were performed by one
Govind Mahar and a Samadhi (memorial) was built by Mahar dalits to honor the
fallen Maratha king. Why was this so? Especially considering the caste and
religious orders; why a Maratha king was laid to rest by Mahars? Historian
Bendre, Kamal Gokhale and Com. Sharad Patil have emphasized that the answer
lies in the fact that Shivaji and his son Sambhaji had revolted against the
Brahminical order. Shivaji’s fort commanders came from not just Marathas or
other upper castes but they included all Naths and his army comprised all
alute-balutedar castes (all lower sa-varna, a-varna, shoodra jatis). Not just
this, Shivaji’s crowning was opposed by Brahmins. Both he and Sambhaji were
crowned as per Shakt sect rituals as well. What is more, Sambhaji was a scholar
in Sanskrit and a poet who had studied Vedas. Further, he became Shakt under
influence of his minister Kalash. This was in direct confrontation with Vedic
religion and Manusmriti. What is more, following the footsteps of Shivaji,
Sambhaji clashed with elite Maratha Vatandars over the issue of vatans (feudal
titles of land) but also exploitation of peasantry in other regards. It was a
direct threat to Brahminical order protected by feudal interests[3]. It
was no wonder that frequent coups against Sambhaji were led by his Brahmin
ministers. So when he was captured by Aurangzeb’s army, it was the Brahmin
clergy who advised to punish him as prescribed in Manusmriti. Hence, taking out
eyes for crime of reading Vedic Mantras, beheading for memorizing and chanting
Vedas and then cut the dead body into pieces and throw the parts all around-
this was how Sambhaji was executed in  Manusmriti
prescribed fashion.
hence it is no wonder that no Hindu sa-varna was willing to touch the fallen
king and perform his last rites. It was done by Mahars. It was testimony to the
revolt of the oppressed that Shivaji-Sambhaji’s rule came to signify. It is no
wonder that Brahminical Peshwai did its best to do away with this legacy.
Peshwai was unique in Brahmins monopolizing all branches of ruling state
apparatus- religious doctrines, social order, military, and taxation, landed
property. No wonder it was one of the darkest episodes in Maharashtra’s social
life which made bonded labor a norm, oppressed the women, killed peasants who
couldn’t pay taxes and made Dalits wear pots in the neck and carry broom around
to ensure they don’t pollute the surroundings.    

What about the immediate present in
Vadhu-budruk? The Dalits of the village had built a Samadhi memorial
celebrating Govind Mahar’s courage and his act of performing last rites for
fallen king of Maharashtra. However, in the wake of growing Maratha- Dalit
disconnect, there have been claims that a certain Maratha family actually sewed
together the parts of Sambhaji’s body and performed his last rites. Hence their
surname became ‘Shivale’ (those who stitch). It is by stoking these notions of
Maratha superiority (and hatred for Muslims); the Hindutva organizations have
been spreading their influence in the districts of western Maharashtra. Breeding
new myths, cementing old ones and monopolizing the power which would decide the
correct ones to follow has been the leitmotif of Hindutva operation. So it is
no wonder that Samast Hindu Aghadi of Milind Ekbote and Shiv Pratishthan of Manohar
alias Sambhaji Bhide found a receptive ground here. On 28th
December, a signboard showing way to Govind Mahar’s Samadhi put up by Rajendra
Gaekwad, a descendant of Govind Mahar was destroyed. This led to tensions in
the village. 49 people were arrested. A whispering campaign about a possible
backlash from Dalits (Sambhaji’s Samadhi was going to be ruined) followed. And what
is more, sustained propaganda was unleashed that those who are gathering at
Bhima-Koregaon memorial are the real traitors.

On 1st
January, around a lakh of Dalits who had gathered at Bhima-Koregaon were
attacked by a mob of thousands carrying saffron flags. Vehicles were torched, broken;
Dalit/ muslim houses were targeted. Thus, it was a two-pronged attack. First,
link the gathering at Bhima-Koregaon to anti-national ‘#BharatKeTukade’
brigade. Police complaints were filed after Maharashtra Bandh that Jignesh-Umar
incited Dalits to start rioting. If that really was the case, why did incited
Dalits end up bearing the brunt of riots at Bhima-Koregaon rather than other
way round? Second, use Maratha/Mali (OBC) youth for attacking Dalits in the
name of caste honor as well as nationalism.

it was expected that there would be some trouble in the wake of Elgar Parishad,
the extent to which the Far Right organizations would go was not anticipated.
The sway that Sambhaji Bhide held over the government was so obvious that the
government was not even willing to speak about the involvement of Hindutva
groups in attack on Dalits at Bhima-Koregaon and was desperately trying to
evade the issue as local tensions and caste fights. Following the cue, National/state
media didn’t pay much attention to what happened in Vadhu-budruk,
Bhima-Koregaon and focused only on the inconveniences of strikes and
regressive, divisive mentality of striking people. However, when Ad. Prakash
Ambedkar directly named Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote and their
organizations as directly involved in the attack, the government’s attempt to
play down this ‘incident’ as clash between Marathas and Dalits received a
severe jolt. Not only dalit organizations but also Left, progressive parties,
as well as Maratha Seva Sangh, Sambhaji Brigade etc. Maratha organizations
supported the Maharashtra Bandh held on 3rd January in protest of
attacks in Bhima-Koregaon. Thus the BJP government and the RSS were isolated
and were seen desperately trying to save their face with the help of media
which not just tried to vilify the strike but also sought to glorify a certain
‘Bhide Guruji’ whose task it is to spread out venomous communal propaganda which
is unspeakable even for RSS.

unity of contradictions
represents a concrete unity of contradictions of our history.  Anti-imperialism, anti-feudalism,
internal conflicts between non-Brahmin castes- everything comes to fore like
nothing else.

Teltumbde in his article in ‘The Wire’ argued against the celebration of
Bhima-Koregaon as it ‘reinforces the identities it seeks to transcend’[4]. His
thrust is to denote the fact that Bhima-Koregaon was a battle where ‘Dalits,
Marathas, Muslims were fighting on both sides- Peshwas, as well as British
army. Theirs was not a conscious battle against Peshwa rule but it was a
professional duty. Caste formed the world-view and caste related oppression was
considered the fate. There was no question of any resistance to caste. Thus,
while it is certainly laudable to fight New Peshwai of Brahhminical Hindutva
and Capitalism; it is best not done in the name of Bhima-Koregaon. Prakash
Ambedkar in his Marathi article goes further, and asks a pertinent question-
‘why did Mahars, Dalits wait till British army came along to fight Peshwas? It
is necessary to introspect rationally as to why the Dalit politics even today
is not conscious to identify its enemy and battle it out. The consciousness of
one’s strength and how to utilize it in the negotiation, in political struggle
is required for Dalit struggle to succeed’[5].   

is also crucial to underline here is that subject of history is not necessarily
always conscious of it. The high participation of Mahars in British army might not
be a conscious political choice; nonetheless it did bring about a certain
enlightenment with it[6]. What
is more, it would be ‘no one’s contention that the treatment received by the
untouchable soldiers in the armies of Peshwa and British were similar’[7]. For
this was clearly a conflict between two modes of production.

by Dalits, progressives and deconstruction of myths is necessary in the context
of Bhima-Koregaon. But what is also necessary is to understand what is it about
Bhima-Koregaon that hurts the new age apologists of Peshwai? What is it that
makes them uncomfortable? However, as proud owners of material and socio-
cultural capital, they seem to hold on to their myths of false glory. Who are
they? Are they not the Brahminical intelligentsia, and caste-religion
glorifying traditionalists which have spread within every oppressed caste
thanks to emergence of a modern middle class for whom egalitarian progressive
democratization seems like a mortal threat?

India is certainly a product of British colonial rule, as well as anti-colonial
struggle Indian people fought against it. At the same time, it is instructive
to remember the contradictions involved within anti-colonial struggle. The
historical contradiction of Brahmin-non-Brahmin castes was underlined in
Maharashtra by Mahatma Phule who sought to build a counter-hegemonic historical
narrative of unity of oppressed against the Brahminical misrule. Phule and
later Dr. Ambedkar was vilified by Brahminical Marathi press and portrayed as
apologist of the British. For them, Tilak and his revivalist agenda signified a
‘nationalism’ where nation was identified with their class-caste interests[8].

the contrary, Phule’s emphasis on unity of peasant castes and untouchables was
historic. What is more, the so-called ‘apologists’ were not blind sighted- by
1930s; they were joining the anti-colonial struggle in large numbers. But for
that to happen, the anti-colonial struggle also had to press for the material
agendas of the peasantry. Dr. Ambedkar’s Independent Labor Party fought against
the unjust Khoti land revenue system in Maharashtra.  Leaders like Keshavrao Jedhe and others who
came from Brahmanetar Paksh (Non-Brahmin party founded by Shahu, a party which
often co-operated with British government to seek concessions for Non-Brahmins)
would eventually join Congress and later go on to form Leftist Peasant Workers
Party. Theirs was a nationalism committed to the oppressed and hence they
emphasized on egalitarian democracy as a pre-condition of modernity and
capitalism. Their national project required a counter-hegemonic history; which
was provided by Phule, his satyashadhak movement, and sites such as
Bhima-Koregaon. It is true that there often were clashes and conflicts between
peasant castes and Dalits; but it equally needs assertion that there were many
occasions of unity.  

is also instructive that once this massive awakening of Bahujan samaj and their
joining of national movement started happening, the Brahminical elements (and
mercantile capitalist elements at many places) started drifting apart from
anti-colonial struggle. By 1920s and 1930s, they would go on to form their
rabid militia called RSS and Hindu Mahasabha with explicit aim of founding
Hindu Rashtra. They were not averse to modernity/ modernization/ capitalism
under colonial rule or post-colonial India for they had sufficient material and
intellectual resources to integrate within that. What they were afraid of was
the possibility that popular forms anti-colonial struggle was taking and its
emphasis on egalitarian democratization.

Peshwa rule formed a glorious page of history for such elements which
symbolized a counter-revolution with restoration of traditional feudalist Brahminical
rule in culture, politics, society, economy. While appropriation of Shivaji
remains a key for nationalist project of every color in Maharashtra as he
signifies the Bahujan rule and how its anti-Mirasdari, peasant-centric agenda
captured popular imagination, the celebration of Peshwai is what sets apart the
revivalist agenda and its darkest face. In fact, it is also instructive to
remember how Shivaji’s own Samadhi was discovered, and celebrated by Mahatma
Phule. Such was Peshwai’s legacy which had sought to totally erase Shivaji-Sambhaji
and their revolt against Brahminism from annals of history. The axis joining
Vadhu-Budruk and Bhima-Koregaon is an important instance of exposing all this-
it should be seen and understood as such and not as a site of particular caste
glory but to recognize and fight the apologists of new Peshwai which rules the
 The Author is an Interdependent Researcher based in Delhi 

[1] Where
British East India Company troops, consisting many Mahar Dalit soldiers, fought
off and defeated Brahmin Peshwa army in 1818. This defeat was a decisive blow
which would eventually end Peshwai and consolidate British rule
Incidentally, these descendants went to court to stay the commemoration at
Bhima-Koregaon; however, Court declined their request
Com. Sharad Patil, ‘Caste ending Bourgeois Democratic Revolutionn & its
Socialist Consummation’ pg.8-12
Com. Sharad Patil, ‘Caste ending Bourgeois Democratic Revolutionn & its
Socialist Consummation’ pg.11,100
[8] A
trend within the Left to prioritize the anti-imperialism led Dange and many
others to celebrate Tilak and other revivalists. Later, the caste question was
also seen and handled as ‘secondary’ contradiction. This was theoretically and
practically wrong.