Prakash Ambedkar, political leaders pay tribute at the Bhima Koregaon Memorial

Every year on 1st January, lakhs of people assemble at Jay Stambh, the memorial dedicated to the martyrs of the historic Bhima Koregaon Battle.
Political leaders pay tribute to the Bhima Koregaon Memorial
Political leaders pay tribute to the Bhima Koregaon Memorial

Prakash Ambedkar, the president of Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi and grandson of Dr. Baba Saheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar visited Jay Stambha, the Bhima Koregaon memorial and paid tributes to the martyrs of the historic battle. paying tributes to the martyrs on X, he wrote, “We are not foxes but lions! Never forget this, my people. “They” have turned a blind eye to our strength but we all know what wonders we can do. Glory will be ours. Jai Bhim!”

Before this his son and great grandson of Ambedkar, Sujat Ambedkar led a bike rally From Pune Station to Bhima Koregaon on 31st December to mark the eve of Bhima Koregaon historic battle.

Ajit Pawar, the Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra also paid tributes to the martyrs of the battle fought in 1818. Pawar is believed to be the highest-ranking government minister to have visited the site. Other notable people who visited the site are NCP MP from Shirur in Pune- Amol Kolhe.

Elaborate security arrangements were made around the memorial, located near Perne village on the Pune-Ahmednagar Road as more than 10 lakh people are expected to visit the place. Various cultural programmes have also been organised for the event.

The Battle of Bhima Koregaon: Epitomising the Battle between Brahminism and Bahujanism

As we observe the Martyrs Day of the Bhima Koregaon battle, it is important to commemorate the valor, perseverance and unyielding spirit of the Dalit community, exemplified by the brave Mahar soldiers of Bhima Koregaon, whose struggles continue to inspire us today.

The history of India is about the struggle between Brahminism and Bahujanism. However, shrewd attempts were made by some historians to sabotage and undermine the struggles of the Bahujans. The Battle of Bhima Koregaon is one such battle that pushes back against attempts to bury it under the distortion and manipulation of history.

The Background of the Battle: Pushed to the Limits by Atrocious Code

When the Peshwas took over the reins of the Maratha Empire, they implemented the social codes of Manu Smriti, a text replete with decrees that prohibited humanitarian behavior towards the Shudras, the untouchables. The rules were cruel enough for any human to follow, but the impunity with which they were imposed smacked of ruthless subjugation and oppression. Some of the inhuman diktats the Shudras were subjected to included:

  • The Untouchables had to carry a broomstick attached to their backs so that when they entered the city, their footprints were swept along, which could have polluted the people.

  • They were forced to carry a pot around their neck to collect their spit and prevent it from falling on the ground and polluting it.

  • Holding arms and procuring education was totally prohibited.

Although the Shudras were subjected to some restrictions earlier, the aforementioned rules were too harsh and unbearable, and those unwilling to follow them were killed.

Prequel to the Battle of Koregaon

The Peshwas had already been defeated in the Battle of Khadki near Pune. However, fearing for their lives, the Peshwas escaped to Satara, while Pune was placed under Colonel Charles Barton Burr. It was when the Peshwas attempted to re-enter Pune that the Battle of Koregaon, near the Bhima River, took place and proved decisive in the defeat of the already debilitated Peshwas.

Failed Negotiations: Battle as a Last Resort

It is said that before the battle, the Mahars approached the Peshwas and appealed to relax the oppressive restrictions. However, the latter were too adamant and refused to yield. The Untouchables were forced to fight against their own rules.

The Battle & End of the Peshwa Rule

On January 1, 1818, when the world was celebrating the new year, 500 Mahar soldiers of the British light infantry were preparing to combat an army of the mighty 28,000 Peshwas; 20,000 of whom were horsemen and 8,000 infantry soldiers. The Mahars were part of the British Native infantry; they were led by Captain Francis Staunton and were accompanied by 300 horsemen. While the Mahars dominated the infantry, the infantry also included Marathas, Rajputs, Muslims, and Jews in smaller numbers. The battle was part of the Third Anglo Maratha war and finally proved to be the nail in the coffin of the Peshwa empire.

The Mahars fought valiantly for 12 hours without food or water and crushed the mighty Peshwas. Perhaps the twinge of humiliation and subjugation was too overwhelming to be affected by the pangs of hunger and parched throats. They were able to defeat the army of their oppressive rulers completely. General Smith, one of the commanders of the British Army, noted in his official report, “The action at Koregaon was one of the most brilliant affairs achieved by any army in which European and Native soldiers displayed the most noble devotion and most romantic bravery under pressure of hunger and thirst almost beyond human endurance.”

Debunking Theories that Undermine the Valour of the Mahars

There are prevalent counter-narratives that suggest that the Mahars fought from the British side and were a small part of the British Army, which predominantly comprised European soldiers. Dismissing such claims, Prabodhan Pol of the Manipal Centre of Humanities says, "There is an element of truth in the fact that the army was led by company officers who were British, but their side comprised predominantly of the Mahar soldiers." He notes that the British side was armed with better equipment and skills, while the army of the Peshwas was ill-equipped and mismanaged. As a result, it was not able to fight the better-organized and armed British company. It is important to reject the notion that the Mahars' contributions were insignificant and to acknowledge their immense bravery, skill and resilience in the face of oppression.

The Enduring Legacy of Bhima Koregaon

The British Army famed the Grenadiers with the 2nd battalion of the 1st Regiment of British Native infantry during the battle of Bhima Koregaon. A monument was also erected by the British in 1851, to commemorate the 22 Mahar soldiers martyred during the battle, in the form of an obelisk, which still stands tall today to remember the bravery and valor of the Mahars. The Mahar Regiment's crest carried the obelisk until 1947. Recently, in 2019, there have been demands to declare the pillar a national memorial. The site of Bhima Koregaon, though located far from Pune city, has been instrumental in invoking and sustaining the memory of the brave soldiers who fought against the oppressive Peshwa rule. Shivram Janba Kamble, a writer, and activist from a nearby village, played an important role in ensuring that the site is not forgotten. It was at a meeting organized by him that Baba Saheb Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar visited the place for the first time on the anniversary of the battle on 1st January 1927. Ambedkar visited the site every year and called upon the Dalits to show similar courageousness and tenacity to end Brahminism from the country.

Dr B.R. Ambedkar at Bhima Koregaon memorial, to his left, is Shivram Janba Kamble the organizer of the meeting. Ambedkar exhorted the Dalit community to take inspiration from the Bhima Koregaon Battle in fighting brahminism.

Attempts to Obfuscate the Narrative of Bhima Koregaon

Despite Bhima Koregaon being a battle against injustice and a caste-oppressive regime, attempts have been made to depict it as an India vs British battle. Prabhodhankar Pol, however, disagrees with this notion. he notes that films like Kesari, which depict a battle between the Sikh-backed British side against Afghans, are accepted and glorified because they are against Muslims. Still, the entire narrative of Bhima Koregaon is directed against the Peshwas, who are regarded as ancestors by Brahmins, in particular, and the oppressive caste regime in general. This narrative hurts the Brahmins and upper castes, which may be the reason for the attempts to obfuscate the actual narrative.

The Bid to Suppress the Narrative

On 1st January 2018, the event commemorating the 200th anniversary of the historic battle was met with violence. Dalits traveling to the site were attacked, and the violence left one person dead, several injured, and several houses burnt. It is noteworthy that most of the victims of the violence were Dalits, yet those arrested for inciting the riots belong to people who are sympathetic to the Dalit cause. These people include Anand Teltumbde, a civil rights activist and intellectual, who is married to Rama Teltumbde, the granddaughter of B.R. Ambedkar. Others who were arrested included Stan Swamy, who died in prison on 5 July 2021. Journalist Gautam Navlakha , who was also one of the accused was granted bail by the Bombay High Court. The court observed in his case that there was not evidence to support the claim This violence and the arrests of those who advocate for Dalit rights are attempts to suppress the narrative of Bhima Koregaon and the struggles of the Dalits. Sudha Bhardwaj has also.

On 1st January 2022, the celebrations at the Bhima Koregaon site were traditional and enjoyed the support of the Maha Vikas Aghadi-led government. Despite attempts to manipulate and misrepresent the history of the Bhima Koregaon battle, the indomitable spirit and struggle of the Dalit community in Maharashtra have ensured that the legacy of the battle against injustice and caste oppression remains alive in the public's memory.

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