How a British war memorial became a symbol of Dalit pride
What about Koregaon Ranstambh?
- The Koregaon Ranstambh (victory pillar) is an obelisk in Bhima-Koregaon village commemorating the British East India Company soldiers who fell in a battle on January 1, 1818, where the British, with just 834 infantrymen — about 500 of them from the Mahar community — and 12 officers defeated the 28,000-strong army of Peshwa Bajirao II.
- It was one of the last battles of the Third Anglo-Maratha War, which ended the Peshwa domination.
- Babasaheb Ambedkar’s visit to the site on January 1, 1927, revitalised the memory of the battle for the Dalit community, making it a rallying point and an assertion of pride.
- In 2005, the Bhima-Koregaon Ranstambh Seva Sangh (BKRSS) was formed to keep alive the memory of this episode in Indian history and pay homage to those among the Dalit community who fought for their self-respect in that battle.
- From mere thousands in earlier years, today lakhs of visitors from across India come to pay homage at the site; there is a particularly massive representation of community members from Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat.
- One part of the tradition is that several retired officers of the Mahar Regiment come to do homage to this exploit of valour.
- This year, the Elgaar (battle-cry) Parishad, an event celebrating the bicentenary of the battle irked some right-wing Hindutva and Brahmin organisations, who demanded that the city police prohibit its staging at the Shaniwarwada fort, the erstwhile seat of Peshwa power.
The Dalit–Maratha rift
- Relations between the Mahars and the Peshwas, who were Brahmins, grew strained after the death of Baji Rao I in 1740, and reached their nadir during the reign of Bajirao Rao II, who insulted the Mahar community and spurned their offer of service with his army. This caused them to side with the English against the Peshwa’s numerically superior army.
- Dalit scholars say Indian history is often recorded from a Brahminical perspective, which has resulted in Bhima-Koregaon and other battles in which Dalits fought, not getting their due. BKRSS members, though, point out the dangers of the reductive view of the battle as caste conflict, and cite historical records documenting Mahars fighting in the Maratha army since the times of Shivaji, and even fighting alongside the Peshwa’s forces, including in the third battle of Panipat and the battle of Kharda.
- Some accounts say that Govind Ganapat Gaikwad, a Mahar, performed the final rites of Sambhaji (Shivaji’s son) after he was tortured to death and hacked to pieces on Aurangzeb’s orders in 1689.