Let’s Remember the Lesson of Bhima Koregaon: Down with the New Peshwai

March 8, 2018


By Sudhir Dhawale. This article appeared as an editorial in the Jan-Feb issue of Vidrohi. It has been translated by Swati Birla. 


“…it doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are — if it doesn’t agree with the experiment, it’s wrong.”

Richard P. Feynman (Theoretical physicist)

Two hundred years ago, on the 1st of January 1818, the Peshwas and the troops of the British East India Company confronted each other at Bhima Koregaon near Pune in one of the battles of the Anglo-Maratha War. The battle heralded the end of the Peshwa empire. The British installed a victory pillar at the site, with the names of 51 fallen soldiers inscribed on it, of whom 22 were Mahars, while the rest were Bahujans and people from different religious communities.

Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar saw this battle as a significant moment in the history of struggles for human emancipation and visited the site on January 1 of 1927.  On the eve of the centenary celebrations of Jotiba Phule and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar in 1990-1991, Dalits organized commemorative events at Bhima Koregaon, among other places. Taking their cue from Dr. Ambedkar, they celebrated the battle, the place, and these leaders who fought for Dalit emancipation.

Since then almost one lakh Dalits visit Bhima Koregaon every year. Dalit commemorations of Mahar soldiers who participated in a battle against the Peshwas on the side of the British is rendered illegible if one forgets the oppressive socio-political conditions in the regime of sanatani Brahmin Peshwas. The battle of Bhima Koregaon cannot be understood solely as a struggle for power between the British and the Peshwas. The historical significance of the battle is lost if one does not see it through the prism of caste.

History textbooks narrate the battle of Bhima Koregaon as a struggle between the British and the Marathas where the former stands for colonial expansion and the latter for national self determination. In Mahar history and memory this struggle acquires a larger and different significance. The battle of Bhima Koregaon is not about the positions and stakes of British and Peshwas, indeed the British have a very insignificant place in the Mahar narrative. The Victory pillar is a monument to the militancy and heroism of Mahar soldiers as they fought against social oppression in order to create a more egalitarian and just society than the one they lived in. The battle of Bhima Koregaon has come to represent the memory of that struggle and the continued possibility of people coming together to fight for equality and dignity.  

In as much as victories in battles are about the stories of brave and heroic soldiers or military tactics and strategies, they are also deeply connected with the socio-political and cultural investments and interests of people in their times. Savarna histories have failed to acknowledge the import of Mahar memories. In a society where they have been humiliated, exploited, persecuted, and dehumanized by upper caste people, Dalits celebrate the Victory Pillar as a legacy of their militant struggles against oppression, of their entry, as political actors, into history. It is only reasonable that this past and its celebration revivifies these communities.

Under the Peshwa rule in Pune, caste hatred and practices of untouchability had undergone a resurgence as Brahminical orthodoxy and ritualism intensified. In the later phase of Peshwa rule, especially under Baji Rao II, public spaces became unsafe for women – especially those belonging to lower castes – who were already vulnerable to exploitation.

The Peshwas of Western Maharashtra are infamous for their tyrannical Brahminical rule. Equality before law was eschewed; untouchables routinely received more severe punishment for the most minor infringements. Not only were untouchables denied social and occupational mobility, the threat of violence was always imminent.  For fear that the shadow of their body might defile savarna people using public spaces, the use of public spaces and thoroughfares was only available to untouchables during the hours of early morning and late evening. Even then, Mahars could only appear in public spaces with brooms tied behind their backs to sweep up their footprints, and pots on their necks to collect their spittle. The Peshwas had created an elaborate set of rules and laws that specified treatment of untouchables based on their caste names.

In an essay published in 1885, Mukta Salve of the Mang community, at the age of 15, wrote a graphic description of the horrific experiences of untouchables in Pune. Educated in the first school for untouchables, she writes in her essay:

“If we attempt to refute, on the basis of the Vedas, the arguments of these gluttonous brahmans, who hate us and consider themselves vastly superior, they say that the Vedas are their own domain, their exclusive property. Now apparently, if the Vedas are only for the brahmans, they are obviously not for us. If the Vedas belong only to the brahmans, then it is an open secret that we do not have the Book. We are without the Book – we are without any religion. If the vedas are for the brahmans only, then we are not bound to act according to the Vedas…. These people drove us, the poor mangs, and mahars, away from our own lands, which they occupied to build large buildings. And that was not all. They would make the mangs and mahars drink oil mixed with red lead and buried our people in the foundations of their buildings, thus wiping out generation after generation of our poor people. The brahmans have degraded us so low; they consider people like us even lower than cows and buffaloes. Did they not consider us even lower than donkeys during the rule of Bajirao Peshwa… under Bajirao’s rule, if any Mang or Mahar happened to pass in front of a gymnasium, they would cut off his head and play ‘bat and ball’ with their swords as bats and his head as a ball, on the grounds.”


Do you think these historical injuries and humiliations did not profoundly shape the Mahar Mang society? Can you imagine their anger? Is it a surprise that many Mahar and Mang soldiers participated in the battle and helped root out the tyrannical Peshwas? In his Shatpatre (Collected Letters), Lokhitawadi Gopal Hari Deshmukh notes that as soon as the Peshwas were defeated, women in Pune came out to celebrate. The atrocities of the Peshwa rule against the untouchable communities is alive in popular memory.

When the East India Company started recruitments for the ‘Bombay Army’, several lower caste groups took advantage of this opportunity. Military jobs provided untouchables an escape from the oppressive social conditions. If in the villages Mahar celebrations could only aspire to abandoned dead cattle as feast, serving in the military offered a way out for untouchables. In the absence of a living wage and means to a dignified life, words like nationalism and political freedom had little meaning for the untouchables.

A disproportionate number of Namasudras in Bengal, Parayas in Madras, and Mahars in Maharashtra were employed in the British army. It is fair to claim that the British could not have established the empire without the contribution of the Mahar soldiers. But, it would be inappropriate to stretch this claim to suggest that this was an armed struggle to end caste oppression. The British had not systematically deployed caste based recruitment into the military till the World War I and Mahars were not the only caste recruited. The British military consisted of several caste groups. And though we may say that the soldiers fought for their masters, British rule did create opportunities to get out of caste ghettoes to access wage, work, and education. And this breathing space later provided the impetus for the Dalit struggle.

It is important to note that the British did not provide these benefits to Dalits out of any benevolence, but because this was the need of settler colonialism. While Dalit and Bahujan leaders recognize this potential space in colonialism to break from the traditional fetters of caste, Phule and Ambedkar were never supporters of colonialism. Dr. Ambedkar recognized that the oppression of untouchables did not come from political regimes, but from social and economic structures. He understood why the anger and militancy of the people he represented was directed against the local and regional power structures under the Peshwa regime. Hence we can say that the battle at Bhima Koregaon was indeed fought against the tyrannical Peshwas. Under the colonial rule, certain traditional caste practices had weakened, but the British deliberately stayed away from taking any radical steps to abolish caste altogether.

Though the untouchables fought in the British army their participation cannot be seen as a cause for embarrassment. Bhima Koregaon holds a different place in the Dalit imagination. Those condemned and written off from history as a weak people reconciled to their lot, entered the historical stage as militants. The Victory Pillar is a testament to the valour of their ancestors.

After Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism in 1956, the Dalit movement started a new phase in its symbolic and cultural struggle for caste annihilation. From the moment Dalits staged a walkout from the Hindu religion, Hindutva forces began to appropriate Buddhism as the recalcitrant child of Hinduism. It was the need of that hour for Dalits to re-create and re-energize their history. The Bhima Koregaon battle was reimagined and added, as an inaugural chapter, to the history of struggles for social justice, equality and dignity. In a caste society where history is held hostage by the hegemonic Hindu majoritarian forces, Bhima Koregaon is the new elgaar.

In Indian politics, myths and memory have always had magical, if incoherent, power. But in recent years, as history has become embattled, myths, fiction, memory, and history have all become inextricable from each other. The violence around the bicentennial celebration of Bhima Koregaon reveals how a regional historical event can capture our imagination, indeed become central in the struggle for social justice and democracy of the nation. This is not a struggle for memory; it is nothing less than a struggle for dignity and equality in which both Marathas and Dalits have a stake.

That is why the Sambhaji brigade and Ambedkari brigade gave a united call for Maharashtra bandh in response to the Bhima Koregaon violence. Everyone knows that the real perpetrators of the Bhima Koregaon violence were outsiders – namely the Vaṛu-Budruk Hindutva brigade, which has decided that fomenting social tensions, pitting people against each other, and violence is the easiest way to make gains in the upcoming elections. In the past few decades, these forces have spent considerable efforts to generate myths and pilgrimages that vilify Aurangzeb for his bigotry and repression of Hindu rebellions. Deploying the strategy of divide and rule, they prop up Marathas as rebellious Hindu heroes, whip up sentiments against Dalits and Muslims, thus shoring up support for the BJP communal agenda.


More than 200 groups and organizations  under a common umbrella organized the Elgaar Parishad in Pune to raise their voices against the lynch law of the current regime. After months of statewide mobilizations and rallies when over 10,000 Dalit- Bahujans-Muslims congregated at Shanivarvada to start this phase of the struggle against the new Peshwai these communal forces converged on them and unleashed violence. For many years, Bhima Koregaon was the inspiration for Dalit struggles for emancipation, but the new mobilizations have succeeded in bringing Bahujans under this banner. This Dalit-Bahujan alliance reinvigorated the Bhima Koregaon commemorations with a new militancy.

In order to silence these voices, the foot soldiers of the new Peshwai denounced the Victory pillar and celebrations as anti-national.  They tried to pit Marathas against Dalits by lamenting the decline of Maratha power after the war, and disparaging the role of Dalit soldiers. When all these attempts failed, they tried to appropriate the celebrations by canonizing it. Meanwhile, the Sangh headquarters in Nagpur issued instructions that if all else fails, the gathering should be dispersed with violence.


In a fateful confrontation with Aurangzeb, Chhatrapati Shivaji’s son Sambhaji had been killed in Vaṛu-Budruk, and his last rites were performed by a Mahar, Govind Gaikwad. Sambhaji was buried in the same village, on Mahar Watan land. Historians like V.C. Bendre, Kamal Gokhale, and Sharad Patil have written about these events in detail. Of late, some Maratha families in these villages have adopted ‘Shivale’ [lit. ‘to stitch’] as their last name, to claim that the last rites had been performed by a Maratha, not a Dalit.  The saffron hirelings from Vaṛu-Budruk – Manohar Bhide and Milind Ekbote – instigated the Marathas against the Dalits around the Sambhaji Memorial and by fabricating stories of Aurangzeb’s brutality. On 28 December 2017, they damaged the memorial of Govind Mahar, gave a call of a bandh in surrounding villages, and planned for the attack on Dalits, executing it on 1 January 2018. The duo, Bhide and Ekbote, have used the same modus operandi in Pune, Satara, Sangli, and in rural Kolhapur – fabricate history, produce rifts, and instigate violence.   


The Bhide-Ekbote brigade proclaim that the Victory pillar is an anti-national symbol, making claims for a nation before it came to being, before it was imagined even. Is it appropriate to impose meanings and motivations to historical actors from present day understandings? Is it appropriate to speak of India when the idea of the nation did not exist?

The British brought about a political integration of the sub-continent in service of their own imperial needs. Those who historically distort the truth for their own electoral and instrumental gains are like the Peshwas: self-serving, anti-people, and anti-national. This new Peshwai must be contested, and its casteism defeated; but Dalits cannot do it alone. We need to expand the struggle, but also create a common social, economic, and political program to work towards a platform that brings exploited and alienated women and men together.  This was the program and inspiration of the bicentennial celebration of Bhima Koregaon. Let us heed the clarion call of Bhima Koregaon – Down with the new Peshwai.

There is another legacy, another memory of Bhima Koregaon – the Mahars are not lacking in valour or imagination, they are the bold agents of history.  Let us trust our own ability to lead; we do not need to wait for any outside forces to take on the pot and broom of this Peshwai. Bhima Koregaon reminds us that history is not handed down to us. We have created history and can continue to do so.  Dalits no longer answer to someone else’s beck and call, we march to our own drums.

Bhima Koregaon is more than a memory, a history; it is more than a fight over dignity; it is nothing short of a movement, one that demands justice for all.


2 Responses to “Let’s Remember the Lesson of Bhima Koregaon: Down with the New Peshwai”

  1. K SHESHU BABU Says:
    March 16th, 2018 at 16:25

    The struggle of Bhima Koregoan is a reflection of antagonistic caste struggles prevailing in the society through ages. The war two hundred years ago was part of the dalits assertion against brahminical elements. This is being camouflaged as national/ anti- national debate to cover-up dalit victory over peshwa and upper caste rulers. This is a ploy to uphold Brahmin and upper caste hegemony. Such tendencies must be opposed

  2. Amit Prasad Says:
    June 1st, 2019 at 12:24

    Ok.. if u are ok with caste war then Hindu do have rights to bash Muslim for 600 yr of Islamic sharia rule.

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