Koregaon: A new Subaltern history
by Sandhya Jain on 09 Jan 2018 29 Comments

As there was advance information that an annual gathering at a memorial of the East India Company in Pune would be attended by rabble rousers like Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani and Umar Khalid of Jawaharlal Nehru University, the administration should not have been so unprepared for mischief by agent provocateurs. We are witnessing the invention of a New Subaltern History that will twist every episode of the past to help the Congress party revive its political fortunes.


During the Gujarat elections, Jignesh Mevani (who prefers ‘dalit’ to the constitutional term, Scheduled Caste) aligned with ‘jeneu-dhari Brahmin’ Rahul Gandhi, who hopped across temples to give the BJP a run for its money. This polarised the election along caste lines and created a sense of alienation among Congress’s Muslim votebank, as noted by senior leader Salman Khurshid. But the awkward timing of his claim to the caste of his great grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, leapfrogging his Parsi father and Catholic mother, did not deter Rahul Gandhi from calling Bhima Koregaon a “symbol of dalit resistance”. Resistance to whom?


Briefly, January 1, 2018 was the 200th anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon battle in Pune, between the East India Company and the Peshwa. The Company forces, which included Mahars, were moving from Seroor towards Pune when accosted by the Maratha-Peshwa army and forced to retreat. As stated in Parliament in March 1819: “In the end, they secured not only unmolested retreat, they also carried off their wounded”.


But after establishing themselves in western India, the British erected a memorial for soldiers of the 1818 Anglo-Maratha War (not Mahar-Peshwa) and claimed that Company forces “accomplished one of the proudest triumphs of the British Army…” On January 1, 1927, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar paid tribute at the memorial, which became an annual pilgrimage by his community. Political analyst Anand Teltumbde warns that Ambedkar’s projection of this battle as a victory of Mahar sepoys against Peshwa oppression was a “pure myth” which might have been needed then. But perpetuating this a century later will push the community into the “identitarian marshland” it seeks to transcend.


Rahul Gandhi is endorsing celebration of the defeat of the Maratha kingdom by a colonial army that systematically decimated native dominions to establish all-India hegemony. The Mahars were great fighters and heavily recruited in Shivaji’s army, a presence that declined under Peshwa supremacy. Devotion to Shivaji explains claims that Govind Gaikwad, a Mahar, performed the last rites of Shivaji’s son, Sambhaji (d. 1689), when others feared to touch the body and incur Aurangzeb’s wrath. Marathas must respect this claim; why is Gaikwad’s samadhi so close to that of Sambhaji? An ill-timed controversy over this claim aggravated tensions at Koregaon three days later, and must be investigated.


Mahars did not flourish under the British; after 1857, their recruitment ended in favour of the ‘martial races’ and reopened only for the duration of World War I. In 1927, Ambedkar, supported by Veer Savarkar (Hindu Mahasabha), urged the British to recruit Mahars again; in 1929, Barrister M.R. Jayakar (HM) urged reservation for Scheduled Communities in the police force. Dr B.S. Moonje (HM) another friend of Ambedkar, argued for Indianisation of the army before the Chetwode Committee in 1931, and lambasted “the myth of the artificial distinction of martial and non-martial classes”.


Unless Congress makes a course correction, Rahul Gandhi’s intellectual darbaris might denigrate India Gate if the caste of soldiers who fought in World War I does not fit the New Subaltern History. Even social reformers who transformed their eras might be diminished by caste, including Raja Rammohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Dayanand Saraswati, Jyotiba Phule, Narayan Guru, Sahajanand Saraswati, Shahu Maharaj, Basavanna... Will Rahul Gandhi interrogate the caste of the stalwarts who defied Nehru and rebuilt the Somnath Temple, where he went to collect votes?


Unsurprisingly, security agencies now examining the role of urban Naxals. A meeting of the Yalgar Parishad comprising Naxal front organisations was held in Pune on December 31, hours before the Bhima Koregaon violence, where Jignesh Mevani and Umar Khalid allegedly made inflammatory speeches. Criminal cases have been registered against both.


According to the FIR, Mevani reportedly said (trans.), “If we have to win against new Peshwas, we will have to take forward the battle of Bhima Koregaon, take forward that struggle, and take inspiration from that struggle. This cannot happen through electoral politics. I understand that some of the people who fight for the common masses should be in the assemblies of Gujarat or Maharashtra, and in the Parliament of this country. But annihilation of caste differences would happen only through street fights. The rule of one section of the people over others would end through street fights” (italics added).


Khalid is quoted as having said (trans.), “We can make this battle of Bhima Koregaon our future. They had attacked us, it is time for retaliation. We will fight and have to win. This will be a tribute to those martyrs. The end of new Peshwas will also be a tribute to Koregaon martyrs” (italics added).


Mevani denied all charges at a press conference in Delhi, adding that he did not visit Bhima Koregaon as he suffered a migraine. Mevani and Khalid were to speak at a student’s convention organised by Left-leaning Chhatra Bharati on January 4, but Mumbai Police cancelled the event. A news channel quoted the organisers as promising to hold the programme online on January 9 as, “They (Mevani and Khalid) are both at a secure place in the city”.


Investigations will establish the sequence of events, but the violence seems pre-planned. An event that normally attracts 15,000 visitors suddenly saw three lakh congregate.  Some have accused former BJP corporator, Sambhaji Bhide of Shiv Pratisthan, and Milind Ekbote of Hindu Ekta Aghadi; both have been booked under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. But Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut cautioned that all incidents cannot be linked to Hindu organisations and an “invisible hand” is at work to divide society.


Prakash Ambedkar, Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh leader, called Bhide and Ekbote “Peshwa heirs” who opposed the Koregaon event until the BBM spoke to them. However, chastened by the ferocity and spread of the violence and the possibility of losing support among his caste constituency to paratrooper firebrands, Ambedkar insisted there was no conflict between Marathas and Dalits and that the 200th anniversary commemoration of the Bhima Koregaon battle was organised by Sambhaji Brigade, a Maratha organisation. If true, then outsiders are wholly responsible. 

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