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Bhima Koregaon: How symbol of British imperialism became emblem of Dalit pride
Besides the violence on New Year that killed a 28-year-old man, Bhima Koregaon is known for its place in history during the period of British occupation of India.
The original incident had also taken place on New Year 200 years ago, when the forces of Maratha ruler Peshwa Baji Rao II fought with those of the British East India Company at Bhima Koregaon, named so for being situated on the bank of River Bhima.
Over the past 200 years, the narrative and perception about the battleground have undergone a sea change. There is a small war memorial in the form of an obelisk at Bhima Koregaon in Pune district of Maharashtra.
And, there is another village, nearby, called Vadhu Badruk. It has its own role to play in building Maratha versus Dalit narrative in Maharashtra and across the country.  Now, these two villages and their history are seen differently by the leaders claiming to represent Marathas and Dalits respectively.
Bhima Koregaon was one of the battlegrounds in the Third Anglo Maratha War fought in 1817-1818 that paved the way for British supremacy in India and ended the prospects of an indigenous ruler having sway over the country.
The Battle of Bhima Koregaon came in the series of confrontations between Maratha forces and the British ones that include English victories at Khadki, Sitabuldi, Mahidpur, and Satara.
The textbook interpretation of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon is one of a fight between imperialism and nationalism with Marathas representing the latter. With the English forces registering rapid victories, Peshwa fled capital Pune towards Satara.
On his flight, the Peshwa's forces were challenged by the British contingent at Bhima Koregaon, which had a fortified enclosure of the Marathas. Peshwa Baji Rao did not lead the battle himself at Bhima Koregaon. He had a 28,000-strong army with him but he sent about 2,000 soldiers to Bhima Koregaon to safeguard the fortified enclosure.
The British were numerically inferior but they inflicted more casualties, primarily due to superior artillery, on the Maratha forces on the day of the battle. The Peshwa watched the fight from a hilltop, two kilometers away.
The British lost a lieutenant rank officer among those killed. But, the battle remained undecided. The British could not capture the fortified enclosure.
Fearing more British forces next morning, the Marathas withdrew during the night and resumed their flight towards Satara. The English soldiers occupied the empty enclosure next day and elected a small war memorial.
The Marathas accept and the textbooks tell this version. But, the Dalits - Mahars - in the village have a different take on this battle. They add a context to it and assert that the battle is related to their self-respect.
The Mahars claim that they were insulted by the Baji Rao II when they offered their services to the Peshwa. The Mahars then took the job with the British and fought the war on their behalf.
For record, of 834 troop soldiers under the British command over 500 were Mahars. The Dalits now claim that their superior martial qualities forced the Peshwa flee the battlefield.
The narrative of imperialism versus nationalism evaporates and takes the form of Mahar courage and valour against haughty attitude of the Marathas led by a Brahmin Peshwa. Koregaon Ratnastambh (victory pillar) has now become a symbol of Dalit/Mahar self-respect.
The second narrative gained currency after freedom fighter BR Ambedkar - belonging to Mahar community - visited Koregaon Ratnastambh on January 1, 1927. In 2005, Koregaon Ratnastambh was formed to keep the narrative alive and spread across the country.
In the last few years, the Dalit narrative of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon has spread to far off places and visitors from Karnataka to Uttar Pradesh have visited the war memorial to pay homage to "Mahar martyrs".
While Bhima Koregaon has become a symbol of Dalit pride, another story of conflict comes from a neighbouring village Vadhuk Badruk. Here lies the Samadhi or resting place of Shambhaji, the son of Maratha military commander Shivaji.
Sambhaji had been killed and mutilated on the orders of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, who had a tough time dealing with Maratha challenge to his authority in western and central part of the country.
The Dalits in the village believe that Govind Ganpat Gaikwad, a Mahar fished out the mutilated body of Sambhaji from river and stitched it together before the last rites could be performed. When Govind died a memorial was built in his name.
But, the Marathas have a different narrative of the incident. They claim that the Marathas stitched the mutilated body. The family that stitched the mutilated body got a surname afterward - Shirkes, which later became "Shivale" in some families. They claim that Govind Mahar was the caretaker of the Samadhi of Sambhaji.
The ruling BJP has presented itself as the champion of nationalism. Shivaji and Maratha warriors have been the flag bearers of nationalism. But, under the changed circumstances, Marathas and Dalits are standing on the opposite sides of the divide.
The BJP has been trying hard to woo Dalits in its fold especially after the incidents like Una in Gujarat, where a family was targeted by self-appointed cow vigilantes last year. On the other hand, various Maratha groups have been campaigning in Maharasthra for past two years for repealing or amending the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
The Maratha groups allege that the SC/ST Act has been misused in Maharashtra. More than 42,000 cases have been registered under the law against Maratha youths, most of which, they claim are, false.
The ruling BJP is in conundrum about taking sides or even acting tough against any group for the fear of being branded as anti-community at a time when the Lok Sabha elections are not very far and caste leaders are gaining prominence.
Source: (