On January 1, 1818 a battalion of around 900 soldiers under the British East India Company marched from Shirur to Pune in Maharashtra to face an army consisting of 20,000 soldiers led by Baji Rao II. The battle that lasted for a very short while resulted in the death of more than 200 soldiers on the side of the British and about 500 soldiers on the side of the Peshwas. According to Scottish statesman and historian Mountstuart Elphinstone, who visited the battlefield two days later, houses had been burnt and the streets were covered with dead bodies of men and horses. While the Battle of Koregaon did not see either of the parties emerging clearly victorious, it still came to be regarded as a moment of triumph for the British, who had finally won the Anglo-Maratha war and went on to construct a ‘victory pillar’ at Koregaon.
Two centuries later, the Koregaon victory pillar is the site of an annual celebration by the Mahar community of Maharashtra. Though in essence, the Battle of Koregaon was won by the British, the victory is celebrated every year by the Mahars, an untouchable caste in Maharashtra. Back in the nineteenth century, the Mahars were particularly favoured by the British for recruitment in the military troops. At the Battle of Koregaon, they formed a majority in the British contingent. The event of triumph of a Mahar majority battalion over the upper caste Peshwa army has played a significant role in elevating Dalit pride and enforcing a positive identity in them.
This year, however, the annual celebratory event of Dalit victory and pride was intervened by Maratha groups who consider it an act of anti-national sentiment to commemorate a battle that was won by the British. As lakhs of Mahars gathered to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon, clashes between Dalit and Maratha groups led to a complete disruption of normal life in Maharashtra. The ongoing caste conflict in the state has raised numerous questions on national vs community pride, contesting memories of historical events as also the issues of law and order that these battles over historical pride lead to. A thorough examination of Mahar community’s martial and administrative glory, first under Shivaji and then later under the British, and the disruption of the same under Peshwa rule in between would show why the Dalit group have continued to value a moment of British glory as their own.
Mahars under Shivaji
Though an untouchable caste, the Mahars of Maharashtra had traditionally held valuable positions in the military and administrative services. “In appearance, they were able-bodied and muscular, many of them handsome, intelligent and quick to assimilate, and possessing physical courage,” wrote the English civil servant Henry Baden-Powell of the Mahars. The military value of the Mahars that was recognised by the British, was not a discovery of the latter. Back in the seventeenth century, the community was particularly valued by the ruler Shivaji, under whom Maratha caste identities were far more fluid.
Historian Philip Constable notes in his work that in the seventeenth century Western India, though Maratha identity was developing as a landed class with kshatriya status, they were still not a closed-status group and remained close in lifestyle to the agricultural peasant. “This perceived closer association of Maratha families with the lower-caste Maratha kunbi, and even the Mahar and Mang peasants whom they employed in infantry naukri, remained one of the main foci of the martial culture of western India until the mid-nineteenth century,” writes Constable.
The value of the Mahars for military recruitment under Shivaji was noted by the social reformer Jyotirao Phule. In his “Ballad of Raja Chatrapati Shivaji Bhonsale,” Phule wrote about the concept of open-status kshatriya naukri under Shivaji, which he saw as a means of uniting the lower castes against Brahmin dominance. Thereby, the lower castes were encouraged to assume professional kshatriya identity, which would override their multiple ethnic and religious affiliations. Phule’s understanding of caste unity in Maharashtra under Shivaji was echoed in the works of the social reformer M G Ranade as well.
The Mahars were not only beneficiaries of the attempt at caste unity under Shivaji, but were in fact valued for their martial skills, bravery, and loyalty. The Mahars were particularly employed as metenaik in Shivaji’s times, responsibility was to guard the slopes and accesses to Maratha mountain fortresses. Many of them rose to the position of fort captains as well. A popular cultural account mentions that in 1773, Raynak Mahar had defended Fort Raigad against the Peshwa’s attack and had later refused to change allegiance from his defeated leader. Sidnak Mahar was yet another character of Mahar history who holds legendary status. It is believed that when Aurangzeb killed Shambhaji in 1688, Mahar had built a platoon in service of the Maratha state.
Mahars after Shivaji
The position occupied by the Mahars under Shivaji, however, was short-lived and under later Peshwa rulers, their status deteriorated. As mentioned by historian Shraddha Kumbhojkar in her work, “the Peshwas were infamous for their high caste orthodoxy and their persecution of the untouchables.” The Mahars were forbidden to move about in public spaces and punished atrociously for disrespecting caste regulations. Stories of Peshwa atrocities against the Mahars suggest that they were made to tie brooms behind their backs to wipe out their footprints and pots on their necks to collect their spit. Under their governance, the social and occupational mobility enjoyed by the Mahars was completely destroyed.
Kumbhojkar notes that till date, the atrocities committed by the Peshwas against the Mahars and the restrictions they placed upon them have failed to be removed from the collective memory of the Mahars.
Mahars under the British
The need to free themselves from Peshwa domination gained a particular momentum among the Mahars when the British East India Company began recruiting soldiers for the Bombay army. They immediately seized the opportunity and enlisted themselves. Military employment was seen as a means of social and economic emancipation. Further, the Mahars knew this was the best way to reclaim lost glory.
“Just like Shivaji’s early rule was seen to have been built on the military naukri of low-caste Ramoshi, Mahar, and Mang infantry, so Dalit martial culture emphasised that the East India Company had used this same tradition in establishing its rule,” writes Constable. The Bombay garrison army included a large number of people from among the lower castes. The British preferred the lower castes also because of the perceived divided loyalties of the higher caste recruits who were closer to the Maratha state. The enslavement faced by the Mahars under the Peshwas made them more than willing to join the British in bringing about a downfall of the Maratha empire.
Once in British military service, the Mahars were yet again valued for their characteristics of valour and loyalty. When the British constructed the ‘victory pillar’ after the Battle of Koregaon they inscribed names of 22 Mahar soldiers who had lost their lives in the battle.
However, once the British gained a firm footing in India in the 20th century, the contribution made by the Mahars in their military occupations quickly faded from their collective memory. The “victory pillar”, however, came to acquire an increasingly important status for the Dalits, who saw in it a symbol of their victory over the higher castes. In subsequent years, the British stopped recruiting from among the Mahars and after independence too, traditions of history writing ignored the military contributions of the Mahars as well. The Battle of Koregaon, however, has continued to shape the community’s collective sense of history and pride of a time when their gallantry had brought down the much hated Peshwa rule in western India.