TWO esteemed former judges of constitutional courts, both with strong civil rights activist networks, have been conducting various programmes and campaigns aiming at social equality, fraternity and communal peace. They thought it important to celebrate the bicentenary of the Koregaon-Bhima Battle on January 1, 2018, which to their understanding of society would result into harmony between Dalits and Bahujans.
The then prevailing social unrest in the Maharashtra — long pending demands of farmers for loan waiver; demand for reservation of the Marathas; the Kopardi rape case where Dalits were accused of committing rape on a Maratha girl; and the unending caste atrocities against Dalits — widened the gap amongst the Bahujans. What fuelled the feeling of enmity amongst Marathas and non-Marathas was the “Muk Morchas” and unprecedented show of strength by this community. Though many communities initially came forward in support, certain RSS-sponsored organisations ensured that hatred kept brewing. Certain organisations declared their counter-morchas against muk morchas, which then simply added fuel to fire.
Against this backdrop, Justices P B Sawant and Kolse-Patil and other eminent social workers worried about antisocial elements, particularly RSS tactics, causing social unrest, decided to come together and debate for a possible social solution. They found it necessary to appeal to the feeling of fraternity amongst the Bahujans, by organising sociocultural programmes. The then imminent bicentenary of the Bhima Koregaon battle offered them with the perfect occasion to organise programmes for a wider coalition of disgruntled and victimised Dalits and Bahujans.
[WATCH] The Bhima Koregaon Case: What Really Happened
The Bhima-Koregaon Battle of January 1, 1818
As the legend goes, on the eve of January 1, 1818, about 800 furious soldiers of the British army defeated the 28,000-strong Peshwa army. This victory over the Brahmninical “Peshwayi” is celebrated by the Bahujans in Maharashtra every year by visiting the obelisk that was built as a memorial for the battle and its martyrs. One may very well think what is there in the Bhima-Koregaon battle for Indians to celebrate, for the victory went to the British who ruthlessly ruled our land and robbed us of resources. If there ought to be anything about this battle that must be remembered, it might as well be abhorrence, horror, regret. But it is not so. Hundreds of thousands of people gather at Bhima-Koregaon to salute the bravery of those 800-odd British Indian soldiers and draw inspiration from their struggles and courage. They fought a battle which ultimately resulted in the fall of the Peshwas who were ruling on behalf of the Marathas.
Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar was the first to visit this “victory pillar” as an act of Dalit and Bahujan self-assertion. He brought forth the sociopolitical importance of this battle for public understanding. He reminded everyone that those fighting the Peshwayi were not only the Mahars (prominent Scheduled Caste community in Maharashtra) but there were many others cutting across caste and religious lines, who sacrificed their lives in order to resist the ruthless reign of the Peshwas. That they dared to take on such a mighty force, was not because they were sure of victory, but because they wanted to avenge the prolonged casteist torture they and their brethren suffered at the hands of the Peshwas.
What is “Peshwayi”, and why was it hated so by the suppressed classes?
The term “Peshwa” is derived from Persian, which literally means the foremost leader. This post was created by none other than Emperor Shivaji, who had appointed Moropant Pingle, from a Deshasta Brahmin family, to head his administration and revenue department. After the suspicious death of Emperor Shivaji, Morepant, Annaji Datto and others from his ministry in collusion attempted to capture Sambhaji, the eldest son of Shivaji, in order to coronate Rajaram, the 10-year-old stepbrother of Sambhaji. However, this expedition failed, and instead Moropant Pingle, Annaji Datto and many others were captured by Sambhaji. As a prince, Sambhaji, had made various claims of corruption against Annaji Datto, which appeared to be the reason for ministers to dislike Sambhaji. However, as a reward for loyalty to his father, Sambhaji reinstated them with full honour. Despite mercy and complete pardon, the team did not abet, and plotted once again to kill Emperor Sambhaji. By then Sambhaji had gathered intelligence on the involvement of Moropant Pingle and Annaji Datto in the alleged assassination of Shivaji. This time, Sambhaji did not show any mercy and executed his ministers, including Moropant Pingle and Annaji Datto.
Moropant’s son, Nileshwar then became the Peshwa, and was killed alongwith Sambhaji in the battles against the Mughals. In the later period, Ramchandra Pant Acharya, assisted the Maratha crown in difficult times, and once the kingdom was in better position, he stepped down himself.
The post of the Peshwa, though was never hereditary in the beginning and was instead based on loyalty, skills, and other desirable administrative qualities, became a hereditary post after the sixth Peshwa, Balaji’s son, Bajirao (Bajirao I) assumed the seat of power. Gradually, the Peshwa, originating from the Chitpavan Kokanastha Brahmin family, became extremely powerful, reducing the Maratha king to a merely titular position.
Peshwas made Pune their capital and the magnificent Shaniwar Wada as their palace. They departed completely from the policies, ethics, principles of Shivaji which were the foundation principles of Swarajya. [Shivaji Maharaj, wanted to create a welfare state. He wanted to have rule of his own people, and therefore it was called Swarajya. However, Hindavi came to be added to this term to make Shivaji appear anti Muslim or a devout Hindu.] Their deep-rooted hatred and contempt towards the poorer, “low castes”, firm belief in caste hierarchy and adherence to Manusmirti, coupled with unbridled, unchecked and arbitrary use of power — made them extremely unpopular.
Swarajya vs Peshwayi
The reason emperor Shivaji is liked and followed even today, lies in his stern and bold steps which ensured equality, justice and loyalty of his subjects. His act of cutting off the limbs of a highly-placed officer for committing rape on a Dalit woman, and then making him sit outside a temple for rest of his life, to show people as to what would justice look like in Shivaji’s kingdom if any woman is exploited by anyone — was legendary and captured the hopes and dreams of his people. He had laid strong foundation towards the social equality across caste and religious divides; he had even returned the captured daughter-in-law of a Muslim warlord, with full honor and respect. He reprimanded his soldiers not to repeat the same or hurt any religious sentiments during raids. He had famously said: “Had my mother been blessed with such beauty, I would also have been bestowed with such looks”, which was taken as principle. The armies of Shivaji, even after his death, were considered to be most ethical, principled and kind to women, children, aged, infirm and respectful of religious places.
Shivaji is hailed by one and all even today, since he sowed the seeds of equality, fraternity amongst a variety of castes, irrespective of the chaturwarna system (the caste hierarchy). He recruited every efficient person, regardless of caste or religion. He gave them position, respect, power. His land policy was far more progressive than his times. He offered land to the landless, again regardless of caste or religion and recovered the cost, in annual installments. Installments were to commence after three years of land allocation and in events of draught, the installment would be waived for that year. He made sure that his ministers kept a close eye on the needs of peasantry; he used to supply them with farming tools, seeds, oxen and other necessary equipment.
His taxation system was considered to be most kind, while revenue collectors were under strict command to behave responsibly and take into consideration the hardship of the families while recovering taxes. Many such reforms, policies and decisions of Shivaji not only made him famous, it earned him the unwavering loyalty of his people.
With the Peshwas taking power, casteist exploitation and discrimination became an epidemic, taken to absurd lengths. The “Untouchables” were forced to hang earthen pots from their neck, tie a broom to their waists, and they had to change their paths if any high caste person was passing by. They had to wipe off their footprints from the path, so that it did not pollute any Brahmin who might take the same route. Dalits were beheaded in punishment for these arbitrary “crimes”, and thence their heads would be used as balls and swords as sticks, with which Peshwayi soldiers would play games like that of football.
Similar was the treatment with women during the Peshwa regime. Budhwar Peth in Pune, a red-light area of present day, came to be filled with women from backward communities who suffered immense sexual exploitation and were treated as sex slaves.
Similar, if not worse, was the situation with the peasantry. Much like the present scenario, the farmers then were under tremendous and vicious loans taken from marvaris/sahukars, (moneylenders) who enjoyed protection from Peshwas. They would stand as surety of tax to the Peshwas, on behalf of farmers, and later on recover the same with high interests. They were allowed to collect tax and their dues together from the farmers. The exploitative, unjust and forceful system of revenue collection had made many farmers abandon farming and even leave their native villages. As many as 6-7 % of the villages and towns were entirely deserted and a large proportion of the lands was not cultivated at all. [Source: The Cambridge Economic History of India, Vol ii, page 181].
From the peaceful and content life under Shivaji’s rule to running from pillar to post for basic livelihood, abandoning their ancestral lands, the common people were simply fed up with the then ruling dispensation — that of the Peshwas.
The battle on the banks of River Bhima, village Koregaon
Against this backdrop, a small contingent of people coming from various walks of life —including Dalits, disgruntled high castes, Muslims, Christian converts working under the British as soldiers — came face to face with a 28,000-strong Maratha-Peshwa army on January 1, 1818. In the 12-hour-long battle, this raging British army of downtrodden Indians fought with gallantry and made the mighty Peshwa army, including Bajirao Peshwa II, to flee from the banks of River Bhima, near the village Koregaon. As history notes, this battle cost the Peshwas dearly and ultimately resulted in the fall of their tortuous reign.
The obelisk at Bhima-Koregaon, the ‘Vijay Stambh’
In honour of the martyrs of the battle, the British erected an obelisk which came to be termed as the Vijay Stambh. This pillar has the names of those who laid down their lives in the battle of Bhima-Koregaon. After the visit of Dr Ambedkar to this monument of Dalit pride, there began a tradition of visiting Vijay Stambh every January 1 as a mark of respect towards the soldiers who fought against the casteist Peshwas.
Wadu Budruk, the resting place of Emperor Sambhaji
Emperor Sambhaji was well known for his bold and decisive stands compared to even his father. His administration and judicious approach is considered to be way more progressive than his times. In the short-yet-challenging stint that he had as a king, he made sure to expand the land policies and make peasantry equipped with modern tools. He was further known for the betrayal he had to face from his Peshwas, who tried to engineer coups and kill him on many occasions. Modern-day scholars and activists claim that Bramhin historians purposefully distorted the biography of Sambhaji in order to present him as a spoiled brat, rapist and drunkard, so as to overshadow the betrayal of the Peshwas against Shivaji-driven Swarajya.
It is also important to note that, Emperor Shivaji was treated as a shudra or a lower caste by the Bramhins of his times. They argued that Parashuram had already killed all the kshatriyas on earth 21 times and therefore there was no kshatriya left on earth. They had protested the coronation of Shivaji, citing that a shudra cannot be a king in accordance with the Vedas. Shivaji defied all this and got himself a coronation. Taking a step further, against the religious verses, he procured education for his son Sambhaji, who mastered Sanskrit, Hindi and many other languages. Manusmriti prohibits learning of Sanskrit by anyone other than Brahmins and defiance thereof was deemed punishable.
Emperor Sambhaji came to be captured in the year 1689, by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and he was sentenced to death. Contrary to regular modes of execution as were prevalent in the Mughal era, he was executed in the manners prescribed by Manusmriti. After tying him up for 14 days straight, his eyes were taken off, tongue was chopped, molten lead was poured into his ears, later on his skin was peeled off, and gradually he was cut in pieces. His body parts were then strewn with the diktat that no one must attempt to perform the last rites on the departed emperor, else he would face the highest punishment at the hands of the Mughal emperor.
It is accepted history that one Mahar (a person from an untouchable caste) — Gopal Govind, of village Vadu Budruk (a village about 10 km from Bhima-Koregaon) defied the command and collected the body parts of his king, stitched them and cremated with all the rites, in what was called the Maharwada (place away from village, where Mahars would reside as in a ghetto). While he mustered the courage, the rest of the villagers did not find it worth inviting the wrath of Aurangzeb. It is at this place that a Samadhi, or a memorial of Sambhaji, came to be built. Govind Gopal Mahar was also rewarded by the successors of Sambhaji with land, purse and was made a custodian of the samadhi. After the death of Govind Mahar, a small memorial was built next to the king’s memorial. Even today, people gather at this memorial and offer their homage to the legendary emperor.
On the other hand, with new research and evidence material becoming handy, including certain correspondences, past literature and documents, many Bahujans have come to believe that the then Peshwas and Brahmins played a crucial role in causing the deaths of both Shivaji and Sambhaji. While at the same time, by citing bogus myths, youth were being radicalised against Muslims, and were made to harbor enmity, by making them believe that they are chartering the glorious path of Shivaji and Sambhaji Maharaj. Many political parties such as Shiv Sena, BJP, Sangh Parivar-related “cultural organisations” like the RSS and other allied outfits have been successful in making many believe that Shivaji Maharaj and Sambhaji Maharaj were dead against Muslims and planted a false story that Shivaji wanted to establish Hindu Rastra as against Swarajya (self-rule).
Both these historical places — one where Sambhaji was cremated by a Mahar (Dalit) defying the Peshwas and Moghuls as a mark of respect towards his king, and the other one being the obelisk (Vijay Stambh) of Bhima-Koregaon, where the Bahujans defeated the Peshwas — are very close to Pune and are located merely at a distance of just 10 kilometres from each other.
[This is the first of a three-part series on the Bhima-Koregaon case. Parts II and III will be published in the coming week.]