Anand Teltumbde in a recent article claimed that the Dalits’ role in the legendary Bhima Koregaon battle is just a myth. But it is promoted well by the Dalits, including Dr Ambedkar. While leveling this charge Teltumbde, however, doesn’t present any evidence to support his argument. His approach in this statement was similar to the approach of one biased brahmanic-Marxist Ramvilas Sharma, who in one of his books, ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Lohia Aur Itihas ki Samasyaein’, challenged the existence of the caste system and untouchability in medieval India by saying that if King Sayajirao Gaikwad of Baroda helped Ambedkar in getting his higher studies abroad, how could the caste system and untouchability still exist at that time. Sharma’s second argument is ‘if it is expected that the Gaikwads of Baroda were themselves Sudras then how could the caste system exist.’ Thus based on these two stupid comments he argues, that both the statements together or independently suggest that there was no caste system or untouchability in India, the way it is presented today1.
Any ordinary student of history or a lay Dalit activist could easily understand the bluff and the stupidity of Ramvilas Sharma’s above comments but despite this and much other wrong analysis, Sharma is a favorite author of Hindi’s renowned publishers. Similar is the case of Teltumbde, who is famous for his biased rhetoric and his illogical comments but is a beloved author of mainstream media. It is even strange that though Teltumbde always opposes reservation for SCs and STs, but the famous journal Economic & Political Weekly reserves a column ‘Margin Speak’ exclusively for him!
Now back to analysing Teltumbde’s main argument that the Mahars’ role in Koregaon battle is just a myth. This argument in a way is quite natural because it is an established belief in the minds of our mainstream society that ‘the Dalits are good for nothing, so how could they defeat the grand Peshwas!’ However, this victory (unfortunately for them) cannot be discarded since, a pillar attesting to its historicity stands even today. Yet despite this, they have an argument on the presence and role of Dalits in this battle.
Knowing the mental setup of our society, Dr Ambedkar in his article ‘The Untouchables and Pax Britannica’, much before Teltumbde’s claim, answers all. He said that the Bombay regiment which fought the battle against the Peshwas was composed of Mahars. Elaborating his views he writes:
In the year 1757 there was fought a battle between the forces of the East India Company and the Army of Siraj-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal. The British forces were victorious. It is known in history as the battle of Plessey… The last battle which completed the territorial conquest was fought in 1818. It is known as the battle of Koregaon. This was the battle which destroyed the Maratha Empire and established in its place the British Empire in India. Thus the conquest of India by British took place during 1757 and 1818… The people who joined the army of the East India Company were the Untouchables of India. The men who fought with Clive in the battle of Plassey were the Dusads, and the Dusads are Untouchables, and the Mahars are Untouchables.2
Babasaheb’s argument, though it is factually correct, could be discarded by Teltumbde and his comrades on the ground that this comment may have caste bias. But in this account Teltumbde and company fail to understand that the presence of Dalits in British Army was not merely a claim of Dr Ambedkar or his Mahar predecessors but this fact was narrated by the Britishers themselves who being caste-less foreigners cannot be charged with any bias towards the Dalits.
The foreign authors who described the effective role of Dalits in British army are from two groups, first the ethnographers: for instance, Robertson (1877) and Pillat-Veschera (1994) and secondly, the writings of Army officers and other scholars.
Reviewing the role of Mahars in the British army Colonel V. Longer, the author of ‘Forefront Forever: The History of the Mahar Regiment’, states:
There were a number of useful functions which the Mahars performed. Their Argus eye; their daring tenacity and determination; their faithfulness, loyalty and honesty; their courage and candour, were inestimable qualities which were always held in respect and were forever utilized to advantage by the village …. In course of time, their voice carried great weight when there were disputes over property as their evidence was considered most accurate, intimate, and trustworthy.3
Richard B. White in his article ‘The Mahar Movement’s Military Component’ writes that the Mahars began their service with the British in the 1750s. He refers to Stephen P. Cohen, who was an expert on the Indian Army, and his seminal work, ‘The Indian Army: Contribution to the Development of a Nation’. Cohen writes that Mahars were ‘a sizeable portion of the armies of the Mahratta chieftain Shivaji, served as hereditary local policeman, and were thus a “natural” martial class. Heavily recruited in the pre-mutiny years, the Mahars constituted a fifth to a quarter of the entire Bombay Army’. This army conquered Koregaon in 18184. Robertson in his ‘The Mahar Folk: A Study of Untouchables in Maharastra’ writes about the valour of the Mahars in the following words:
The Mahar sepoys of the Bombay Army deserve to share in a general way the high praise bestowed on that army by men who spent their lives on the field in the days of India’s travail. Whether they had to endure the rigours of difficult marches when rations were low and disease was rampant among men and transport animals; whether trial came upon them when besieged or when prisoners of war and they went without food in order to supplement the rations of their European officers and comrade in arms; whether they “faced the chance of open battle on their own plains and in the storming of fortresses, they were worthy of their officers and’ of their European comrades.5
Referring to the battle of Koregaon as an important event in Mahar history, he further acclaims:
The Mahar folk cherish the memory of the fight at Koregaon on the 1st January, 1818, when the flower of Maratba chivalry, in retreat it is true, but by no means broken, swooped in many thousands upon a force of 600 rank and file, which was on the march from Sirur to Kirkee. There were just about two dozen European gunners and a few European officers in that small body of 600 outcastes which entrenched itself in the village of Koregaon when the Peshwa’s army fell upon it. For twelve weary hours a hand to hand conflict was maintained until many were slain and wounded on both sides. The victory lay with the small British force. The heroism of that day is commemorated on the monument which stands on the bank of the sacred Bhima where the Poona-Ahmednagar Road crosses the river.6
The battle of Koregaon is also discussed by other western scholars, for instance, Richard B. White describes this battle as the ‘best documented, action’. He writes:
The Mahar participation in the battle of Koregaon on 1 January 1818 is the most famous, and also the best documented, action involving Mahar soldiers. This battle gave the British the advantage in the Third Anglo-Maratha War. The successful defense of Koregaon by a small force of 500 men … under the command of Capt. F. F. Staunton [who] fought without rest or respite, food or water continuously for twelve hours against a large force of 20,000 Horse and 8,000 Infantry of Peshwa Baji Rao II who was threatening the British garrisons at Kirkee and Poona. Mahars dominated Staunton’s unit. The Peshwa’s troops inexplicably withdrew that evening, despite their overwhelming numbers, giving the British an important victory. The men of the 2/1st Regiment Bombay Native Infantry, including many Mahars, who fought in this battle, were honored for their bravery. The official report to the British Resident at Poona recalls the “heroic velour and enduring fortitude” of the soldiers, the “disciplined intrepidity” and “devoted courage and admirable consistency” of their actions. Further, the action is commemorated by a monument, with the names of twenty-two Mahars killed there, erected at the site of the battle and by a medal issued in 1851. Today, the monument still “serves as a focal point of Mahar heroism.7
White also quotes Longer V in his study on Mahar Regiment, ‘Forefront Forever: The History of the Mahar Regiment, said:
Much praise was showered on the Mahar Sepoys of the Bombay Army who endured the rigours of difficult marches when rations were low and disease was high among men and animals. Whether they were charging ahead or were besieged or taken prisoner-of-war, whether they were storming fortresses or making tactical withdrawals, they always stood steadfast by their officers and comrades, never letting down the honour of their Regiments.8
Based on these testimonies Richard concludes that ‘similar anecdotes are recorded in the written histories of the Mahar Regiment and Bombay Army. All demonstrate that most Mahars soldiers were dedicated and courageous.’
The above documents are sufficient to suggest the historic importance of Bhima Koregaon and are enough to discard the views of Teltumbde. But one important question remains that how one identifies the names of soldiers carved in Bhima-Korgaon memorial as the Mahar soldiers.
The identification of them as Mahar lies in the fact that the names of majority of the soldiers end with “Nak” which was a common identification of Mahar soldiers. But this identification was also misunderstood by some progressives. For instance, Vinod Dua, in his ‘Jan Gan Man Ki Baat’ while referring to this identification puts a clever smile on his face and also gestures towards his nose with his hands, thinking that nak means nose. But the nak mentioned in Bhima Korgaon was not the nose, as some people including Vinod Dua, think. The nak was in fact a term used for the Mahar soldiers as they are naik (those who are leading foot soldiers), which is the most daring and risky service in the army. Another explanation of Nak in Mahar community is that it is the misnomer of the ancient Naga community (to which the Mahars belong). Whatever is the reason, but it is a fact that Nak was used as a title by Mahars during the pre-British and British era. As Robertson in his ‘The Mahar Folk: A Study of Untouchables in Maharashtra’ writes:
Naka is one of the horrific affixes applied in the names of Mahars in olden times as for example Vitthunak and Dhondunak.9
Thus, it is beyond doubt that the names carved on the Bhima-Korgaon memorial pillar are mostly Mahar martyrs. The western authors as well as Mahar testimonies also attest to this fact. Yet in the eyes of Telumbde it is a myth!
In this country so much nonsense is passed off as history in the universities– for instance, the devoting of the era of 1500 BC to 500 BC as the Vedic age. Advocacy on the efficacy of castes in the name of utilitarianism is also taught10. But it is strange that none of the ‘progressive’ Indians ever raised concerns over it but in their eyes, the Dalit valour in Bhima Korgaon is a myth.
Ratnesh Katulkar’s upcoming (unpublished) booklet ‘Dr Ambedkar Aur Adivasi Prashn?’ counters the arguments of ‘progressives’ who are charging Dr Ambedkar with working against Tribal rights.
1. For this point and other mischief of Ramvilas Sharma see: http://hindi.roundtableindia.co.in/index.php/perspective/film-and-literature/8595-a-critical-review-of-ramvilas-sharma-s-writtings-on-ambedkar
2. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches vol 12. p. 86
3. Quoted from https://web.archive.org/web/20051102115844/http://asnic.utexas.edu/asnic/sagar/spring.1994/richard.white.art.html
5. The Mahar Folk p. 62v
6. Ibid p. 62
9. The Mahar Folk p. 47
10. Some bias of Indian Historians discussed in: http://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=8980:critical-analysis-of-indian-historians-writings-on-buddhism&catid=127:post-ambedkar-leaders&Itemid=158
Images courtesy: the net.