Memory and meaning

Print edition : February 02, 2018

January 1, 1927: Dr B.R. Ambedkar (centre, back row) at the Victory Pillar in Bhima Koregaon, after leading a ceremony commemorating the Battle of Koregaon. Photo: The Hindu Archives

April 14, 1950: Ambedkar with soldiers of the Mahar Regiment on his birthday.

For Dalits, Bhima Koregaon represents the promise of emancipation and social justice, and the recent violence against them indicates an upper-caste inability to confront the historical injustice done to them or understand their current struggle for equality.

Historical monuments are not mere physical structures which stand for ages innocently, devoid of memory and meaning. However, these monuments do not contain collective memory and do not carry a unified meaning with them. They radiate from their historical existence different meanings, depending on who is looking at them. “Vijay Stambha” (pillar of victory), the monument at Bhima Koregaon, is no exception to this. It radiates contradictory memories and meanings. For a Dalit, it is a memory of historical relief from the social oppression of feudal rule in 19th century Pune. For some, so it seems, it is not a pleasing memory of a heritage. In Dalit understanding of a historical monument such as the one at Bhima Koregaon, there is an extension of meaning going back to the French Revolution. Some of them see in the Bhima Koregaon battle a kind of reflection of the historical promise of social democracy that was at the core of the French Revolution.

Others tend to assign a particular meaning to the Vijay Stambha. The “nationalist” accusation, which has been floated in the air by some vested interests, is that the participation of Mahar soldiers in Bhima Koregaon was anti-national because they fought on the side of an imperial power, the East India Company. It is in this context that memory and counter memory occur. It is for the first time that Dalits have got into a privileged position of becoming a purva paksha, which, by its very ethical protocol, would then decide the agenda and then leave it for others to counter it. Otherwise, Dalits have been part of uttara paksha as they were at the receiving end of being handed down history and its dominant and convenient interpretations. To put it differently, those who have been in the dominant position from where they could hand down history to Dalits are now at the receiving end and hence have been forced to counter the historically arrived at but normatively affirmed interpretation of Bhima Koregaon. However, the act of countering is not by argument, debate and discussion but by violence. It is in this context that it is necessary to appeal to understand the following reading of Bhima Koregaon.

Ambedkar’s interpretation

We need to reflect on the alternative nationalist imagination that Dr B.R. Ambedkar sought to produce through a radical interpretation of this historical monument. The developments at Bhima Koregaon, though disturbing, have raised the question of historical truth and meaning. Dalits, taking their cue from Ambedkar, found in the Koregaon battle a historical truth that was expressed in the termination of what is seen by Ambedkar and endorsed by leading sociologists such as G.S. Ghurey and historians such as Shraddha Kumbhojkar as state-driven social oppression of Shudras and the Ati-shudras. The meaning that they draw from this truth is the emergence of an egalitarian ideology which would make the values of equality and dignity universal. The other position implicitly suggests that the truth in the Bhima Koregaon battle lies in the formal shifting of power from the Peshwa to the East India Company. The ideology that spins off from this truth is nationalism of a certain kind which sees truth partially, that is, it sees political freedom as a freedom from the the colonial configuration of power and not as freedom from social oppression.

In Ambedkar’s imagination, it is important to focus on the essence of emancipatory principles such as equality, dignity and justice and, through a radical process of reshuffling, make a progressive choice of forces that will assign a radical meaning to these principles. This means the idea of soldier and the corresponding language of “showray”, or valour in English, or the language of martial race does not become a perennial need in Ambedkar’s project of emancipation. It is in this context of the relationship between essence (principle) and existence (forces of human agency) that it becomes necessary to offer some reflection on the moral significance of the Mahar soldiers.

Ambedkar sought to imagine the Indian nation in terms of it having a full normative content. This need for a normative core cannot emerge without the historical presence of a social reality that militates against it. When the consciousness of such a reality becomes intensified, then the need for a normative nationalism becomes naturally quite acute. Arguably, the Peshwa rule in Pune seems to have provided Ambedkar and Dalits the context to insist on the inclusion of an egalitarian component in Indian nationalism. It is in this context that we need to make sense of democracy and dignity by tracing its genealogy even to the military recruitment process which is called by Stephen Cohen as secularisation of Indian military (Stephen Cohen, The Indian Army: Its Contribution to the Development of a Nation, OUP, Delhi, 1990, page 59).

Three fundamental factors

Three fundamental factors can be cited to rescue Bhima Koregaon from the unfair reading of it and to understand the importance Ambedkar and Dalits accorded to the Vijay Stambha. He visited the site in 1927. The military policy that Shivaji Maharaj adopted was aimed at giving the military a wider social base.

Ambedkar provides a radical interpretation to disabuse the nationalists of the notion that Mahars were mere mercenaries used by the East India Company, and later on by the British colonial state. He certainly assigned an emancipatory meaning to Bhima Koregaon and saw in this battle the beginning of an interrogation of the local configuration of power in which Brahmanism was one of the crucial components, capitalism being the other. At the State level, the Brahmanical ideology represented by the Peshwa power elite put the Shudra/Ati-shudra castes at the receiving end of its misrule.

First, Ambedkar saw in the defeat of Peshwa forces by the Mahars in the Koregaon battle an end to a socially oppressive rule and the first proto-assertion of equality, justice and dignity. Ambedkar, in his efforts to mobilise Dalits in favour of liberal values such as equality, justice, freedom and dignity, used the Battle of Koregaon as a pedagogical tool. He used this tool not only to teach Dalits the importance of these values, which were important for their self-definition, but also to complete the normative content of the Indian nation, which in fact received only a skewed treatment in nationalist orientation and imagination. Ambedkar wanted the nationalists to appreciate the social aspect of Indian nationalist imagination.

Secondly, Ambedkar invoked Koregaon to counter the accusation that Mahar soldiers were mere mercenaries and hence were available for “use” by a ruler against other enemy rulers. We all know that according to the dictates of the Manusmriti, Dalits were not supposed to join the military, which was reserved for the Kshatriyas. But this was undermined by Shivaji Maharaj, who had several Mahars in his army. In the Maratha army maintained by the Maratha Sardar, caste distinction was not tolerated. This principle was endorsed in a Marathi saying: “ J yachi talwar khambir toch hambir” (it is only courage that matters in deciding the martial character of a person, and not caste). One would then argue that the recruitment of castes that were barred from entering the military profession gave a kind of secular character to militarism, traditional and modern. The British military administration, particularly the one in the Punjab region, adopted a caste-based division in the military too; that is, they did employ untouchables in the army, but only as sweepers.

Ambedkar chose the Peshwa rule as a reference point in order to fashion out his radical imagination of the nation, which involved the interrogation of the local configuration of power; that is, capitalism and Brahmanism. It is an imagination that could have been in the subconsciousness of the Mahar soldiers since we do not have any formal record that could explain to us the normative source that could have motivated them to fight as a part of the British Army. In such a situation, one could simply imagine it in the larger interest of building up a nation with this positive historical memory. If we had had a socially sensitive rule of Peshwas, there would not be any need for Ambedkar to use Koregaon as a reference point for an alternative construction of nationalism. But this is not the case, and expecting Ambedkar to erase the ground for an alternative imagination would be quite unfair. Since it was not the case, it was imperative on the part of Ambedkar to take history as pedagogy to teach not only Dalits but also those mainstream nationalists who had a skewed notion of nationalism, privileging political freedom over social freedom.

It will be wrong if we fail to develop a historically objective consciousness on the ground that it seeks to expose our own inability to accept the historical injustice done to certain sections of society. There are many born into the upper-caste community who do not find it morally difficult to confront history, howsoever painful it is. They have that moral stamina to document objectively what happened to Dalits during the Peshwa rule in Pune.

Recent opposition to Koregaon is a reflection of the prejudice that some harbour. This lack of objectivity comes in the way of the opponents of Dalit assertion for equality having a relook at the limits of their perspective.

No race for violence

However, one would not like to put the entire normative weight behind such an argument, especially when one looks at it from the angle of Ambedkar’s Buddhism. Labouring on this point is not to support militarism but to dispel the image of Mahar soldiers as being anti-national. Buddhism, in fact, would not allow for such militarisation and, hence, celebrating Koregaon and the “shourya divas” would be against the humanistic vision of Ambedkar, who draws it from his Buddhism. Ambedkar’s pedagogy does not prescribe the self-defeating method of violence to achieve social goals, howsoever lofty they may be. He advocated the non-violent method of satyagraha as a morally superior action for the articulation of this universal principle. In all these years, Dalits from Maharashtra have been taking a heritage walk to Bhima Koregaon, which implies spiritual non-violence. The satyagraha method, in fact, is internal to Dalits, particularly in their efforts to secure their cultural rights and enjoy social freedom. This will, thus, replace the language of “shourya” with action based on peaceful assertion, confidence, courage and enduring sacrifice. In the context of Ambedkar’s Buddhism, we need to acknowledge the following: while the principle in its essence remains constant, the action to articulate these principles needs to change in such a way as to avert the barbaric cycle of violence.

Narratives based on masculinity, known as “dhourya”, make only a small point but create a long-term painful impact. To those who are genuinely Buddhist, this route is not just available.

Gopal Guru is Professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.