Contesting claims

Narrative battles

Print edition : February 02, 2018

Republican Party of India activists stage a rasta roko near Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar at Ghatkopar in Mumbai during the Maharashtra bandh on January 3. Photo: Shashi Ashiwal/BL

Competing historical narratives about the Anglo-Maratha battle at Bhima Koregaon may have ensured that the memory of the 200-year-old battle remains permanently disputed, but they have also led to a renewed self-assertion by Dalit communities.

A few days before the early-January caste violence in Maharashtra attracted countrywide attention, a different but related controversy caused a minor stir in Pune’s politics. In the last week of December 2017, the Bhima Koregaon Shauryadin Prerna Abhiyan, a committee set up to mark the 200th anniversary of the historic Anglo-Maratha battle, announced its plan to organise a conference named Elgar Parishad on December 31 at the headquarters of the erstwhile Peshwa rulers, Shaniwarwada. The committee’s stated intention for organising the conference was to take inspiration from the bravery of predominantly Mahar [a Dalit sub-caste in Maharashtra] soldiers who fought against the Peshwas in a heroic battle at Bhima Koregaon on January 1, 1818, and unite oppressed sections of society to fight the “New Peshwas”, namely, Hindutva forces. This provoked a sharp reaction from at least two outfits: the Akhil Bhartiya Brahman Mahasangh (ABBM) and the Pune Nagar Hindu Sabha. Terming the agenda of the conference “anti-national” and “casteist”, they urged the authorities to deny permission to the organisers.

While the ABBM changed its stance later, it continued to express its fundamental disagreement with the narrative about the battle as expressed by the committee and other organisations backing the event. As Ashok Dave, the district president of the ABBM, put it candidly while speaking with The Indian Express: “Our stand is that both the British Army and the Indian forces, represented by Peshwas, had soldiers from various castes. Many soldiers from the Peshws army sacrificed their lives in this war. So, as Indians, we feel it’s not right to celebrate the victory of the British. In fact, there is a difference of opinion among historians on whether the British Army won at Bhima Koregaon.” The ABBM also sought an open debate on this issue with the Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani.

Disregarding the criticisms of the Hindutva-inspired opposition, the organisers went ahead with the conference after receiving conditional permission from the Pune City Police. Well-known Dalit activists and politicians, including Prakash Ambedkar, Radhika Vemula and Jignesh Mevani, spoke on the need to fight the “New Peshwai” (rule of the New Peshwas).

‘New Peshwai’

In his nearly 20-minute-long address, Mevani said: “Someone was asking us what is this ‘New Peshwai’? Colleague Umar [Khalid of Jawaharlal Nehru University] has put it well, that when this country’s Prime Minister was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he wrote a book named Karmayogi in 2009. In that book he says, with utter lack of shame, which is his core principle, that safai karamcharis get spiritual happiness out of [gutter] cleaning work. This is the New Peshwai. That is why, adding my voice to colleague Umar’s point and remembering the martyrs and struggle of Bhima Koregaon from this platform, I will appeal to the Prime Minister to enter the gutters and feel that spiritual happiness [for himself] so that the country knows what this New Peshwai really is.”

Further elaborating upon this formulation of New Peshwai, Mevani cited Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s reference to the two evils of Brahmanism and capitalism, and the necessity to fight both of them. In conclusion, Mevani said: “We would also like to tell those who wanted to stop us here [that] on 14 April [Ambedkar’s birth anniversary], if we are not in Ahmedabad, then we will come to Nagpur. And from a platform in Nagpur, we will announce a Sangh Samapti Sammelan [RSS termination conference]. We will tell them, ‘If you can, try changing the Constitution. We have the strength to stop you.’ That is because, if we believe in Savitribai Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar’s ideology, we also have faith in Bhagat Singh’s thinking.”

This defiant assertion of the community’s narrative about the battle by a Dalit activist—and its use in contemporary politics—is only the latest instance in a long history of competing narratives about the 200-year-old encounter. A close look at the manner in which the battle resurfaced at periodic intervals in public consciousness over the past two centuries reveals that its memory has always been contested by two different communities and both have used it in every era for different reasons.

The Bhima Koregaon battle of 1818

While the Mahars perceive the battle of 1818 as one against caste oppression perpetrated by the then Peshwa empire, pro-Peshwa sections—chiefly Brahmins—of Maharashtra see it as an unsavoury memory of defeat at the hands of colonisers or a battle which ended in a stalemate.

Dr Shraddha Kumbhojkar, an assistant professor in the Department of History at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, wrote a paper in September 2011 about the contestation of memories surrounding the battle. In the paper, she details how in the 19th century the British referred to the battle and the bravery of the Bombay Native Infantry soldiers (500 out of 834 of them were Mahars) who fought it in glowing terms. When the memory of the battle began to fade in mainstream consciousness towards the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was sought to be revived by a prominent leader of the untouchables, Shivram Janba Kamble, who was campaigning to restart recruitment of Mahars into the British Army. After the 1857 uprising, the British had banned the recruitment of Mahars because the former considered the latter to be a “non-martial race”.

Since a job in the military had the potential to open the doors to social and economic emancipation, the community leaders working for reform tried to restart recruitment. After the First World War, just when the recruitment of Mahars had briefly resumed, it was stopped yet again. This time, the campaign for recruitment took the shape of a broader movement for emancipation, and the Bhima Koregaon memorial, an obelisk constructed by the British after the battle, became its focal point. On January 1, 1927, Ambedkar, the son of a retired Mahar army subedar and as a prominent voice in Indian politics, intervened in the matter and supported the demand to restart Army recruitment. He also sought revival of the memory of the battle by visiting the memorial on its anniversary every year.

‘Untouchables and the Pax Britannica’

In a long essay titled “Untouchables and the Pax Britannica” written some years later, Ambedkar commented upon the “ungrateful” nature of the British towards the “Untouchables” who “not only… enabled the British to conquer India, they enabled the British to retain (India during the 1857 uprising)”. Anticipating criticism from nationalist quarters, he also stated: “There are many who look upon this conduct of the Untouchables in joining the British as an act of gross treason. Treason or no treason, this act of the Untouchables was quite natural. History abounds with illustrations showing how one section of people in a country have shown sympathy with an invader, in the hope that the newcomer will release them from the oppression of their countrymen.”

Evidently, in this instance, the most prominent leader of the “Untouchables” was using a narrative about the battle to make a case for his community’s interests when the British were still ruling India.

In recent years, some groups in the Ambedkarite movement have made efforts to spread the knowledge about the battle and its memory to newer generations of Dalits, virtually converting the annual visit into a kind of pilgrimage for both Mahar and non-Mahar Dalits from across the country. The significance of the memorial and the pilgrimage can be gauged from the fact that on the day the Elgar Parishad was held Ramdas Athavale, Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment in the Union government, presided over a programme at the memorial to mark the 200th anniversary. Calling the existing memorial a “victory pillar”, the Minister, who is also the president of the Republican Party of India (Athavale), said he was in favour of setting up a memorial there in the memory of the Mahar troops. Curiously, the Minister made these statements even though the ideological allies of the government he is a part of consider the Bhima Koregaon battle as one that was against Indian interests.

Compulsions of contemporary politics

Clearly, the compulsions of contemporary politics, in which Dalits constitute a significant voting segment, have weighed heavily on the minds of the ruling party leaders who seem to be struggling to do the balancing act of appeasing Hindutva as well as Dalit sentiment. The tension arising from this balancing act, coupled with a renewed self-assertion by Dalit community leaders in the time of dominance of Hindutva forces, has created a peculiar context in the country’s politics. Both narratives about the battle are disputed by those interested in objective history. For instance, the Dalit author Anand Teltumbde believes that the Mahar narrative about the battle has been used beyond its sell-by date. “It was useful when Babasaheb created the myth, but now it is only helpful in reinforcing identity. People should be extricated of the past and made to confront the terrifying present,” he said. About the pro-Peshwa narrative, Shraddha Kumbhojkar pointed out that in 1818 there was no concept of an Indian nation state, so it is erroneous to say that the Peshwa army represented India.

Notwithstanding these nuances relating to historical facts, it is clear that Dalit assertion is rising alongside aggressive Hindutva, thereby creating a political context in which narrative battles over events like Bhima Koregaon will only get more pronounced. While this process goes on, the role of historical narratives will grow further. As Shraddha Kumbhojkar told Frontline: “An alternative narrative of history has a therapeutic use for the former untouchables who occupy the lowest stratum of the caste pyramid. Inspired by this history, an entire alternative culture has emerged, which has economic, political and cultural implications and uses for the millions of untouchables of India.”

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