Friday, January 5, 2018

The Koregaon Battle- Mahars in the Peshwa Regime and Indian Army

While Mumbai burns, yet again we're confronted with the question of 'what really happened' and history has become, again, a political football. Ambedkar and the Mahar regiment are being characterized by Hindutva Brahmins as stooges of Colonial masters and anti-Indians. Ah, anti-Indian, that catchall term to tar and feather anyone who disagrees with the Hindu fundamentalism that Narendra Modi peddles. "What is the proof that Mahars were ill treated by Peshwas" asked one in an attempt to discredit history and the current imbroglio. Let's find out.

Koregaon Memorial Pillar (Image courtesy Wikipedia)

The East India Company and the Peshwa regime were locked in a war for survival in the third and final Anglo-Maratha wars from November 1817-February 1818. The battle of Koregaon, on January 1st 1818, was the last battle of the war in which the British army, numbering around 900 and led by F.F. Staunton were met by the Peshwa army, numbering nearly 20,000 and led "by the Peshwa himself". The battle ended indecisively but Staunton's army was able to retreat honorably including "carrying of their wounded". However, since the war itself was a decisive victory the battle was noted for its glorious valor against staggering odds. A memorial, an obelisk, was erected to commemorate the battle at Koregaon. Twenty two of the names listed in the memorial plaque at the obelisk are names of those from the Mahar caste who fought in the battle against Peshwa army. Now, Mahars were considered low-caste and the Peshwa regime was a Brahmin regime.

Wars have always ben important sign posts in the collective memory as matter of pride or of shame depending on who lost and won and which community is doing the recollection. During the colonial era Indians, especially Hindus, always felt a need to rekindle martial pride to overcome the fact that a small profiteering company from a small island was ruling a vast subcontinent. To Hindus this was a sting even as they were ruing the loss of power during the 500 year Islamic rule. Amongst the Hindus castes like Mahars needed a retelling of the past when they were part of something significant, particularly, against the Brahmins.

Pankaj Mishra in "From the ruins of Empire: The intellectuals who remade Asia" recalls how Asians and even African-Americans felt glorious about the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese war in 1905. Gandhi, an unknown lawyer in South Africa then, said "so far and wide have the roots of Japanese victory spread that we cannot now visualize all the fruit it will put forth". Jawaharlal Nehru, traveling to Harrow and a teenager then, remember hearing the news and how it put him in "high good humor". In America W.E.B. Du Bois "spoke of a worldwide eruption of 'colored pride'". Rabindranath Tagore led students in a victory march "around his little school compound". Mishra adds, "it mattered little to which class or race they belonged; the subordinate peoples of the world keenly absorbed the deeper implications-moral and psychological-of Japan's triumph".

Tamil literary tradition celebrates war and the exploits of war by their kings and chieftains. If BJP is afflicted by muscular nationalism fueled by religious pride Tamil Nadu politics is imbued with regional pride fueled by linguistic chauvinism. Often one could hear a plaintive recalling of the glorious past when a Tamil king undertook an expedition to the North and subdued the chieftains there. One story even mentions making the subdued chieftains act as mules to bring rocks from the north to construct a temple. Memories of war and what they mean for cultural and national pride is a fertile topic for sociologists and historians.

The Koregaon battle, a matter of pride for Mahars is a stigma of shame for the nationalists, many of whom are upper castes. The issue of Mahar regiment, their subsequent disbanding and demand for re-instatement became a major issue for Ambedkar, a Mahar.

The Mahars at one time constituted nearly 15% in the Bombay infantry in 1875 but with the introduction of the principle of recruiting based on classes identified as 'martial classes', mostly Punjabi, the Mahars lost and were 'excluded altogether from the Bombay army in 1892'. The ban on Mahar recruiting was only lifted in 1917 towards the end of World War I. "But after the war was over, caste prejudice led to that regiment being disbanded in 1922". "This time, though, the community had a strong advocate in the shape of B.R. Ambedkar", "a man who had grown up hearing stories from his soldier uncles and other community leaders about the great wrong done to the community". (Wilkinson 2015, 72-76).

It is little wonder then that Ambedkar chose to make the Battle of Koregaon a day to commemorate and the memorial a site of annual pilgrimage. Shraddha Kumbhojkar, a historian at the University of Pune,  has written a detailed chapter on the battle in "Sites of Imperial Memory: Commemorating Colonial Rule in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries". Khumbojkar quotes a pilgrim to the site on the day of commemoration, "We are here to remember our Mahar forefathers fought bravely and brought down the unjust Peshwa rule. Dr. Ambedkar has started this pilgrimage. He asked us to fight injustice. We have come to take inspiration from the brave soldiers and Dr. Ambedkar's memories".

Khumbojkar gives a grisly summary of the plight of Mahars under the Brahmin Peshwas.
"The 'untouchable people' who were born in certain so-called low-castes were given harsher punishments tan would be meted out to high caste people for the same crimes. They were forbidden to move in public spaces in the mornings and evenings lest their long shadows defile high caste people on the streets.....Human sacrifices of 'untouchable' people were not uncommon" 
 Mukta Salave, "a 15 year old girl" from the Mang community provides further grisly material.
"Under Bajiro's rule, if any mang or mahar happened to pass in front of the gymnasium, they cut off his head and used it to play 'bat ball', with their swords as bats and his head as a ball"
[I verified the quote of Mukta Salave that Khumbojkar provided based on the reference cited. The quote is from 'Women Writing in India: Voume 1 600 BC to the Eraly Twentieth Century edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lakita pg 214-216. Muktabai is mentioned without last name and she's 14 years old when she wrote that in 1855 in a school founded by Savtribhai and Jotiba Phule. The essay was reprinted in Dnyaodaya Centenary volumes edited by B.P Hivale in 1942.

Khumbojkar, intentionally or otherwise, omits mentioning that Mukta also added that Mahars practiced the same untouchability, including fear of being polluted by shadow, towards mangs. A good historian should not have omitted that]

Sure, one could argue that the quote from Mukta needs to be considered with caution but a tradition of violence even in present day India towards Dalits when incidents of horrendous violence are not uncommon her narration gets a vote of trust.

Two other sources concerning slavery in Peshwa regime gives a glimpse of the nature of the regime and the era. Many Indians still think that slavery was only an institution in West, notably America. Not at all. India had a very well established slavery system. In 'Slavery, Abolitionism and Empire in India, 1772-1843' Andrea Major quotes the colonial official Elphinstone who ponders on what to do with slaves escaping from the Peshwa and seeking protection in British encampments. When 6 slave dealers were arrested their victims included children.

An essay in "Slavery & South Asian History" edited by Indrani Chatterjee and Richard Eaton mentions "Slaves-especially women and children- were highly acceptable gifts and often circulated from household to household. We find Peshva Balaji Bajirao acknowledging the gift of a European musical instrument and 'two women of the best quality'". In another letter Balaji Bajiao writes "you were instructed to buy and send me two beautiful ten-year old Hindu girls". "Definitely send on [my] personal account the following sort- two high-quality, pure Hindus of good caste, ten year olds".

When upper caste Brahmin fundamentalists shake their fists and ask "where is the proof" we struggle to come up with proof because history, in India, was never written in the Greco-Roman style and when written, at all, in the pre-colonial era, they were mostly poetic hagiographies by upper caste writers, mostly Brahmins, in the service of the Kshatriyas. Only with the arrival of Colonial era do we even get credible records. Sure the colonial era record keeping has its share of embellishments and biases but evidences such as the above are direct. From Bajirao's letter requesting ten year old girls of 'good caste' one can make an interesting inference that in his sick mind he doesn't consider girls of low caste to even be slaves.

Characterizing Ambedkar as a stooge of British is an old saw. Arun Shourie, a Brahmin and a former member of BJP government, used to be a journalist and then a hack historian. In his avatar as historian he was the darling of the Hindutva brigade particularly for writing his extremely polemical hack job of a book about Ambedkar, "Worshipping false gods: Ambedkar and the facts which have been erased". Ambedkar's differences with Gandhi, the Congress and the Freedom movement are legendary and they played out in public stage. There are no secrets there. William Shirer was shocked how Ambedkar, in his arguments during the Round Table Conference, appeared to be supportive of the Colonial regime. But, neither Shirer nor Shourie can even remotely appreciate the deep wounds in the psyche of Ambedkar due to India's caste system.

Sir Samuel Hoare, quotes Arun Shourie, in a letter to the Viceroy commends Ambedkar's 'good behavior' at the Round Table Conference and wants to 'strengthen his hands' by acceding to Ambedkar's demands to re-establish the Mahar regiment in the army. Then Shourie asks if Ambedkar was truly "serious" about the demand and casts an aspersion by citing a letter written by Roger Lumely, Governor of Bombay. Lumely writes that "does not put his weight" behind the recruitment of Mahars and says that the recruitment would've been better "if he were really keen to help". This is revisionism or plain failure of a journalist posing as historian.

Steven Wilkinson lays bare how the attitude towards caste continued to impact recruitment from non-martial classes. "There was no army-wide policy against employing Scheduled Castes, but most infantry and armored units recruited only from martial classes, which led to the same results as if there had been a formal policy. The fact that the essence of the martial-class policy had not been dismantled, though, was admitted in secret correspondence between the Indian Army and the Indian Office". A shameful coverup literally of non-recruitment was indulged by the Army and the government to pretend all was well. It was not Ambedkar who failed but it was the Colonial empire in cahoots with upper caste that were the cause for failure in recruiting Mahars.

Wilkinson provides further evidence of institutional discrimination. In later years when Jagjivan Ram, a defense minister and from a low-caste, demanded to know if India's policy of reservation for Scheduled Castes was being followed in the army General Manekshaw sent a note that as per the law army was excluded from the reservation policy but nevertheless there was Mahar regiment and nearly 15% were Scheduled Castes below the rank of officers. Now, Manekshaw was a war hero and there was little Jagjivan Ram could do then. Also, it is easy to guess that the presence of 15% Scheduled Caste in reality means little because the army recruits, particularly the non-officer class, were mostly drawn from families stuck in poverty and Dalits constituted a majority of them.

A Brahmin sitting in California advises that the government should just mow down with bullets the Dalit rioters. I wonder what would be his suggestion about the thugs who destroyed a monument in broad day light and created a fear psychosis in the heartland of India?

Dalits have suffered systemic oppression of the inhuman kind, their icons are subjected to merciless vivisection to show up their weaknesses and contradictions, their history is glossed over when it is written and mostly swept under the carpet. Whether it is Ambedkar or Gandhi one can freely criticize them but motives matter and the kind of criticism heaped matters and finally facts matter. Of course one doesn't expect honor from the Hindutva brigade and this blog is not meant to educate them. Rather this is for those who are curious about facts and open to reason.


  1. From the ruins of Empire: The intellectuals who remade Asia - Pankaj Mishra
  2. Sites of Imperial Memory: Commemorating Colonial Rule in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries - Edited by Dominik Geppert and Frank Lorenz Muller.
  3. Army and Nation: The military and Indian democracy since independence -- Steven I. Wilkinson
  4. Women Writing in India: Voume 1 600 BC to the Earlyly Twentieth Century- Edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lakita
  5. Slavery & South Asian History"- Edited by Indrani Chatterjee and Richard Eaton
  6. Slavery, Abolitionism and Empire in India, 1772-1843' - Andrea Major
  7. Worshipping false gods: Ambedkar and the facts which have been erased - Arun Shourie
  8. Battle of Korean -


Ananda Ganesh, V said...

Aravindan Kannaiyan,

Your association with PAK is influencing you. This post has many abuses and no juice. Like him, you could not give even one contemporary proof of Peshwas oppressing the Mahars.

You call the Peshwas' regime as the brahmin regime. Will you dare to make the same allegation about other kings of the Maratta confederacy ?

Will you call the Gupda empire as Sudra empire or Nehru's period as brahmins' period ?

Ramesh Abhiraman said...

Great read.

Ramesh Abhiraman said...

Great read.

Unknown said...

Good as fa as it goes. But a more detailed study of history will show that the decisive factors were the vastly superior strategy and battlefield tactics of the British army of that period. And add the superior use of weapons by intense training making for speed and accuracy. And the use of sharpshooters with "long guns" to pick off leaders to demoralize the enemy. This was "proved" repeatedly in India and against Napoleon and against Indian rabbles like the Peshwa's army. Individual bravery was wasted. In any event the soldiers were largely mercenary not the heroes we make them out to be.