Bhima Koregaon: What Do We Gain And What Do We Lose?

Posted by Janhavi Ukhalkar Telpande in Caste, Politics, Society
January 5, 2018

In the wake of violent protests, riots, clashes between different groups, political mudslinging by the leaders on the television and bandhs, there was one WhatsApp message circulated in the last couple of days. It read something like this:

“Neither the Dalits won nor the Brahmins, neither the right wing won nor the Marathas, neither did the upper castes win nor the lower castes. The people who finally won are the British – even after 200 years!”

In a very strange way, nothing can be truer than this at the moment. For four stressful days, Koregaon, Pune, Mumbai, Kolhapur and the entirety of Maharastra has been witnessing one of the most depressing starts to the new year. Although with strict and prompt police action, the situation is under much better control, one cannot ignore the fact that it has become so easy today for mobs and gatherings to turn into a violent, aggressive force within minutes. Just the smallest provocation and the situation can all go haywire – killing people, destroying public property and greatly endangering the normal peace and discipline of the country.

What Exactly Happened 200 Years Ago?

The battle of Bhima Koregaon was fought between the British East India company and the Peshwa Bajirao II on January 1, 1818. The Peshwa, while trying to enter Pune with his large army, was met with a troop of 800 company soldiers comprising mostly of Mahars – considered as an untouchable caste at that time.

The company’s troops fought for the whole day forcing the Peshwa to withdraw his army. It is still a matter of discussion who won the battle as neither side achieved a decisive victory. To commemorate its fallen soldiers, the British commissioned a “victory pillar” in Koregaon. It is inscribed with the names of over two dozen Mahar soldiers who lost their lives in the battle.

Over the years, the Bhima Koregaon battle and the “victory pillar” has become an important monument in Dalit history, as it is seen as a fight against caste-based oppression by the upper caste Brahmins.

The Victory Pillar at Koregaon (source: Wikipedia)

What Is Happening Today?

Thousands of visitors come to the site of the Victory Pillar in Pune every new year’s day. This year, as it was the 200th anniversary of the battle, there was a considerably large number of visitors. On Monday, clashes erupted between the Dalits who had gathered at the monument and other groups in the morning.

It was not clear who exactly started the fracas in the first place. A 30-year-old youth lost his life, while there were violent attacks, stone pelting and protests in the nearby areas when finally the police had to get involved.

On Tuesday, a criminal case was filed against two pro-Hindutva leaders, Milind Ekbote of Samast Hindu Aghadi, and Sambhaji Bhide of Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan, under charges of instigating violence. A Maharashtra bandh was called on Wednesday by Dalits to protest against the violence.

What Is Disturbing?

While reports and details are still pouring in about the actual reason behind the start of the dispute, it is really shocking to see the instant repercussions the event has caused throughout the state. As the news of the clashes in Koregaon, Pune started coming in, there were immediate incidences of similar riots in other parts of Pune, Mumbai, Aurangabad, Kolhapur, etc.

Be it the effect of 24 hours’ news channels or social media, people were quick to form opinions, talk, share, discuss which resulted in widespread confusion and chaos. On the evening of January 1 itself, many political leaders and self-proclaimed “experts” were seen arguing and debating on prime time television about the whole controversy, which added fuel to the fire to a great extent.

One of the most disturbing and worrying factors in the entire episode is how people today are prone to believe in anything without confirming it from reliable sources. As it is said, half knowledge is more dangerous than no knowledge at all.

For example, most of the reports coming on television on Monday evening were about “clashes between Dalits and right-wing fundamentalists” where in fact the exact cause of the dispute and the actual people responsible were not at all clear. The gross generalization and incomplete information resulted in much more damage in the collective consciousness of the people than anything else.

Another thing to ponder is the interpretation of history. Even if the Bhima Koregaon battle is today considered as an assertion of Dalit valour over the Peshwas, Dalits were not the only soldiers of the British army. The British army comprised of Marathas, Rajputs, Muslims and Jews along with Dalits. While at the same time, even the Peshwa army consisted of Marathas, Arabs, Gosavi’s and Mahars together. So it can neither be called as a Dalit victory completely, nor can the celebration of the battle’s anniversary be called anti-national.

Mixing up present-day socio-political problems with history and inciting violence amongst the youth has been a very old and effective way for people with political agendas. Young people today, who do not have proper education and employment opportunities, are easily misguided by shrewd political leaders to achieve their own selfish goals. And even the youth today, without the complete knowledge and facts, fall prey to the gross generalization thrown at them by their leaders. The continuous and uncensored media coverage also leads to huge provocation. It becomes a very fertile and volatile ground for violence, hatred and intolerance.

What Are We Losing?

  • Social and cultural harmony.
  • A space for healthy and balanced discussion and exchange of ideas.
  • Public property – when the buses and shops are getting burnt.
  • Freedom to assert and express thoughts and emotions.
  • Access to correct information.

What Are We Gaining?

  • Confusion, chaos and a constant state boiling hatred. One small drop of provocation and it can explode violently.
  • Fear – to express, to celebrate, to gather, to live.
  • Transparency – when it comes to right information, knowledge and facts
  • A confused, intolerant and misguided generation of youth which thinks violence is the only way of asserting their thoughts.
  • A huge uncertainty about the future.

It is not yet clear what course events will take in the next week. Yet, it has already created a dent in optimism and hope for the new year. Hopefully, things will settle down and we will see a democratic and peaceful solution to the problem.

Yet, in the wake of whatever has already happened, one has to grudgingly accept the WhatsApp message. In a very crude and perverse way – the British are still the winners as their divide and rule policy is still affecting India so strongly.