The battle over Bhima-Koregaon is not just one of history, it is a battle for identity and equality
The late Kannada writer U.R. Ananthamurthy once told me a story. His PhD guide and he were discussing an Ingmar Bergman film. Ananthamurthy said when the West needs to access the past, it seems to enter a historical archive. In India we just walk across town because an Indian always lives in simultaneous time periods whereby Copernicus and Einstein share a neighbourhood. One wishes URA had written a story around this idea because he seemed to suggest that India does not need science fiction given what we do to history.
One also wishes URA was here to watch the recent battle between Mahars, a Dalit caste, and Marathas. The linearity of history does not quite capture the subtlety of storytelling.
It all began with a pillar, a little war memorial commemorating what history books antiseptically called the third Anglo-Maratha war. The British had established it in Bhima-Koregaon village to commemorate the British East India Company soldiers who fell in the battle of January 1, 1818. Along with a few British soldiers, many Mahar soldiers also died.
The event can be read Rashomon-like in many ways. But Indians do what Akira Kurosawa did in a more surrealistic way. For the Marathas and for our history textbooks, the narrative was a battle between imperialism and nationalism. But the Mahars read this narrative differently. The history inscribed in textbooks did not take their memories seriously. The Mahars recollect how during the reign of Baji Rao II, they had offered their services as soldiers. The Peshwa spurned them, and this pushed the Mahars to seek out the British in the next war.
he Battle of Bhima-Koregaon is thus read differently. It is not seen as a battle in which the British with 834 infantry men, of which over 500 were Mahar, defeated a numerically stronger Peshwa army. It marked not the continuity of the British but the end of Peshwa rule. For Mahar memory, the presence of the British shrinks and it becomes a story of Mahar courage and valour, a testimony to Mahar martial values in their struggle for equality against the Peshwas. The Koregaon Ranstambh (victory pillar) represents a different kind of memory and a different kind of solidarity. It is now part of a new genealogy, not part of a battle between Indians and the British, but a struggle for equality.
A new memory
In January 1927, Babasaheb Ambedkar visited the site and gave it this new legitimacy. This new memory triggered the formation of new communities. The Bhima-Koregaon Ranstambh Seva Sangh was formed to commemorate the battle of the Dalits for self-respect and equality. Over time this parallel memory acquired power as members of the Mahar regiment visited it to pay homage to Mahar militarism and valour. What was a local source of pilgrimage soon expanded to cover other States such as Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka. Maratha history competed with Mahar memory over the interpretation of the Stambh.
One has to remember what Ananthamurthy said of past, present and future being enacted simultaneously. An Indian storyteller has to capture the magic of simultaneous time. A friend of mine suggested helpfully that one should imagine that one is watching three TV sets tuned to the past, the present and the future. While the Mahars are enacting their memorial to history reasserting their sense of identity and equality in a now immortalised village, the dominant castes are feeling unease with what they sense as re-appropriation of history. Tune to TV-2.
For the Brahmins and Marathas watching these rituals, life seemed surreal. Suddenly, violence spreads across Maharashtra as pitched battles take place between Mahars and Marathas, each guarding their identity as if it were a piece of intellectual property. The battle now is not just one of memory, it is a battle for identity and equality. As violence spreads and Maharashtra comes to a standstill, as the metro, the sign of modern civic regularity, threatens to stop, normal life comes to a standstill in Pune, Nagpur, Thane and Kolhapur. The call for the urban shutdown has been given jointly by Dalit and Maratha groups. Both groups in turn see the villainy of the third as they protest against the march of Hindutva by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Hindutva, they feel, has turned this into a casteist controversy.
Hindutva forces, Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar felt, were trying to poison society along caste lines. Dalit scholars point to Vadhu Budruk, a village close to Bhima-Koregaon and the controversy around Sambhaji, the eldest son of Shivaji. Legend has it that Sambhaji’s body was mutilated and then thrown into the river. Legend adds to it that Govind Mahar, a Dalit, gathered the body and stitched it together. It was the Mahars who arranged for Sambhaji’s memorial and, when Govind Mahar died, they constructed a tomb for him in the same village. Upper caste Marathas object to this narrative and a battle is being fought over it.
It is time to switch on TV-3. The BJP has over the years forged an anti-Muslim meta-narrative around these struggles. Hindutva organisations invoke past Maratha glory to keep the caste within their fold. The recent attempt to link Hindutva battles as a neo-Peshwa enterprise is disturbing to the BJP’s electoral campaign as the party under its national president Amit Shah has been wooing Dalits into its fold. When other Hindutva organisations evoke Maratha glory, Dalit alienation and unease is obvious. Dalit organisations in response have organised a huge conference at what was once the dominant seat of the Peshwas. A caste split now threatens the huge electoral wooing of Dalits as future vote banks. The BJP attempt to consolidate the electoral future is coming apart, ironically through the same caste wars it encouraged before it sought to consolidate an electoral future. What one sees are the scenarios that might change 2019 as an idea of the electoral future. The BJP fear of another Jignesh Mevani appearing and disrupting its carefully quilted electoral strategy is quite obvious. What was a caste war is being secularised into a law and order problem. Cyber elks are warning against any attempt to create caste divides.
As I researched the archives of newspapers trying to make sense of the Bhima-Koregaon incident, I realised that the narrative cannot be contained or encapsulated in terms of one narrative. It is not a historical controversy alone, it cannot be restricted to a caste war, it is not a battle for identity, it is also a search for equality. It is also an attempt by politicians to go beyond all these fragments and create a more united future. One suddenly senses the many octaves in which politics in India occurs. Suddenly one senses the Proustian quality of such narratives where time redefines the nature of a problem. One realises that memory is a strange, protean, alchemical force in India where linearity does not work, and past, present and future struggle to simultaneously control narratives in India. It’s a reminder of philosopher Ian Hacking’s reading of our time. He claimed politics in the 18th century was about control of the body, in the 19th about the control of populations, and in the 20th about the control of memory. The only thing he forgot to mention is how complex memory in our age has become as it combines myth, memory, history. One trembles as one thinks how easily a fragment of the past can rewrite the future of a democracy, or the dreams of identity and justice.
Shiv Visvanathan is a member of the Compost heap, a group of academics and activists working on alternative imaginations.
This article was originally published in The Hindu.