I received the following email on new year’s day:
ON 1ST JANUARY 1818, MERE 500 BAHUJAN SOLDIERS COURAGEOUSLY FOUGHT AGAINST 50,000 TYRANNICAL FORCES OF MANUWADI PESHWAS AND GAVE THEIR LIVES TO END THE OPPRESSIVE MANUWADI REGIME
EMPIRICAL RULE OF BRITISHERS IN RECOGNITION OF THE GREAT BRAVERY OF BAHUJAN SOLDIERS UNDER THE CAPTAINCY OF SIDNAK MAHAR, ERECTED A MONUMENT AT KOREGAON-BHIMA, PUNE ON THE BANK OF RIVER BHIMA.
DR. B. R. AMBEDKAR, THE BODHISATTVA WHO FOUGHT THROUGHOUT HIS LIFE AGAINST THE AGE OLD MANUWADI OPERATIONS, INVARIABLY USED TO VISIT AND SALUTE THE "VIJAY STAMBHA"- MEMORIAL OF BAHUJAN WARRIORS
LET BAHUJANS NOT FORGET THEIR MARTYRDOM AND OFFER THEIR SALUTATIONS TO THE GREAT MEMORIES OF THOSE GREAT BAHUHAN SOLDIERS WHO RELENTLESSLY FOUGHT TO BREAK THE SHACKLES OF OUR AGE OLD SLAVERY.
LET'S NARRATE THE HISTORY TO FUTURE GENERATIONS SO AS TO MAKE THEM STRONG ENOUGH TO WITHSTAND MANUWAD.
Very impressive. I had never heard of this before, so went looking for more information. Here’s another site where there is more background. Hmmm, fascinating stuff. So if I understood the essence, it was a group of 500 Dalit soldiers who fought approximately 25000 Brahmins. And why is this important? I quote:
First, the British army fought this battle with a minuscule army expecting the worst, especially after their experience of the Pune Regency. Secondly, the battle of Koregaon was one of the most important events which helped tear down the Peshwa Empire and subsequently the Peshwa had to abdicate. Thirdly and most importantly, it was an attempt by the untouchables of Maharashtra to break the shackles of the age-old caste order.
That sort of didnt really jibe with what I had read about the Maratha Wars. So I went to do a bit of poking around.
1. The Maratha Wars:
While I can understand the desire of Dalits to home into that skirmish and claim that to be the be all and end all of all, skirmishes like this have to be grounded in the greater framework. The Maratha Empire brought to life by Shivaji attained its greatest strength by 1760 as shown in the image below.
And I should point out that Shivaji was not a Brahmin. While they claimed Kshyatriya status later on, there are some arguments that he was originally a Dalit, a Shudra to be precise. See here for an overview of this argument. Finally, Shivaji’s army was largely composed of people like him, so it was a Dalit Army anyway which got promoted, so to say. Then comes the first Anglo Maratha War 1777-1783 where first the Maratha’s won and then the British won. In both cases, native soldiers were far too frequently Dalits. Anyway, more land was captured by the Brits and the power of the Maratha’s was further reduced. Peshwa Baji Rao II and his father basically got up to no good. In 1802, BajiRao went and sucked up to the British after being defeated by Holkars in the Battle of Poona. This pissed off the other Maratha warlords and they got into a bit of a fight with the British which ended with more loss of territory for the Marathas. Then comes the crucial 3rd War which our Dalit friends might now appreciate.
This relates to the 3rd Anglo Maratha War 1817-1818 or the Pindari War. The Pindari’s were highly mobile cavalry units which were not on the payroll of any ruler but associated with rulers in return for protection and permission to plunder. Guess what? These Pindari’s were low caste, Ladul and also had quite a lot of Muslims (mainly Afghans and Pusthun). Anyway, all this plundering was not good for the British and a really very big army of 120,000 men and 300 artillery pieces was put into gear by Lord Hastings to exterminate these Pindari’s. The attacks happened from the east in Bengal, from the South in the Deccan and from the west from Gujarat and Bombay. Look at the map above and see who is the nut in this 3-way nutcracker? The Marathas.
2. The immediate predecessor to the 1st Jan 1818 Battle of Koregaon.
Once the British invaded Maratha territory to go after the Pindari’s, there were skirmishes between the Peshwa’s forces and the British forces such as the sack of the British Residency in Pune, and then the British routed another Peshwa force at Khirki. Then the main battle was fought in the Battle of Khadki on November 5, 1817 where the Peshwa Baji Rao was routed pretty much comprehensively and then the British took over the Peshwa’s seat at Shaniwarwada by November 17, 1817. The Peshwa, by this time, was running ragged. There was another battle between the Nagpur forces and the British at Sitabalsi on November 27 1817. The next battle to be fought was the Battle of Mahidpur on 20th December where the Holkar’s fought and lost to the British, after being betrayed by one of the Pindari (who killed Tulsibai).
3. The Battle of Koregaon:
A good description of the battle can be found here. This is a book by WC Taylor, A Popular History of British India published in 1847. See page 268-269 for details of the battle. Sounds like a pretty good bash. Taylor says that the Peshwa’s forces numbered about 25,000 although it should be noted that counting was pretty vague at that time. Still, it wasnt 50,000. But here’s the crucial thing, the Peshwa’s forces then retreated not because they were defeated by Captain Francis Staunton’s forces, but because they got to hear that British reinforcements were coming over. The British forces lost 200 soldiers out of 500, and 6 out of 7 British officers. Good defensive battle without food or water at this village. You can see the layout of the land here although there are no records extant of how the battle actually went, the defences and the lay of the land.
4. The soldiers.
The soldiers who did most of the dying were Mahars. And again ironically, they got their start in being soldiers by no other than Shivaji to become scouts and fortress guards. They were highly mobile light infantry, which is the reason why they were in the 2nd Battalion, 1st regiment of ‘Bombay Native Light Infantry’ as part of the Maratha Light Infantry. The Peshwa’s soldiers were also by and large lower caste soldiers including Mahars, in any case, not Brahmins. So the fighting basically was between lower castes, only the people who were ordering them around were the British and the Peshwas. This Mahar Regiment still exists and has provided two of the most brilliant Indian Army Chiefs: Gen (Retd) K V Krishna Rao and Gen (Retd) K Sunderji. Also, there is no caste element to the regiment from 1963 onwards and it is now a fully mixed regiment.
5. The aftermath of the Battle of Koregaon:
There was another fight between the fleeing Peshwa’s forces and the British at Ashti on February 20th 1818 and he remained under pressure till he surrendered to Sir John Malcolm on June 3, 1818 and was given the pension of an annual payment of 8 lakhs rupees. The Battle of Koregaon was celebrated by raising of an Obelix which commemorated this.
So all in all, I am afraid what my research threw up was in sharp variance with the mythology is being provided. It was frankly a small battle / skirmish in a much bigger war, the Peshwa’s forces were not defeated in this skirmish, the British Army did not fight this battle expecting the worst because they had been winning every battle in this war, this battle of Koregaon was not really that important as fighting kept on happening for months after this battle and I am afraid there is absolutely no evidence that any kind of caste based ideology was involved in the fight.
So all in all, good myth but a rather more calm reading of the historical record tells differently. I can also see why the Dalit hotheads want to use this battle to burnish their credentials. After all, all revolutions need their battles. Google for “Battle of Koregaon” to see how this myth is being built up, but I am afraid the reading is slightly different. If they do want to celebrate the success of lower caste soldiers, they should celebrate Shivaji, the Indian Soldier, the bravery that these soldiers showed to whoever paid them. See here for the campaigns that the Maratha Light Infantry got involved in. But to bring this casteism into the Indian Army? Not really cricket, old chaps. But I am very happy to be corrected if I have not referred to any other source or documentation. Happy to learn more.