THE VIOLENCE THAT has rocked parts of Maharashtra in the last two days began after a celebration of an event considered historically important by Dalits in Pune. The Battle of Bhima Koregaon on January 1st, 1818, marked the formal end of Peshwa rule in a large part of India. On that day, an army of the East India Company defeated the combined forces of Peshwa Bajirao II. That event has multiple interpretations. The East India Company sighed in relief: The Peshwa confederacy was, after all, its most formidable challenger on the scene. For Dalits, it is part of an on-going catharsis: a significant part of the winning side was formed by Mahars, a valorous Dalit group that continues to be the pride of the Indian Army. For them, the battle marks one of the first rebellions against Brahmin dominance. There is a losing side also: the Marathas who took offence to the celebration in Pune think of the battle as a sign of their continuing marginalisation since 1818.
The last word, however, must go to Sir John Robert Seeley, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge. In The Expansion of England (1883), his study of the British Empire in the Americas and India, Seeley famously says that India was not conquered by the British but conquered itself. The master of the armies that went on expansive campaigns was the East India Company, of course, but the fighting soldiers were Indian. India was conquered by Indians for the British. It may not be off the mark to characterise the Battle of Bhima Koregaon that way.
Today, however, post-modern conceptions of identity, angst and ‘recovering history’ rule the roost, making nonsense of the painstaking history constructed after Independence under the Nehruvian aegis. For Indians, Bhima Koregaon represents no victory: it is a sign of the clear and continuous divisions in Indian society that enable political fission. The rampage witnessed in Mumbai has been described as an expression of ‘Dalit anger’—and Dalits have every right to be angry after centuries of oppression—but after the calm returns comes the hard part of moving on. There is no clear path to that. One can rant against the BJP and ‘upper caste’ domination in India. But look around and that picture is not very accurate. Dalits and other oppressed minorities are considered as part and parcel of the national mainstream, even if this process has a long way to go.