Wednesday, 26 January, 2022
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Historians’ silence on Bhima Koregaon allowed BJP to brand it as ‘urban Naxalism’

For Dalits, Bhima Koregaon wasn't just a battle between British and Peshwas but a reclamation of their prestige following centuries of caste discrimination.

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Mainstream Indian historiography – whether it is nationalistic, Left or liberal versions – has a problem dealing with the battle of Bhima Koregaon. It doesn’t fit into the narrative of Hindu nationalism or the classic anti-colonialism frame. This historical dilemma is the reason why it is easy for the BJP and the Narendra Modi government to dub an anti-caste battle commemoration as the handiwork of ‘Urban Naxals’ and dangerous. Because Indian history has largely been silent on it.

The term Anglo-Maratha war is a misnomer. It was actually the Brahmin Peshwa rulers who fought against the British in that war, so it should be called the Anglo-Peshwa war. The Peshwa rulers had usurped the Maratha kingdom from the descendants of Shivaji Maharaj, and suffered the final defeat at Koregaon on 1 January 1818.

What makes this war complex for Indian historians was the composition of the British Army. Most soldiers on their side were the so-called untouchables, mostly Mahars from Maharashtra, who were facing persecution in the Peshwa Raj. According to one account, “The British, with just 834 infantrymen — about 500 of them from the Mahar community — and 12 officers defeated the 28,000-strong army of Peshwa Bajirao II.”

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A puzzle for historians

For mainstream historians, there is nothing glorious to say about this battle, because the Indian side lost. But Dalits see it differently. For them, it was not merely a battle between the British and the Peshwas but reclamation of their prestige following centuries of caste discrimination, subjugation and humiliation.

This explains why Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, then a young lawyer fighting against caste discrimination, visited the war memorial at Koregaon in 1927. This is why lakhs of Dalits assemble there every year on the first day of January. For them, it is not merely a political act; it is like a pilgrimage, a celebration of aspirations, a community festival.

Dalit-Bahujan from Maharashtra and later from different parts of India assembled at the site every year until 2018 – when some local Hindutva leaders decided to challenge them, and do so violently. Later, the police clamped down on Left activists for their participation by terming their life-long social work as “anti-national activities” and sending them behind bars.

Before 2018, the celebration at victory columns of Koregaon has no known history of violence or confrontation. Now, a google search of Bhima Koregaon throws up news related to violence or conspiracy. This is important because this is how collective memories are formed in the Internet age.

Dalit activists allege that the law enforcement agencies have gone soft on the actual perpetrators of violence, Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, even as lakhs of people who assembled at Bhima Koregaon on 1 January 2018 remain branded as people without any agency to think and decide for themselves because they were ‘instigated’ by Leftist intellectuals – the same ‘Urban Naxals’ who couldn’t organise a single protest meeting of a few hundred people to demand their release from prison.

Also read: Indian democracy’s big contradiction – Dalits cherish Constitution, privileged want a rethink

Creation of a bogey

The bogey of ‘Urban Naxal’ was a ploy to hide the real association – of Bhima Koregaon with the larger anti-caste struggle, painstakingly built over the years by Dalit activists. Dalits were assembling at Bhima Koregaon long before Naxalism or Naxalbari had even entered into the political lexicon of India – and even before the Communist Party in India was founded.

Associating Bhima Koregaon with Left or Naxal ideology is not just unfounded, but absurd as well. But the larger confusion about how to situate the battle explains why it was absent in the history textbooks.

So how do we make sense of Bhima Koregaon? We may use the deductive method by answering another question about what Bhima Koregaon is not.

Bhima Koregaon is not about anti-colonial struggle, so it’s difficult to understand it from that matrix.

Bhima Koregaon has nothing to do with the idea of India as envisaged by Gandhi-Nehru.

Bhima Koregaon does not fit in the Hindu vs Muslim or Indian vs foreigner binary; rather, it punctures the idea of monolith Indians fighting against foreign rulers.

Commemorating the battle at Bhima Koregaon is an assertion of human values. It’s a claim by the large masses of economically and socially deprived communities that if pushed to the corner, they can revolt. They have done it before and their celebration signals they can do it again, maybe through democratic methods this time.

The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.

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  1. Jai Jai Gatha, Veer Maratha. Peshwa or Maratha, we will never bow down to glorification of British imperialism in garb of Dalit appeasement

  2. The writer is sick. So steeped in caste conundrum. Incidentally, Prof.Romilla Thapar came to the rescue of Urban Naxals when they were arrested by ATS police of Maharashtra, by lending her name to the PIL filed for the release of five urban naxals.

    • Bhakts are present everywhere to pollute the conversation like you .I think your upper compartment is filled up with cows dung.

      • And Bhimtes like you never stop complaining. I guess the begging and nagging is a part of your heritage

  3. It ceases to be a problem if we accept the fact that the Indian nation-state (the so-called ,”Idea of India”) is a relatively new construct. We should stop trying to force-fit events from the past into that model.

  4. Most so-called intellectuals, even the left leaning ones, come from upper castes, they have been unable to put their finger on the crux of the problem – a biting caste system that has surpassed >70% of the population for last 2500 years, India’s cast system has been more successful in its longevity and suppression then some other well-known systems like a apartheid or serfdom. For India to grow to its full potential, it will have to have its own version of emancipation, that cannot come from cheap slogans or proclamations, rather it will come from a painful process similar to Reformation in Europe.

  5. Wow how easily a so called scholar goes about narrating a history which does not exist. Maratha- east india company wars involved Peshwa, holkars, scindias etc. And it was the Peshwas who plunged the dagger in the back of Martha’s through treaty of bassein. The bhima koregaon battle was proped up against the Maratha valor as the Martha army under holkars scindias and peshwas was as cosmopolitan as the company army.

  6. Great way to start the new year with hate. Was this necessary today also? Seems you breathe caste 24 by 7.

    • No, we were and are persecuted daily because of casteism. Casteism is a problem so long as the privileged upper castes exercise it. So for caste to go away the privileged classes who practice caste discrimination have to change

  7. Smt Sudha Bhargava is a saintly person. One hopes the new government will order a detailed probe to uncover the truth.

  8. Even some Left leaning Dalit intellectuals have some problem with acknowledging the substance of the Koregaon event as they fear of being branded as pro-Imperialist. Dalits and Bahujans have always been facing another Imperialism – the Brahminical Imperialism. Lefts has no been t able to theorise Caste in India. Look at the way dozens of articles that came from the pens (laptops) of the Left and Liberal intellectuals on the ‘ Indian War of Independence of 1857’ Babasaheb Ambedkar had a different view of it. Close to this view from the Left was from M N Roy, musch derided and castigated by the Left in India.

    • In India castes are classes. Left leaders are predominantly upper castes Hence they could not accept this fact.

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