New Delhi: Clashes broke in Maharashtra on Tuesday as violent protests that started in Pune on Monday spilled over into Mumbai and other parts of the state.
The violence was sparked by a disagreement over whether the bicentenary of the 1818 Battle of Bhima-Koregaon, between the British East India Company and the Peshwa rulers of the Maratha Confederacy, should be celebrated or not.
In the early 1800s, the British East India Company had begun to exert its influence over the territories of the Marathas and the Peshwa, Baji Rao II, was forced to seek refuge in Satara after the British took control of his citadel at Pune.
In 1818, the Peshwa attempted to retake the city of Pune from the British with a force of 28,000 men — 20,000 cavalrymen and 8,000 foot soldiers — mostly comprising of Marathas. A British force, comprising no more than around 800 soldiers, was on its way to Pune to meet with the main force stationed there when the Peshwa’s advance force spotted them.
As the British took refuge in a small village called Koregaon, which was surrounded by a low mud wall, the Peshwa decided to detach a small portion of his army, around 2,000 soldiers, to take on the British forces and the village of Koregaon.
On January 1, 1818, East India Company troops, comprising mostly Mahar Dalits, fended off the Maratha offensive. The soldiers fought through the night and managed to defend the village of Koregaon from the attackers.
According to one estimate, the Company lost between 200-300 troops that night but the Peshwa suffered heavier losses as 500-600 of his men perished in the battle. The Marathas, wary of reinforcements arriving from Pune in much larger numbers than their own, were forced to retreat.
The memorial marking the Company’s victory over Marathas at Koregaon in 1818 has now come to represent Dalit pride. Several Dalit activists see it as a victory of lower-caste Mahars against the upper-caste Peshwas.
On January 1, 1927, the 109th anniversary of the battle, Dalit icon Dr BR Ambedkar, a Mahar himself, visited the site and commemorated the battle. Since his visit, the memorial has become a pilgrimage of sorts for Dalits, who throng the memorial on New Year’s Day.