GROWING up in Malewadi, a village in Maharashtra’s Sangli district, Somnath Waghmare, a Neo Buddhist, saw caste discrimination at very close quarters. He was witness to ten caste-based atrocities in his years there. After completing masters in media from Pune University, when Waghmare was studying archaeology in Pune’s Deccan College, he says he also became a victim of caste discrimination.
An active voice on the campus for Dalit-Bahujan rights, he got into a fight with a Brahmin boy. The incident led to his suspension and two cases were filed against him. “There was also a Maratha boy suspended along with me. It led to the loss of one academic year,” recounts the 27-year-old.
The only boy from his village to have completed a masters course, Waghmare then joined Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India for a short course in 2013, which is where the idea of making a documentary on Bhima Koregaon germinated. After three years of work and research, Waghmare released his documentary last year.
Titled The Battle of Bhima Koregaon: An Unending Journey, it explores why an Anglo-Maratha war that took place on January 1, 1818, remains important to the Dalit community. The controversies that have preceded and followed the 200-year anniversary of the forgotten battle have renewed the interest in his film, increasing the number of views.
The 50-minute documentary explores why the battle was one of great odds for the 500 Mahar soldiers who fought for the British — and won — against Baji Rao Peshwa’s army of 25,000, which eventually led to the end of the Peshwa rule. The Marathas view this as treason on part of Mahars, who fought alongside the British oppressors. However, to the Dalit community, it is a victory over caste oppression.
“The Peshwas were orthodox Brahmins. The Dalits suffered the worst under their rule, something that is well-chronicled in history. They were made to walk with a pot or broom around their neck, for instance. But the Marathas only glorify the Peshwas. Thus, to the Mahars, this was a war they fought against their oppressors,” explains Waghmare.
The memorial built in Bhima Koregaon, on the outskirts of Pune, is now the site of an annual pilgrimage where over three lakh visitors converge on January 1 in memory of the Mahar valour.
“The battle was forgotten until Dr BR Ambedkar’s visit to the memorial in 1927. In his speech, he pointed out that the lower caste Mahars once were warriors who fought against oppression and won. This gave the memorial a new meaning and people started to visit annually,” explains the filmmaker, who is now a doctorate student at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). His next film is a documentary on human rights activists Gail Omvedt and Bharat Patankar.
Waghmare is also quick to point out that an annual congregation of this scale has rarely found mention in mainstream media, much like how academia, dominated by upper caste intellectuals, has excluded the Battle of Bhima Koregaon from textbooks. “It’s the lack of low caste narratives in the mainstream that led me to tell such stories,” Waghmare explains.
The documentary also explores how the role of the Mahars in the battle led to the formation of the Mahar regiment in the army, which exists even today. The Battle of Bhima Koregaon: An Unending Journey records how the memorial is a source of encouragement to those who are marginalised and discriminated against, especially today when caste-based atrocities are on the rise.
“The concept of nation came much later. At the time when the battle was fought, the states that today form India were ruled by various kings. Loyalty held a different meaning. To undermine the Dalit pride towards the battle and calling it ‘anti-national’ is both incorrect and unfair,” says Waghmare.