On January 1, 1927, a young Bhimrao Ambedkar visited the Bhima-Koregaon war monument on the banks of the Bhima near Pune with Dalit veterans and serving soldiers of the British Army. He was then celebrating the 109th year of victory of Dalit Mahar soldiers, who formed the majority of the British Army unit that fought against the Peshwas in the battle of Koregaon. This was one of the greatest instances of Dalit martial valour in their time with the British Army. Now, as we mark the 200th anniversary of the battle, it brings political significance and cultural assertion as lakhs of people visited the war monument, rekindling Dalit pride and denouncing inequality.
The Battle of Koregaon became a part of folklore, serving as an example of Mahar Dalit valour. Ardythe Basham, in her University of British Columba doctoral thesis (1985), writes: “A small force of 500 men… under the command of Captain F.F. Staunton [who] fought without rest or respite, food or water continuously for twelve hours against a large force of 20,000 Horse and 8,000 Infantry of Peshwa Baji Rao II”. A significant portion of the British Army’s 21st Regiment of the Bombay Native lnfantry, which fought the battle, was comprised of Mahars. The names of the 21 Mahars who died in the battle were etched on the war monument. The battle was a turning point in the third Anglo-Maratha war, and established the British firmly on Indian soil.
The battle is a matter of pride for Dalits. The Peshwa rulers imposed the worst social conditions on untouchables, who were ordered to hang a pot around their necks to prevent their spit from falling on the ground, and to wear a broom around their waists to sweep the ground as they moved so they would not “pollute” it. This was depicted well in the 2012-film Shudra: The Rising. The defeat of these rulers was one of the greatest acts of revenge carried out by an oppressed community.
The Mahars’ martial valour and military achievements go back to their presence in the armies of Chhatrapati Shivaji. Before 1857, Mahars formed about 25 per cent of the Bombay Army, and were a vital part of the British Marine Battalion. After the 1857 mutiny, the British believed that one of the reasons for the unrest was the inclusion of lower castes in the army. Recruits from the upper castes and the middle-caste peasantry protested the idea of saluting or taking orders from soldiers drawn from untouchable castes. The Vellore mutiny of 1801 and the 1857 mutiny have been documented as caste conflicts.
After the 1857 mutiny, and upon the recommendations of the Peel Commission, the British placed a ban on the recruitment of untouchables. Pre-Ambedkarite Mahar leaders repeatedly petitioned the British to reconsider the decision, and in a 1909 petition argued, “that if the government felt that caste prejudice was too deeply ingrained in the army to allow their employment alongside other castes, a separate Mahar company or battalion should be formed to circumvent this caste prejudice as with the Mazhabi Sikhs of the 23rd, 32nd, and 34th Pioneers”.
The Mazhabi Sikhs (untouchables who converted to Sikhism) and Dalit Sikhs (Ramdasis and Ravidasis) had been placed in separate regiments to circumvent caste issues. The regiments were specially trained as assault pioneers, and helped the British regain Delhi and Lucknow during the 1857 mutiny. Untouchables made up a significant part of the Madras Army — Malas from Andhra Pradesh were also part of the Madras Army, and enlisted during the First and Second World Wars from Madras Presidency along with the Holeyas of Karnataka, who enlisted with Mahars in the Bombay Army.
Ambedkar’s father and six uncles were subedar majors — the highest rank any native Indian could attain in the British Army. He married into an army family. After de-enlistment, Ambedkar used his lineage and knowledge of the sacrifices Dalit soldiers had made to question British apathy.
In a booklet distributed in 1930 during the First Round Table Conference in London, Ambedkar wrote, “Who were these people who joined the army of the East India Company and helped the British to conquer India? …the people who joined the Army of the East India Company were the Untouchables of India. The men who fought with Clive in the battle of Plassey were the Dusads, and the Dusads are Untouchables. The men who fought in the battle of Koregaon were the Mahars, and the Mahars are Untouchables. Thus in the first battle and the last battle (1757-1818) it was the Untouchables who fought on the side of the British and helped them to conquer India. The truth of this was admitted by the Marquess of Tweedledale in his note to the Peel Commission which was appointed in 1859 to report on the reorganisation of the Indian Army.”
He argued that the Bombay Army of Mahars and Madras Army of Pariahs helped the British quell the 1857 mutiny, and that “nothing can be more ungrateful than this exclusion of the Untouchables from the Army”.
Due to Ambedkar’s efforts, a separate Mahar Regiment, similar to that of the Mazhabi Sikhs, was created in 1941. A separate 1st Chamar Regiment was enlisted in 1943. The Mazhabi and Ramdasi Sikh regiments were merged in 1941, and in 1944 renamed as the Sikh Light Infantry. While the Mahar regiment and Sikh Light Infantry continue to serve the Indian nation even today, the Chamar Regiment was disbanded after World War II.
Ambedkar’s campaign in the 1930s ensured political rights for untouchables. His campaign and confidence emanated from the great lineage and pride of untouchable valour, fearlessness and sacrifice. The 200-year mark of the battle of Koregaon is just a reminder to the nation that valour and sacrifice don’t belong to a select group of castes.