Every year on January 1, thousands of people belonging to the Mahar community in Maharashtra gather near the ‘victory pillar’ in Koregaon to commemorate an event that took place 200 years back. The Koregaon memorial is almost a pilgrimage site for the Mahars, a Dalit community, who take tremendous pride in the battle that the pillar celebrates. This year though, the annual celebratory event of the Mahars turned awry with the violent clashes taking place between the Mahars and the Maratha groups, with one person being declared dead, while several others were injured. While the main event at the victory pillar was not affected, caste violence was reported from neighbouring villages. Dalit groups have demanded state-wide bandh on Wednesday in protest against the clashes of January 1.
The victory pillar commemorates the Battle of Koregaon, which had taken place on January 1, 1818, between the British East India Company on one side and the Peshwa faction of the Maratha confederacy on the other. The Peshwa regiment consisted 2,000 soldiers while the Company troops were 834-men strong. As per historical documents, neither of the two sides won a decisive victory. However, since this was one of the last battles of the Anglo-Maratha wars, that resulted in Company victory, the battle of Koregaon soon came to be remembered as a triumphant event for the British who constructed the victory pillar. The inscription of the pillar states that the Company forces “accomplished one of the proudest triumphs of the British Army in the East.”
The Battle of Koregaon was, in essence, a clash over territory between the British and the Maratha ruler, Peshwa Baji Rao II. However, it held much significance for the Dalits, particularly the Mahars who consider it a moment of their victory over Peshwa authority. The Mahars, though untouchables, had been valued for their military skills for centuries. They formed a significant portion of Shivaji’s army as well. However, when the Peshwas took over, the Mahars on account of their low caste status were ill-treated by the ruling Brahmins of a particularly orthodox bent of mind. Next time, the Mahars regained their former status of military glory was when the British employed a number of them in their military units.
Thereafter, when the Battle of Koregaon took place, the Mahars formed a majority of the British troops. Their victory over a much stronger Peshwa contingent came to be commemorated over the years as an event of pride for the Mahars. They look back at it as an instance when they were successful in overcoming their untouchable status and defeating the Brahmin Peshwas. The Marathas, on the other hand, have considered the Battles as a victory of British forces, which does not deserve to be celebrated on account of nationalist sentiments.