Battle of Koregaon anniversary causes widespread riots in Maharashtra, India

On January 1, 1818 a battle between the British East India Company and the Peshwa faction of the Maratha Confederacy was fought at Koregaon, on the banks of Bhima river.

Peshwa Baji Rao II, who had been defeated in an earlier battle near Pune, Maharashtra was relentlessly pursued by the company forces. He turned towards Pune and, on his way, ran into an 800-strong British East India Company force. The Peshwa sent around 2,000 soldiers to attack the company force, led by Captain Francis Staunton. The company troops fought Peshwa’s army the whole day, forcing them to retreat.

The Battle of Koregaon has come to be seen as a symbol of Dalit pride because they formed much of the company force after siding with the British. (Economic Times). The Dalits occupy the lowest place in the Hindu caste system and have been victims of generations of exclusion and extreme poverty. The Peshwas, made up from the higher Brahmin caste, were seen as oppressors of Dalits — so the victory is seen as a moment of Dalit self-assertion .

But not many Indians knew of the battle until its 200th anniversary, on New Year’s Day. Widespread riots and disturbances marred commemoration events. Throughout Maharashtra, the Dalit community protested alleged disruptions of a memorial event by right-wing nationalists. Trouble began when Dalit activists claimed members of two Hindu nationalist groups had attacked processions near a war-memorial installed by the British government (The Guardian).

In the aftermath of the violence in Pune, Dalit protests erupted spontaneously all across the state of Maharashtra, including in Mumbai, the commercial and financial hub of India. Streets in Mumbai were deserted since late-Tuesday as Dalit protesters blocked roads and train lines and attacked buses. The demonstrations forced transport delays and the closure of schools and shops in Maharashtra’s capital city. Among reports of widespread rioting, looting and arson was the death of a teenager (Indian Express).

In Mumbai, local trains were blocked at Ghatkopar, causing delays on the Central and Harbor lines.  Several  Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport buses were shattered and badly damaged (New Delhi Television). Offices, schools and colleges remained open, though school buses did not operate in the morning as a precaution.

Protests were also held elsewhere in other towns and cities of Maharashtra like Nagpur, Pune and Baramati (NDTV). Instances of arson was reported from several areas. There was a total shutdown in Baramati town near Pune, and in Sangli and Miraj. Most educational institutions and markets remained shut in Nagpur and bus services were also disrupted as protests were held in sensitive parts of the city. Reports of rioting came in from the town of Aurangabad too.

The chief minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, has ordered a probe into Monday’s violence (Guardian).

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