200th Anniversary of British East India Company's conflict with Maratha Confederacy leads to upheaval in Maharashtra

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Members from various Dalit groups at a sit-in ‘dharna’ during Maharashtra state-wide bandh called over the Bhima-Koregaon violence in Thane, Mumbai. (Courtesy: Press Trust of 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, he ran into an 800-strong 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 because they feared arrival of Company reinforcements.

Not many Indians knew about this battle of Bhima Koregaon until on the first of January this year when widespread riots and disturbances marred the event held to mark the 200th anniversary of this battle in which the British Army comprising Dalit Mahars had defeated the Peshwas. Today, a very large section of Dalits, a severely oppressed social class in India have come to view the Battle of Koregaon as not one between the British and the natives but between “upper-caste” Peshwas and lower-caste Mahars which resulted in Dalits defeating the Brahmins. Dalit protests erupted across Maharashtra since the 1st of January including in the commercial and financial hub of India, Mumbai, in the aftermath of the violence in Pune during the 200th anniversary celebrations of the Battle. Streets in Mumbai wore a deserted look on Wednesday as a multitude of Dalit protesters blocked roads and train lines and attacked buses, forcing transport delays and the closure of schools and shops in Maharashtra’s capital city.

Among reports of widespread rioting, looting and arson; the death of a teenager was also reported. Throughout the state of Maharashtra, the Dalit community were protesting the alleged disruption of a memorial event by Right-wing nationalist elements. Trouble began when Dalit activists claimed members of two Hindu nationalist groups had attacked processions near a war-memorial installed by the British.

In Mumbai, local trains were blocked at Ghatkopar, causing delays on the Central and Harbour lines. Quite a few of the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (or ‘BEST’) buses were shattered and badly damaged. Offices, schools and colleges remained open, though school bus operators did not ply buses in the morning as a precaution. Protests were also held elsewhere in other towns and cities of Maharashtra like Nagpur, Pune and Baramati. 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 whose Party, the BJP is the ruling party at the Center has ordered a probe into Monday’s violence.

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