Raja Sekhar Vundru

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Ph.D on Dr.Ambedkar's Electoral System from the National Law School, Bangalore (NLSUI) Currently working as Deputy Director General, UIDAI, Government of India , New Delhi +911123752322 (office)

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

DALIT BATTLES

TIMES OF INDIA, MARCH 31, 2003

Dalit Battles

Celebrated Hollywood director Roland Joffe's new venture, 'The Invaders', has met with an unlikely critic. The $40-million project, an Indian version of 'Braveheart' with the first Anglo-Maratha war as its plot, would tell the story of the defeat of the English at the hands of the Marathas. But Raja Sekhar Vundru, editor of 'Dalit Millennium' and the moving force behind the Bhopal Declaration, tells Rajesh Ramachandran that the movie would inadvertently distort another facet of the war — the martial role of Dalits in pre-independent India:

What is your apprehension about the proposed film?

References to the Anglo-Maratha war usually conjure up images of a horde of White men fighting the native Marathas. But the truth is, the British conquered India with an army composed mostly of Indians. The men who fought for the British against the Maratha rulers were Mahars, a community of untouchables from present-day Maharashtra. Ambedkar was a Mahar and the son of a subedar major, the highest rank that Indians could hold those days in the East India Company's army. The central theme of the proposed film apparently is the lone battle the Marathas won against the British — the battle of Wadagaon. And herein lies the problem. Because it was the Mahars in the British army who defeated the Marathas in the battle of Koregaon in 1818. This last Anglo-Maratha battle conclusively established British rule in western India and completed the Company's territorial conquest of the country.


But how does the Koregaon battle take away the significance of the earlier battle at Wadagaon?

Simply because Wadagaon was just one of a series of battles which involved Indians on both sides, and which was subsumed by the defeat of Koregaon. In that sense, the Anglo-Maratha wars did not end in the victory of aliens over natives. Had it been a real Braveheart-like situation where one ethnic army clashed with another, there would have been no issue at all. Also, the Battle of Wadagaon pales into insignificance if you consider that it was a 50,000 strong Maratha army that defeated 2,600 men of the British army.


Why were the Mahars not part of the Maratha army?

The Mahars were a vital component in Chhatrapati Shivaji's army. He deployed 'low caste' Ramoshis, Mahars and Mangs in his infantry and naval forces. The latter helped him establish his empire. In fact, the British did much the same while establishing their empire. After Shivaji's death in 1680, the Peshwa rulers oppressed the Mahars, making them hang a pot around their neck to spit and tie a broom around their waist to sweep away their 'impure' footsteps. This social oppression and exclusion led the Mahars to serve the British army and even made them reliable soldiers against the Peshwa rule. The British recognised the valour and loyalty of the Mahars and recruited them in such large numbers that they became the biggest caste group in the colonial army and marine forces. During World War I a separate regiment, 111 Mahar, was raised by the British to fight overseas.

How far did this loyalty to the British help the Dalits?

Ambedkar belonged to a family of fighters. Apart from his father Ramji Sakpal, his maternal grandfather and six uncles were all subedar majors in the British army. The military training and contact helped them in terms of acquiring English education and modern outlook and, in turn, the desire to break free from social shackles.

But the British ditched the untouchables when the 1858 Peel Commission on army reorganisation refused to recognise them as a martial race. By 1893, the recruitment of untouchables in the army was completely stopped. Even the 111 Mahar regiment, raised in 1918, was disbanded in 1922, despite its exploits in the North West Frontier and Mesopotamia. Due to Ambedkar's insistence and the exigencies of World War II, the British recruited another Mahar regiment in 1940. (Former chief of army staff V K Krishna Rao belonged to this regiment.) The Bengal army under Robert Clive, which won the battle of Plassey, was largely composed of Dushads. According to Ambedkar it was the Bombay army of Mahars and the Madras army of Pariahs that saved the British during the Mutiny.

But the British soon succumbed to the prejudice against lower castes. As a result, when the native sahibs entered the officers' mess for the first time, the descendents of Dalit heroes of Koregaon and Plassey were relegated to the NCO mess.

How come this history of Dalit valour has completely disappeared from public consciousness?

According to one scholar, the British erected a monument in 1821 as a tribute to the valour and loyalty of the Mahars after the battle of Koregaon. This cenotaph had the names of 22 Mahar soldiers who fell in action. In fact, in the Battle of Koregaon, the British force of 774 men, of which at least half were Mahars, fought non-stop without food and water to defeat the Peshwa's army of 25,000 cavalry and 8,000 infantry. There is a great deal of research going on into this lost history of Dalit valour and martial spirit.

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/cms.dll/html/uncomp/articleshow?msid=41879867

2 Comments:

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Blogger deepak said...

i have always believed in the martial ability of mahars and i always research to find a mention, our society based upon caste system never totally, have integrated the native sons of soil, as a british general/officer(has said maharastra ia the land of mahars before aryanisation),martial spirit exists in their blood, and history has been always made by them/altered in thier region, they are simple,proud people

9:13 AM  

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