In 1796 Baji Rao II became the Peshwa ruler of the fractured Maratha confederacy. As historian Anirudh Deshpande has observed, “Events proved him a true son of a disgraced father”. During his rule (1796-1818), the Marathas fought two wars with the British East India Company forces. These led to the sunset of the Maratha confederacy and the noonday of the British forces in central and western India.
Baji Rao II had been seething at being reduced to a puppet in Pune, and quietly scheming too – to chase the British out of the land where he and his Brahmin predecessors had been de facto rulers for almost a century after usurping power from the Maratha Bhonsale dynasty. But in 1817, the defection of his mercenary English commander Captain Ford and his troops to the British Resident Montstuart Elphinstone put paid to his plans. He fled the capital of his ancestors with his Brahmin followers, who feared that the end of the Peshwai would bring to an end their domination of Maharashtrian society. The East India Company battalions went after the Peshwa and his army and defeated them in battles fought at Khadki, Yervada and Koregaon – all in the Pune area. After watching the rout of his troops from a hill overlooking Khadki, Baji Rao II fled the battle, earning the derogatory nickname ‘palputaa’ or the ‘fleeing one’. Only the battle of Koregaon is still remembered, and even celebrated, today, in a country that otherwise, officially, celebrates independence from British rule.
The Battle of Koregaon
“Korygaom is a moderate sized village, immediately overhanging the steep bank of the Beema; but owing to the immense beds of the Indian rivers, which are never filled except during the rains, the channel occupied but a small part of the space between the banks, so that the village was 50 or 60 yards from the water. There is a mud wall which, at one time, probably surrounded the village, but it is now full of large breaches on the side next the river, and on the east it is completely open,” wrote James Grant Duff (1789-1858), a captain in the first regiment of Bombay Native Infantry, in A History of the Mahrattas (Volume III), adding in the footnote, “I write this description of the village from recollection; I have not seen it for seven or eight years: not indeed since the morning after Captain Staunton evacuated it, when though I carefully examined that scene of recent and desperate conflict, I at that time had no intention of publishing an account of it.”
Korygaom (for the British then) or Koregaon (today), near Sirur and around 30 kilometres from Pune, was where the last Peshwa, Baji Rao II, made his last-ditch effort to wrest back power from the British, more than a decade after he surrendered sovereignty to the East India Company. On 31 December 1817, Captain F.F. Staunton led 900 Company troops, including a large number of Mahar and Mang soldiers of the Bombay Army, from Sirur towards Pune, where the troops were expecting reinforcement to defend a possible attack by the Peshwa and his army.
“The battalion … commenced its march from Seroor on the last day of the year, at eight o’clock in the evening,” Duff wrote. “It consisted of little more than 500 rank and file, and was supported by two six-pounders, well manned by 24 Europeans of the Madras artillery, under a sergeant and a lieutenant. It was also accompanied by 300 of the newly raised irregular horse [cavalry], and the whole were under the command of Captain Francis Staunton. Having marched all night, by ten o’clock on the morning of New Year’s Day, Captain Staunton reached the high ground above the village of Korygaom, on the Beema, where he beheld the whole of the Mahratta horse, consisting of about 25,000, on the opposite side of the river. He continued his march towards the bank, and the Peishwa’s troops believed that he intended to ford, but as soon as he had gained the neighbourhood of the village, he immediately took post in it.”
The Peshwa’s infantry, consisting of the “Arabs, Gosaeens and regular infantry”, stormed the village. Many of the houses were set on fire by a relentless shower of rockets. “The village was immediately surrounded by horse and foot, and the storming party was supported by fresh troops. All access to the river was speedily cut off; Captain Staunton was destitute of provisions, and this detachment, already fatigued from want of rest and a long night march, now under a burning sun, without food or water, began a struggle as trying as ever was maintained by the British in India. Every foot of ground was disputed, several streets were taken and retaken.”
The Arabs had even managed to seize one of the guns and kill an artilleryman. Half of the European officers lay wounded, without even a drop of water to soothe their pain. Those still on their feet and fighting were seen collapsing due to dehydration. Some of the Europeans in the artillery regiment even suggested that they should surrender. However, there was soon a turning point. An injured British officer led a contingent of native infantry and valiantly regained control of the gun: “… the sepoys, thus led were irresistible, the gun was retaken, and the dead Arabs, laterally lying above each other, proved how desperately it had been defended.”
When the night fell, the Peshwa’s troops scaled down the offensive and the Company troops were able to obtain a supply of water to quench their thirst. Soon the firing ceased, and the Peshwa’s army was nowhere to be seen until next morning, when Captain Staunton ordered his men to fire the guns at those still “hovering round the village”. The Peshwa’s army withdrew and that night, under the cover of darkness, Captain Staunton took the wounded with him to Sirur, where he arrived the next morning. The Company suffered 175 casualties while the Peshwa lost 500-600 of his men.
Later, back in the battlefield, Koregaon, a 60-foot obelisk was constructed to commemorate this feat of the Company troops. The marble plaques in English along with Marathi translations adorning the four sides of the monument declare “one of the proudest triumphs of the British army in the East”. But that means very little to even the British today, let alone their former colonial subjects. What is relevant, though, are the names of native casualties inscribed on the pillar: more than 20 end with the suffix “-nac” – Essnac, Rynac, Gunnac – used by “untouchable” Mahars and Mangs who served as soldiers.
R.V. Russell, the superintendent of Ethnography, Central Provinces, provides a peek into life under the Peshwas in The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India (1916): “In Bombay a Mahar might not spit on the ground lest a Hindu should be polluted by touching it with his foot, but had to hang an earthen pot round his neck to hold his spittle. He was made to drag a thorny branch with him to brush out his footsteps, and when a Brahman came by had to lie at a distance on his face lest his shadow might fall on the Brahman. Even if the shadow of a Mahar or Mang fell on a Brahman he was polluted and dare not taste food and water until he had bathed and washed the impurity away.”
No wonder Koregaon is remembered today as the battle where a handful of Mahars and Mangs (under British command) brought to an end the brutal Brahmanical oppression sanctioned by the Peshwas. The last Peshwa, Baji Rao II, remained on the run in central India until he surrendered to the East India Company troops in Mhow, near Indore, on 3 June 1818. He was then banished to Bithur, near Kanpur.The word “Corregaum” and the obelisk were incorporated into the insignia of the 2/1 Bombay Native Light Infantry, which later became the Mahar Regiment of the Indian Army. The valour of the Mahar regiment was again in evidence in the battles of Kathiawad (1826), Multan (1846) and the second Afghan War (1880). However, after some sepoys of the regiment joined the Indian mutiny against the British in 1857, the Mahars were barred from joining the army. Speaking during a function at a school run by the Depressed Classes Mission in October 1910, R.A. Lamb of the Bombay Governor’s Executive Council pointed out that there were “many names of Mahars who fell wounded or dead fighting bravely side by side with Europeans and with Indians who were not outcastes” and regretted that “one avenue to honourable work had been closed to these people”.
Ambedkar, himself a Mahar born in Mhow to a retired army subedar, visited the Koregaon memorial on 1 January 1927. Today, thousands of Dalits visit the memorial every year to commemorate the valour of the Mahars who helped overthrow the unjust Brahmanical rule of the Peshwas.
Published in the January 2015 issue of the Forward Press magazine
Forward Press also publishes books on Bahujan issues. Forward Press Books sheds light on the widespread problems as well as the finer aspects of the Bahujan (Dalit, OBC, Adivasi, Nomadic, Pasmanda) community’s literature, culture, society and culture. Contact us for a list of FP Books’ titles and to order. Mobile: +919968527911, Email: email@example.com)