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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 6 New Delhi January 27, 2018 - Republic Day Special

Bhima-Koregaon: History with Many Dimensions and Ramifications

Saturday 27 January 2018, by A K Biswas


Despite a long-standing tradition for annually commemorating the victory of the Koregaon battle fought on the banks of river Bhima in district Pune of Maharashtra on January 1, the event became contentious in 2018, being its bi-centenary. the Akhil Bharatiya Brahman Mahasangh and Udaysinh Pashwe, a descendant of the Peshwas, asked the Pune Police to ‘deny permission for the event’ to the organisers. The Pune Nagar Hindu Parisad, Shivaji Pratishthan and Samasta Hindu Aghadi (All Hindu Front) joined the Brahman Mahasangh and denounced the bi-centenary celebrations as “unconstitutional and anti-national”.1 This is ominous for democracy.

The battle of Koregaon was a landmark in history. In her University of British Columbia doctoral thesis (1985), research scholar Ardythe Basham observed that a small force of “500 men under the command of Captain F. F. Staunton [who] fought without rest or respite, food or water continuously for twelve hours against a large force of 20,000 Horse and 8,000 Infantry of Peshwa Baji Rao II”. She added that the battle of Koregaon became a part of folklore, serving as an example of “Mahar Dalit valour”. A significant portion of the British Army’s 21st Regiment of the Bombay Native Infantry, which fought at Koregaon had Mahar soldiers. “The names of the 21 Mahars who died in the battle were inscribed on the war memorial. The battle was a turning-point in the third Anglo-Maratha war, and established the British firmly on Indian soil.”2 This sums up the essence and importance of the Bhima-Koregaon battle.

Reviewing the history of the British conquest of India, Dr Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar stated that in the battle of Plassey, which laid the foundation of their Empire in 1757, the Dusadhs, an untouchable caste of Bihar, fought under the command of Robert Clive and the Mahars of Maharashtra against the Peshwas in Koregaon.3 This battle brought down the curtains on the Peshwa rule. Prolific writer and military historian General S. K. Sinha in an article wrote that Robert Clive had visited Patna prior to the battle of Plassey and recruited 1500 Dusadhs for the army of the East India Company.4

Gross Treason of Untouchables!

“There are many,” observed Dr Ambedkar, “who look upon the conduct of the untouchables in joining the British as an act of gross treason.”5 The Akhil Bharatiya Brahman Mahasangh and the descendant of the Peshwas articulated the same aversion against the untouchables who fought for the British in conquering India. Ambedkar added that not only did the untouchables enable the British to conquer India, they enabled the British to retain it. The mutiny in 1857 was an attempt to destroy British rule in India. So far as the army was concerned, the mutiny was headed by the Bengal Army, comprising upcountry men—then known as Hindustanee—though it had no Bengali at all. The Bombay Army and the Madras Army remained loyal to the Company and it was with their help that the mutiny was suppressed. The Mahars were the native component of the Bombay Army whereas the Pariahs were the native force in the Madras Army. Both were untouchables.6 However, Dr Ambedkar found justification in the conduct of the untouchable castes who joined the Armies of the British that conquered, subjugated and retained hold over India. “Treason or no treason, this act of the untouchables was quite natural. History abounds with illustrations showing how one section of people in a country have shown sympathy with an invader, in the hope that the newcomer will release them from the oppression of their countrymen.”7

As rulers the Peshwas were tyrannical, exploitative and prejudiced against the untoucha-bles. Should the bi-centenary celebrations of victory in Koregaon battle, resulting in the eclipse of Peshwa rule, nonetheless be termed as anti-national? To the Mahars, the fight could be interpreted as a struggle for their social emancipation. But decidedly this is one more attempt to erase the vista of achievement, glory and contribution of the untouchables from the pages of history. To cite one instance, we may state that historians and litterateurs shied away in documenting the role the Chandals of Bengal played in thwarting and frustrating the Aryan invasion. A cryptic note of C. J. O’Donnell on their valour stated that “............the long-limbed Chandal........was the active and successful enemy of the Aryan invader and there is little trace of actual conquest, by the early Hindu kings beyond the Bhagarithi, except in the riparian districts along its eastern bank”.8 Distortion of history, carried out by skilled and dedicated hands leaving no trace of historical truths, began very long ago. Such glory of the Chandals (who in 1911 were re-designated as Namasudras) was targeted for wiping out from history. Koregaon, no surprise, is now on the agenda of the same forces.

Their loyal Highnesses 

In his magnum opus (1881), Loke Nath Ghosha stated that “When Ali Vardi Khan was succeeded by Siraj-ud-Daullah, Maharaja Krishna Chandra (Ray) was on the side of the English with the object of establishing their power and took active part in the battle of Plassey. The assistance which Maharaja Krishna Chandra rendered to the British was so satisfactory that he received the title of ‘Rajendra Bahadur’ from Lord Clive with a present of 12 guns used at Plassey, which are still to be seen in the Rajbari of Nadiya.”9 The Nadia zamindar’s treasonable action had enormously gratified Robert Clive, the founder of the British Empire, at Plassey in 1757 to earn the gift of 12 guns used in the battle. Surprise of surprises is that nobody yet charged him with treason! He was indeed the chief architect of conspiracy that ultimately brought Nawab Suraj-Ud-Daullah down.

This was not all.

The colonial masters till 1877 conferred salutes, badge of honour of Baronetcy and Knighthood, titles and honorary distinctions on at least 735 Indian princes, chiefs, zamindars, and nobles, since its early settlement in the subcontinent. The highest number of gun salute given to any Indian was 21. Seven Indians were favoured with 21-gun salute. The lowest number, the nine-gun salute, was earmarked for seven-teen Indians. In between the 19 gun-salute was sanctioned for four Indians; 17 for six; 15 for seven; 13 for six; 12 for two; 11 for three and finally nine for 17 Indians.10 Titles and honorary distinctions conferred on favourite and loyal Indians included Rajendra Bahadur, Maharaja, Maharani, Maharaja Dhiraj Bahadur, Rao, Rao Saheb, Sirdar, Sirdar Bahadur, Nawab, Nawab Bahadur, Khan, Khan Bahadur, Sawai, etc. besides Knight, Baronet, etc. from the east to the west, from the north to the south of the subcontinent. They were Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Jains etc., both men and women. Some of them, the most favoured, were addressed as His Highness or Her Highness. They were a formidable body of remorseless quislings. They invaded the veins and arteries of the body politic; moulded and mobilised the public opinion, grabbed and exploited the resources and riches, besides various institutions of power and authority of the country to their advantage. The masses suffered at their tyranny. There were innumerable illustrations to show that many of these Indians held the hands of their alien masters back from initiating and enforcing policies and initiatives aimed at ameliorating the fate and fortune of the Indian masses.

Hindu God under Alien Master: Infidelity or Patriotism?

The Koregaon battle, we have indicated before, led to the collapse and ultimate eclipse of the Peshwa rule, 15 years after their humiliating overthrow from Orissa in 1803. Under orders of the Governor-General Lord Wellesley, an English Army conquered Orissa in a 14-day campaign ending on September 18, 1803. Orthodox Brahmans though, the Peshwas merrily taxed Hindu pilgrims who resorted to Jagannath Temple at Puri. The tax, interestingly, was imposed by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.11 Indian historians and political classes are carping in attacking the Mughal Emperor only. They are stone-blind to see the role of the Peshwas! Nobody questioned the ‘patriotism’ of the Peshwas!

When the victorious Army on march to capture Orissa under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Harcourt reached Pipli, on the outskirts of Puri, a delegation of Brahman priests of the Jagannath Temple waited upon him at his camp and placed the temple at his disposal. According to Swami Dharma Teerth [Parameswara Menon (1893-1978) in pre-ascetic life], in his erudite work, History of Hindu Imperialism (1941), “The oracle of the Puri Jagannath temple proclaimed that it was the desire of the deity that the temple too be controlled by the company, and the latter undertook to maintain the temple buildings, pay the Brahmins and do everything for the service of the deity as was customary.”12 Was it a hoax or a truth? The prodigious Lord Jagannath embraced alien masters and patrons!

This sounds fictitious but the Hindus did not question Lord Jagannath’s freedom of choice of the the masters. The East Indian Company took charge of the temple soon thereafter. A highly successful and unique Brahman-Christian joint venture, the first of its kind, there and then began on the shores of the Bay of Bengal. The government enacted several Regulations aimed at management and administration of the Jagannath shrine. A vast section of Hindus, held as untouchables including the wealthy but degraded Pirali Brahmans of Calcutta, was barred entry into the Jagannath Temple. The privileged Hindus were classified into four categories based on rate of tax between rupees 10 to rupees 2 per head payable for entry. Hunter noted that “.......not less than 20,000 men women and children live, directly or indirectly, by the service of lord Jagannath.”13 The deity’s servants, divided into 68 categories, were entitled to pay out of the alien, Yavan (meaning Christian), hands.14 The puritanical priestly class, though practitioners of untouchability, did not suffer any qualms of conscience to hobnob with the Christians. No industry, commercial establishment or business house, either on the east or west of the Atlantic in 1872, it may not be an exaggeration to state, boasted of employees as large as those in the service Jagannath! A cursory look at Table-1 for an idea of the joint venture of the East and West at Puri may be of interest, if not rewarding.

The average gross annual collection of tax amounted to rupees 1,16,074; rupees 54,973 was spent on the temple and a balance of rupees 61,101 went to swell the Company’s exchequers. The Company posted an average profit of 52.6 per cent per annum during the period. They earned more than they spent. Religion provides the most potential field for profit-making in India. Jagannath was no exception. Hunter had rightly claimed that pilgrim tax as ”an important item of our revenue from Orissa”.16

While the Mughal ruler, Aurangzeb, is known for his bigotry and notoriety in persecuting Hindus, neither the Peshwas nor the East India Company nor even the priests of the Jagannath Temple in Puri, who were accompanists and accomplices in extorting and exploiting the Hindu pilgrims, earned the ire of Indian critics. Neither the Peshwas nor the priests of Jagannath temple were ever portrayed as anti-national or traitors for taxing Hindu pilgrims. Why did nobody question the priests for placing the Jagannath Temple at the disposal of the East India Company which used the Hindu shrine for pure commercial pursuit? How did the action of the priests not amount to criminal breach of trust of tens of thousands of Hindus? They nonetheless never raised their voices against the immoral priests for fear of the threats of their curses and abuses.

Alongside Puri, incidentally in three years between 1812-1815, the tax collected from pilgrims at Gaya amounted for Rs 6,00,734; in 1815-16 a sum of rupees 73,053 at Allahabad and rupees 19,000 at Tirupati by the Company. The Raja of Khurdah, who was the traditional custodian of the Jagannath Temple, Puri was paid five per cent of the gross tax collected by the Company. The Maharaja of Tikari, Gaya, on the other hand, was more fortunate to receive 10 per cent of the tax.17 The Vishnupad temple on the river Falgu at Gaya belonged to the Tikari estate.

There was, however, more to the episode of the conquest of Orissa.

The Priests of Puri sold Deity of Jagannath for Crumbs

The conquest of Orissa by the East India Company was preceded by a letter addressed to Lieutenant Colonel Campbell, Commander of North Division of the British Army. A month ahead of the launch of the campaign, Governor General Lord Wellesley wrote on August 3, 1803, inter alia, as follows:

“The situation of the pilgrims passing to and from Jagannath will require your particular attention, you will be careful to afford them the most amiable protection and to treat them with every mark of consideration and kindness.

“On arrival at Jagannath, you will employ every possible precaution to preserve the respect due to the pagoda, and to the religious prejudices of the Brahmans and the pilgrims. You will furnish the Brahmans with such guards as shall afford perfect security to their persons, rites and ceremonials and to the sanctity of the religious edifices, and you will strictly enjoin those under your command to observe your orders on this important subject with utmost degree of accuracy and vigilance.

“The Brahmans are supposed to derive considerable profits from the duties levied on pilgrims. It will not, therefore, be advisable at the present moment to interrupt the system which prevails for collection of those duties. Any measures calculated to relieve the exactions to which the pilgrims are subjected by rapacity of the Brahmans, would necessarily tend to exasperate the persons whom it must be our object to conciliate. You will, therefore, signify to the Brahmans that it is not your intention to disturb the actual system of the collection of the pagoda. All the same you will be careful not to contract with the Brahmans any engagements, which may limit the power of the British government to make such arrangements with respect to the pagoda or to introduce such reform of existing abuses and vexations as may hereafter be deemed advisable.

“You will assure the Brahmans at the pagoda of Jagannath that they will not be required to pay any other revenue or tribute to the British government than that which they may have been in the habit of paying to the Mahratta government, and that they will be protected in their exercise of the religious duties.

“In every transaction relative to the pagoda of Jagannath, you will consult the civil commissioner, whom I have named for the settlement of the province of Orissa.

“You will understand that no property, treasures, valuable articles of any kind contained in the pagoda of Jagannath or in any religious edifice or possessed by any of the priests or Brahmans or persons of any description attached to the temples or religious institutions is to be considered as a prize to the army. All such property must be respected as being consecrated to religious use, by the customs or prejudices of the Hindoos. No account is to be taken of any such property, nor any person be allowed to enter the pagoda or sacred buildings without the express desire of Brahmans.

“You will leave a sufficient force in the vicinity of Jagannath, under the command of an officer, whom you will particularly select and in whom you can place perfect reliance, for the execution of the directions contained in these instructions.”18

The above facts warrant no elaboration nor elucidation as they are self-explanatory. In an illuminating illustration of diplomacy for appeasement of the Brahmans engaged in priestly duties at the Jagannath Temple, the Governor-General had put to effective use his clear vision regarding the extraordinary greed and inordinate avarice of his target. The priests jumped to grab the words of honour flowing from the Company’s highest authority given in writing. We have no information or material to suggest that there were backdoor parleys or understanding between the East India Company and the mandarins of Jagannath before the campaign to capture Orissa to allay all apprehension or ambiguity for entering into such a unique experiment for joint venture. But facts on record do indicate that the Company since long had an eye for conquest of the province.

The letter of Wellesley was translated and circulated widely in Orissa. The result was spectacular—silent surrender of the deity, claimed as the Lord of the Universe by the priests and the people of Orissa! Strangely, nobody questioned the wisdom or justification of the treacherous action of the priests. Belief and devotion of the Hindus, it seems, did not suffer humiliation, embarrassment, mortification, shame, indignity, ignominy, disgrace, or discomfiture at the turn of events involving Lord Jagannath. This was a unique example of vested interest dominating supreme over nationalistic or patriotic interest, pride and perception. Perhaps never has a treacherous act of gigantic dimension as this, committed by a section of people, gone unnoticed without focus in the academic discourses or public debates.

Did Jagannath’s Priests explode a Grotesque Illusion?

Justice A. R. Dave of the Supreme Court of India, was quoted by the Press Trust of India as declaring only recently that, “If I were a dictator, I would introduce Gita in Class I”19 thereby his Lordship might have intended to impart moral instruction ab initio to Indian school-going children. There could be tens of thousands of men who, with abiding conviction, have likewise reposed faith in the Gita, their holy book. Many more recite often the soul-stirring assurance Lord Krishna held out to His devotee Arjuna: “As and when dharma is in danger in Bharat (India), to protect the pious, holy and righteous men and to crush the evil and wrongdoers with the aim of re-establishing dharma (religion), I appear again and again.”20 This British attack on His holy temple was the most appropriate occasion for Lord Krishna to fructify the promise outlined in the Holy Gita. But His action did not match His assurance.

Puri’s Jagannath Temple is said to be the home of Lord Krishna, his elder brother Balabhadra (Balaram) and their beloved sister Subhadra. Was not the sacred shrine desecrated by the takeover and domination of an alien power? Or did not the control and taxation of pilgrims at the Jagannath Temple by the Peshwas go against the grains of the tenet of Gita to invite the displeasure of Lord Krishna for their overthrow? Why did not Lord Krishna’s omniscient and omnipotent Sudarshan chakra thunder and crush the British invaders and their quislings who were none but the priests of the temple for conspiring against Him and His siblings? No question from any quarter was perhaps ever raised. This only means that the tall claims made in the Holy Gita were a grotesque illusion created by vested interests. They are comparable to the manifestos of political parties issued before the elections in India. Political promises in India are honoured more often simply in the breach without accountability. Lord Krishna in the Gita did not distinguish Himself from the political class of India.

The diagnosis on the issue of fascist dictator Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf (1923) having universal bearing and significance seems apt:

“All propaganda must be so popular and on such an intellectual level, that even the most stupid of those towards whom it is directed will understand it... Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way around, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise.”21

The fascist ideology flourishes on human psychology born out of fear, suspicion, helplessness and apprehension over the uncer-tainties in life.


“Unsolicited”, “Prompt and Powerful Support” during Sepoy Mutiny
by Favourites

When the Sepoy Mutiny spread to Oudh (Awadh), Moulvie Ahmadullah Shah joined the rebels and became their leading light. He turned out to be such a serious threat to the Company that a proclamation for a reward of rupees 50,000, which was the highest during those days, was published in The Calcutta Gazette (order no. 580 of April 12, 1858) for his arrest.22 This Moulvie had a tragic end. He wanted Raja Jagannath Singh, a landlord of Pawayan in Shahjahanpur district, to join the mutiny. With advance appointment, the Moulvie reached the fortress-like home of the zamindar. He was not received by the host at the gate. Rather bullets of the zamindar’s men greeted him and he fell down there. Jagannath Singh and his brother rushed out of their home and severed the head of the rebel. They hurried with the head covered in a piece of cloth to the house of the Shajahanpur District Magistrate. He was then having lunch with his friends. The beasts had no patience to wait for the Magistrate to finish his lunch. He straight went to the dinning hall and presented the head of the rebellious Moulvie, blood still oozing out. Deeply impressed the Englishman presented the loyal zamindars the declared sum of rupees 50,000.23

Colonel George Bruce Malleson, who was a historian, paid the Moulvie handsome tributes as a “true patriot”. Damodar Vinayak Savarkar addressed the Moulvie as “a patriot of highest excellence”, who offered “his life-blood on the altar of the Motherland”.24

Descendants of the favourite loyal Indians honoured with gun salutes by the East India Company are today guiding the fate and fortunes of millions of people in at least two Indian States. One of their forefathers provided to the beleaguered East India Company “unsolicited”, “prompt and powerful support” at a very critical time threatening their sheer existence during the Sepoy Mutiny. Descendants of many more of the quislings have been controlling the levers and handles power and authority across the subcontinent. They suffered no taint. The Dalits who fought for emancipation, lo and behold, are branded by fellow countrymen as anti-national.

We are living in a strange country!


1. ‘200th year of battle of Bhima-Koregaon’, The Indian Express, December 27, 2017 and Ram Puniyani, ‘Bhima Koregaon: Dalits in search of icons from History’, The National Herald, January 5, 2018.

2. Raja Sekhar Vundru, ‘Monument at Koregaon: Maharashtra battlefield is a reminder: Caste stereotypes of valour are misplaced’, The Indian Express, January 2, 2018.

3. Writings and Speeches of Dr B. R. Ambedkar, vol. 12, pp. 85-87.

4. Though I read the article of General Sinha while in service of the State of Bihar, the details of reference are regrettably misplaced.

5. Writings and Speeches of Dr. B R Ambedkar, op. cit. p. 86.

6. Ibid., p. 86.

7. Ibid.

8. Census of India,1891, vol. III, p. 42.

9. Loke Nath Ghosha, The Modern History of The Indian Chiefs, Rajas, Zamindars etc. Part II, J N Ghosh & Co., Calcutta, 1881, p. 363. William Hunter perhaps was the first to document this information in his Statistical Account of Bengal, vol. II, Districts of Nadiya and Jessor, 1875, published from London.

10. Ibid., pp. 610-611.

11. Peggs, James, Pilgrim Tax in India: Facts and Observations relative to The Practice of Taxing Pilgrims, second edition, London 1835, p. 5.

12. A. K. Biswas, ‘The Foreign Hand in Puri, The Temple courted the East India Company’, Outlook, Delhi, August 26, 2013. Peggs recorded 68 variety of attendants of Lord Jagannath. pp. 28-31.

13. Hunter, W. W., Orissa, vol. I, London, 1872, p. 128.

14. Peggs, op. Cit., pp. 28-31.

15. Col. Laurie, ‘Puri and The Temple of Jagannath’, article in The Calcutta Review, vol. X, September 1848, p. 251 & 261.

16. Biswas. A. K., ‘Did Ambedkar Appreciate Puri’s Jagannath? Ambedkar denied entry into Jagannath Temple’, article in Mainstream, Vol. LV, New Delhi, July 22, 2017.

17. Peggs, op. cit.

18. Col. Laurie, ‘Puri and The Temple of Jagannath’, article in The Calcutta Review,vol. X, pp. 238-239, 1848.

19. The Times of India, August 2, 2014.

20. Free translation of the verses of Gita by this writer.

21. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, 1923.

22. Biswas, A. K., ‘Events and Historiography: An analysis’, Khuda Baksh Library Journal, No. 150, October-December 2007, Khuda Baksh Oriental Public Library, Patna, p. 73.

23. Biswas, A. K., ibid.

24. Savarkar, Damodar Vinayak, The First War of Indian Independence, 1909, London, p. 870.

A retired IAS and former Vice-Chancellor, Dr A.K. Biswas, a social anthropologist and freelance analyst of sociocultural issues, may be reached at anwesan4[at]

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