Battle of Koregaon
1 January 1818, and the fight to escape the ‘Ghar: Battle of Koregaon
The speakers at the first Dr. Ambedkar Memorial Lectures in Goa, on Dec 6th and 7th 2014, were rather unassuming in their manner but left their audience with much to think about. Dr. Varsha Ayyar, of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, who delivered the first lecture on ‘Ambedkar and Reservations’, mentioned the Mahar soldiers who defeated the Peshwa’s army at Bhima Koregaon on 1st January 1818, in the 3rd and final Anglo-Maratha War. It was just one reference in her argument about the need to understand the history of reservations, so that the issue is not reduced to a superficial one of merit, as is done by many opponents of reservation today. But the reference also called to mind the bias of popular histories of South Asia. Because this battle of Bhima Koregaon was an exceptionally heroic one, in which the Second Battalion of the First Regiment Bombay Native Infantry, comprising only 250 cavalry and 500 infantry, both dominated by Mahars, defeated the 20,000 cavalry and 5000 infantry of Peshwa Bajirao II.
In other words, this British victory was also a Mahar victory; it was the Mahars who finished the Peshwa Empire. Yet how many Indians know of this? Our school textbooks see the fall of the Peshwas as a tragedy; such is the nationalist version of events. But for the Mahars and others oppressed and enslaved as untouchables under Peshwa rule, the 1818 battle was a war of independence.
Dhananjay Keer’s biography of pioneering educationatist and social revolutionary Jyotiba Phule (Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, 1964) speaks of how Phule lost sleep during the 1857 mutiny for fear that the British would lose and the Peshwas return to Pune. Keer also mentions an incident when the young Jyotiba tried to attend the marriage ceremony of a brahmin schoolmate, only to be abused and driven away. When his father learned of this, he called his son a fool but a lucky one to be not living under Peshwa rule, when the punishment for polluting an upper caste event was the crushing weight of an elephant’s foot on one’s head.
Who wouldn’t want to celebrate the end of such oppression? And yet, we don’t. It goes to show how brahmanical and elitist the perspective of nationalist writing is, despite the diversity of this region of South Asia. For the dominant castes the colonial period was all about humiliation and loss of power, but for many others it was about the beginnings of liberation and justice. E.g. Vasco da Gama’s arrival in the Malabar in 1498 is considered by many Dalits as a milestone event in the story of Dalit liberation (Aditya Nigam, The Insurrection of Little Selves, 2006, pg 182). But our histories do not remember this.
This same amnesia marks the ‘Ghar Vapsi’ project launched by the RSS to convert the minorities to Hinduism. Leaving aside the ridiculous notion of Hinduism as a ‘ghar’ (home), why the term ‘vapsi’? Clearly to have us believe that everybody in South Asia was Hindu once, and so becoming Hindu today is a ‘return’. It is in this spirit that the Anti-Conversion Law of Chattisgarh – the latest BJP-ruled state to propose such a law, and soon, we hear, to be followed by an all-India one – declares that converting to one’s ‘ancestral religion’ is not conversion.
But the truth is that most Christians, Muslims and Buddhists were never Hindu; neither were most Hindus a few hundred years ago. An example in Goa, as described by Cyril Aleixo Fernandes in Justice at the Grass-roots (2014), are the Gavddas, who experienced conversions to both Christianity and Hinduism. Today they are Christians, Nav-Hindus, or Hindus, the last being the ones who did not officially convert but are considered Hindu since Gavdda is not an accepted religious category. In his book Why I am not a Hindu (1996), Kancha Ilaiah argues that religious practices of many Dalit-Bahujans are even today significantly different from those of upper caste Hindus, so they should not be considered Hindu. But they are, for political reasons.
Another popular misconception is that conversions were done ‘by the sword’. Conversions to Islam in fact were rarely organised by rulers – no, not even by Aurangzeb – but were the result of the preaching and humanitarian works of the sufis, as well as the spread of Islamicate culture (Richard Eaton, Shrine, Cultivators and Muslim ‘Conversions’, 2009). In Goa, ‘forced conversions’ to Christianity were done, we are told, by throwing cooked rice into the wells of Hindus, polluting them and forcing their owners to become Christian. Although claiming to be about Goa, it is clear that this story is only about brahmins, given the references to private wells and pollution. Even in this limited area though, does this story really speak of conversions that were forced? Or is it actually about excommunication from Hinduism, enforced by the caste authorities, after which many outcastes voluntarily joined Christianity? It would not be the first time that Brahmanical traditions of caste and untouchability resulted in people leaving for more humane belief systems; they have been doing it right from the time of Buddhism, 2500 years ago.
The Hindutvawadis may just have bitten off more than they can chew. All these anti-conversion laws are in fact acknowledgement of a mass abandonment of the so-called ‘ghar’. And many of the Ghar Vapsi conversions have been exposed as the result of either threats or lures like ration cards. But even more interesting was a recent celebration in Gaya, when more than 500 Hindus became Buddhists (Dainik Jagran, 3/1/15). The Satyashodhak OBC Parishad has also announced plans for a mass conversion to Buddhism in Maharashtra (Indian Express, 18/1/15); about 1650 Hindus have already signed up and stopped worshipping Hindu gods, they say. Long ago, the Mahars wiped out the Peshwai and ushered in modern India. Who knows — the Ghar Vapsi-walas might well be inciting a whole new exodus from their so-called ‘ghar’.
(Amita Kanekar is an architectural historian and novelist.)