The unrest that engulfed Maharashtra in the last few days has turned the spotlight on a battle that took place 200 years ago between the British Indian Army, whose forces were reportedly made up largely of the Dalit Mahar community, and the Marathas. The battle of Koregaon has over the years become a memory of great pride for Dalits, who mark the battle with fervor on new year’s day every year.

How did the British view these battles that entrenched the rule of the Empire in India?

On March 4, 1819, George Canning – who briefly became prime minister of the United Kingdom in 1827 – gave a vivid account of the battles fought by the British, including the battle of Koregaon, in Maratha territory during the Third Anglo-Maratha War. Canning did this during a debate – perhaps the earliest available record of the British version of the events that took place – in the House of Commons on a vote of thanks moved by him in appreciation of Francis Rawdon-Hastings, the governor general of India under whom the victories were achieved.

A bloody campaign

Between June and November 1818, the East India Company fought as many as 28 battles in the Maratha region. In an area spread over 700 miles, 120 forts fell as the British Indian Army won one battle after another.

All through the proceedings in the House of Commons, Canning painted a picture that would make one believe the British were not disposed to expanding their territory indiscriminately. In fact, Canning indicates that the circumstances that prevailed in this region – of native princes and chieftains failing to honour treaties – led the British forces to mount the campaigns. “The war was provoked by actual aggressions, such as no government could endure without the neglect of a sacred duty,” he said. Later, he hoped the end of the war would conclude the military expansion in India and leave the independent parts of the country as they were.

Of these aggressions, Canning gave special attention to the Pindari forces, mostly Muslims who were part of the Mahratta (Maratha) armies but after 1809, began assuming an independent character. He said the Pindaris were “a power so singular and anomalous, that perhaps no exact resemblance could be found for it in history”. The Pindari armies were small but capable of receiving continual reinforcements. They were experts in evading enemy attacks and, to the shock of the British, raided 300 villages in far-away Madras Presidency in 1815.

Describing their notoriety, Canning said during the debate:

“After ravaging tracts of country of all visible wealth, they inflicted torture on innocence, helplessness and age, for the purpose of extorting the avowal and indication of hidden treasure. There were instances where the whole female population of a village precipitated themselves into the wells as the only refuge from these brutal and barbarous spoilers; where, at their approach, fathers of families surrounded their own dwellings with fuel, and perished with their children in the flames kindled by their own hands.”

Villagers burn themselves to avoid the Pindari forces. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The British believed the Pindaris also had external support. They were originally trained in the services of Daulatrao Sindhia, Malharrao Holkar II (a minor whose mother, Tulsibai Holkar, acted as the regent till she was killed by her soldiers in 1817) and even Mir Painda Khan, a chieftain who fought the Sikh Empire for most of his life. Holkar would later join Mudhoji II Bhonsle of Nagpur to battle the British along with Peshwa Baji Rao II. After the British defeated Sindhia, the treaty that was signed obligated the ruler to actively help the British take on the Pindaris. However, the emergence of a united Maratha front was foreseen by the British as they readied to deal with the Pindaris, a reason cited by Canning for Britain to fight the Third Anglo-Maratha War that led to the decimation of the Maratha Empire.

According to Canning, while Hastings was focusing his strength on Sindhia, Holkar and Khan, the British were taken by surprise by the entry of Peshwa Baji Rao II – who broke a peace treaty signed in 1802 – into the equation. His army attacked the British residency in Poona.

The Koregaon battle

From the records submitted by the governor general to the British crown, Canning, in his speech, recreated the battle of Koregaon (which the British called Corregaum):

“A body of between 800 and 900 men, all natives, except the artillery [the proportion of which to a force of this strength many gentlemen present can estimate more correctly than myself], was on its march from a distant part of the Peishwah’s [Peshwa] territories to Poonah, soon after the denunciation of hostilities; and unexpectedly found itself in presence of the whole Mahratta army. What was the exact amount of the Peishwah’s force I am not able to state with precision, but the cavalry alone was not less than 20,000. The small band which I have described, hemmed in on all sides by this over-whelming superiority of numbers, maintained through a long day an obstinate and victorious resistance: victorious – for they repelled on every point the furious attacks of the enemy.”

The British forces, which as Canning said was overwhelmingly native, and which Dalits today claim were comprised mainly of Mahars, were deprived of water by the large enemy force. The native soldiers fought with such courage that not only were they able to fend off the Peshwas, they also managed to carry back many wounded from the field.

Others who spoke on the resolution of vote of thanks, such as Lord Morpeth, heaped praise on the native soldiers, calling them “companions in arms”. Many of these soldiers were recruited from territories in the Bombay Presidency under the Peshwas, which means their families and properties were well under the ruler’s jurisdiction. On one instance, a non-commissioned Indian officer brought back to his British superior Rs 5,000 that Baji Rao had given him in person as a reward for desertion.

Explaining the sacrifices the native troops made in the war, especially in the battles against the Peshwas, Canning said:

“The vengeance denounced by the Peishwah was not an unmeaning menace. It did, in many instances, fall heavily on the relatives of those who resisted his threats and his entreaties; but the effect was rather to exasperate than to repress their ardour in the service to which they had sworn to adhere.”

Nowhere in the speeches is the caste of the native soldiers mentioned. However, Dalit leaders, including BR Ambedkar, have said the troops were predominantly Mahars. The memorial in the village of Koregaon near Pune carries the names of many of them.