It isn’t just Kshatriyas who are brave: Why the Dalit event at Bhima Koregaon rankles upper castes

The claim that so-called untouchables can also display valour undermines the very basis of the caste system.

History often serves to frame social identities and movements in the present. Competing communities employ myth and fact to construct a past that legitimises their current aspirations. In contemporary India, this can be seen in the claims to past warriorhood by competing castes as well as national and sub-national identities.

In India, claims to valour tend to be varna-based. Though certain castes like the Rajputs make easier genealogical claims to warriorhood, there are no absolute narratives. Some Brahmin castes, for instance, claim warriorhood by evoking Parasurama, the mythical angry Brahmin who apparently wiped out the Kshatriyas. Similarly, the Rajputs in Rajasthan may consider the Bhil Adivasis lowly, but the Bhils claim to have heroically saved the Rajputs from the indignity of being crushed by the Mughals. Some castes also make collective claims to past kinghood along with warriorhood, whereas others are left to celebrate their valorous soldierly past.

In this politics of received warriorhood, the so-called untouchable castes tend to lose out. They are considered incapable of being warriors. After all, if the untouchable could be Kshatriya, what would be the status of the Kshatriya in the caste system?

Untouchables as warriors

Unlike North India, Maharashtra does not have an easily identifiable Kshatriya or Rajput caste: the Marathas’ claim to Kshatriyahood is at best contested. The Marathas’ demand to be recognised as Kshatriya was, in fact, influenced by North Indian ethics as evident from their adoption of Vedic rituals, as opposed to Puranic ones. The Maratha army under Shivaji did, however, include the Mahars and the Mangs in the infantry.

After Shivaji, the British used his strategy of inclusive armies to bring down the Peshwas. They, in fact, not only recruited soldiers from the supposedly non-martial castes such as the Mahars, Ramoshis, Mangs and Bhandaris into their army but, as Philip Constable observes in the case of the 21st Bombay Native Infantry, also allowed them to excel as non-commissioned officers.

In his book, Mahar Folk: A Study of Untouchables in Maharashtra, Alexander Robertson also notes the significance of discipline over caste prejudice in the British army’s Bombay regiments: “Is it not very probable that this subordination of caste prejudice to discipline is largely responsible for the fact that the infantry of the Company’s Bombay regiments became superior in prowess and steadiness to the mounted troops of the Peshwa?”

The Bombay Native Infantry’s 1st Regiment, which defeated the Peshwas in the battle of Bhima Koregaon in 1818, was one such, comprising mostly “untouchable” soldiers.

The British army, however, was soon to be influenced by North Indian caste values: the untouchables were made ineligible for Kshatriya jobs owing to pressure from Kshatriya groups. By the 1890s, the recruitment of untouchable and non-martial castes had all but stalled. “In Maharashtra, on the other hand,” Constable writes, “a clear social trend had emerged limiting Kshatriya identity to Marathas and even to the Maratha ‘shahannavakuli’ (ninety six lineages), who sought to uphold their elitist perception of Kshatriya heritage by distancing themselves from the Maratha-kunbi jati.”

Jyotiba Phule (1827-1890) ideologically dismantled this idea of varna-based warriorhood by attributing Kshatriyahood to untouchable castes. While the North Indian military culture emphasised the Aryan origin of warrior and kingly castes, the Bahujan concept of warriorhood articulated by Phule considered all non-Aryans as Kshatriya. This formulation was creatively employed by Bahujan leaders such as Baba Walangkar (1840-1900) for the emancipation of the untouchables. Walangkar indicated, Constable writes, “that the enslavement of Mahars and Mangs as untouchables under the Peshvai after Shivaji’s death in 1680 not only made them willing to serve in the Bombay Army, but also made them reliable soldiers against the Peshvai”.

Walangkar and other retired army officers turned Kshatriya politics into the politics of citizenship. They argued that since the Mangs and the Mahars had helped the British bring down the caste-centred state apparatus of the Peshwas, the British should provide for their education, fair employment in
government, readmission to the Bombay Army, and increased recruitment in the police.

Idea of valour

The contemporary discourse around Bhima Koregaon that underlines the Dalit claim to a valorous past complicates the idea of varna-based warriorhood and nationalism. That nation as we know it was birthed by the Constitution and what existed before – competitive claims of castes and communities over territories – is increasingly underplayed. Also forgotten is the caste-based hierarchical nature of indigenous society, polity and even the military.

The discourse of Kshatriyahood, and its masculine undertone, can be inimical to the possibilities of democratisation, especially if the claim to kshatriyahood is meant to advance caste superiority. The codes of caste-based warriorhood are not only inward-looking, they are key to the hierarchical nature of caste. Today, supposedly warrior castes such as the Rajputs are using a claimed valorous past to aggressively engineer caste pride as was recently exemplified by their violent protests against the movie Padmavat. In Maharashtra, vehicles of the Marathas carry the symbol of Raje – king, often written in saffron with a sword – to go with pejorative commands like “Bagtos Kai Mujara Kar” Salute! What are you looking at – and slogans like “Jai Shivaji Jai Bhavani”.

Set against this caste-based and myth-infused discourse of warriorhood is the Dalits’ claim of the victory of anti-caste martial races against the Peshwas in Bhima Koregaon. That this claim is not entirely based on myth complicates the contemporary telling of a linear Hindu history of patriotism and nationalism. For here, the martial past is invoked not as merely fighting in service of others or as a matter of caste pride, but as an anti-caste war that became possible only during colonial rule and generated newer possibilities of citizenship and nationhood. Because this narrative undermines the ideas of kshatriyahood and Hindu nationalism propagated by dominant groups and ideologies, it is not really surprising that the Dalits commemorating 200 years of the battle of Bhima Koregaon were attacked.

Suryakant Waghmore is a sociologist and author of Civility against Caste.

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