Is celebrating a British victory over an Indian kingdom unpatriotic?

It is, or so appears to have been the motivation, partly at least, behind the attack on Dalits by saffron flag-waving mobs in Bhima Koregaon village of Pune on New Year’s Day. The Dalits were commemorating a battle fought in 1818 as part of the Anglo-Maratha Wars. A small British force had engaged a much larger army commanded by the Peshwa, the head of the Maratha confederacy. The battle ended in a stalemate but given how outnumbered they were, the British took it as a sign of their army’s bravery.

A victory obelisk erected at the site later listed the names of the soldiers who had died fighting against the Peshwa, a substantial number of whom were Mahars, Maharashtra’s largest Dalit caste. In 1927, Dalit leader BR Ambedkar visited the obelisk, starting a tradition of commemorating the battle as a Mahar victory over the upper-caste Maratha confederacy.

Caste discrimination

Ambedkar’s reason for celebrating a British victory was simple: he characterised the Maratha confederacy as a socio-political system that brutally oppressed Dalits. Ambedkar recounted that any non-Brahmin reciting the Vedas would have his tongue cut out in the Peshwa kingdom. In the 1850s, a young Dalit girl in Jyotiba Phule’s school wrote that being buried alive was a common punishment for Dalits. For even as minor a caste transgression as passing by a talimkhana, or school, a Dalit’s “head was cut off playfully”.

The fall of the Peshwai was, therefore, a boon for Maharashtra’s Dalits. Ambedkar himself was a beneficiary of this. His parents came from army families and he grew up in a cantonment town, which allowed him access to education that would otherwise have been denied to him as a Dalit. In fact, a sixth of the East India Company’s armies in the Bombay Presidency until 1857 comprised of Mahars – a circumstance that was unthinkable in the strict caste system of the Maratha confedaracy.

Placed in this context, the Dalit celebration of the Bhima Koregaon battle seems rather logicial.

Different standards

In fact, Bhima Koregaon is not the only British victory celebrated in India. Sikhs, for example, celebrate the 1897 Battle of Saragarhi, when the British Indian army took on a large number of Pashtuns in what is now the Khyber Pakhtunwa province of Pakistan.

But, unlike Bhima Koregaon, celebrating Saragarhi has not been controversial. In fact, far from considered anti-national, celebrating the battle is seen as being in consonance with Indian nationalism. Its anniversary is marked as the Regimental Battle Honour Day for all battalions of the Indian Army’s Sikh regiment. The Punjab government has declared the anniversary a state-wide holiday. Bollywood is, at this moment, making as many as three films celebrating the battle.

What differentiates Bhima Koregaon and Saragarhi? Why is one battle commemorated by just a few thousand Dalits while the other is a state celebration? Why is celebrating only one of them anti-national?

All nationalisms strategically mine history in order to prop themselves up. Indian nationalism is no different. In Saragarhi, the villains were the tribal Pasthuns, a people who have little stake in the modern Indian Union. Moreover, in cases such as the 1576 Battle of Haldighati – where both sides were Indian – modern majoritarian narratives quite easily paint the Muslim side as the antagonist. Pratap, the ruler of a small principality, has got himself a statue in Parliament while his opponent in Haldighati, Akbar, probably the most powerful, and enlightened, ruler of his time, struggles to receive even a fraction of the attention.

Colonial collaboration

The Battle of Bhima Koregaon might have been fought against a kingdom that propped up a brutal caste system, but the Maratha confederacy is a crucial part of modern Indian and Marathi identity. Celebrating the fall of the confederacy publicly results in uncomfortable questions being raised about the nature of Indian nationalism – a debate that many Hindutva thinkers would simply not want to have.

Not that the debate about colonialism and its relationship with Indian nationalism is new. In his book Worshipping False Gods, for example, Arun Shourie castigates Ambedkar for working with the British government. Contextually, Ambedkar was clear that in trying to emancipate Dalits, he was fine with working with the colonial government. But he was not the only one. Almost every political movement in colonial India worked with the British at one time or the other. The Congress formed provincial governments in 1939 under a British scheme, a decision that was sharply criticised by the party’s own leftist leaders such as Subhash Chandra Bose, who wanted to oppose the Raj and not work with it. Even Mohandas Gandhi thought the British Empire good enough to want to recruit Indians to fight for it in World War I. And, of course, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the forerunner of the Bharatiya Janata Party, opposed the Quit India movement of 1942 as a minister in the Bengal government.

The debate is further confused by the fact that the modern Indian Army – and the Pakistan Army – is the same that served the British right until 1947. Delhi’s India Gate was built to commemorate the Indian soldiers who died fighting for the British Empire in World War I. While Bhima Koregaon is loaded with a powerful narrative of the Dalits battling caste oppression that runs parallel to the uncomfortable fact of it being a victory for colonialism, Indians fighting in World War I had no such emancipatory goal. Yet, the role of the Indian Army in World War I is widely celebrated with little controversy.

Multiple pasts

This differentiation might seem problematic but it really is not. Holding multiple perspectives of the past is quite normal. The Indian peoples are a variegated lot and so are their histories. It is, therefore, possible to both mourn Bhima Koregaon as a victory for British colonialism and celebrate it for helping destroy a terrible system of caste apartheid.

Indians, in fact, have mostly been comfortable with this complexity. Until now, that is. Remember, Bhima Koregaon had been celebrated without incident for 90 years until this year. What has changed now is the emergence of the BJP’s strict European-style nationalism, where anything other than the nationalist narrative is sought to be airbrushed. But given India’s fantastic diversity and long record of resistance to one-size-fits-all narratives, this mono-nationalism might take some time to take shape, if, that is, the BJP manages to make it happen at all.