Docu-film on intriguing 1818 battle premieres in Bengaluru

Unsung Heroes

Docu-film on intriguing 1818 battle premieres in Bengaluru

School textbooks talk about the Anglo-Maratha War, but make no mention of the decisive Bhima Koregaon battle fought on January 1, 1818.

This is the 200th year of the battle, between Peshwa Baji Rao II and the East India Company, and no official commemoration is in sight.

In the battle, the Mahars fought for the British and against the Maratha Peshwa.Somnath Waghmare, a young filmmaker from Pune, has just completed a documentary on the historic event.

Titled ‘The Battle of Bhima Koregaon - An Unending Journey’, it is set for release on April 18, which marks Ambedkar Jayanti. “The Company had 500 soldiers from the Mahar community, and they defeated the 20,000-plus Peshwa army led by Baji Rao II,” he says.

British expansionism

In the 19th century, the East India Company was relentlessly engaged in a series of wars against the Marathas of Pune. Futile in their early attempts, they discovered that the Mahars were the backbone of the Peshwa army, but the soldiers faced severe caste discrimination.

The British approached the caste and offered them better status under East India Company rule. Reluctant to join the English, the Mahars decided to stay with the Peshwa. They said they would not join the English army if the Peshwa was ready to end caste discrimination in his kingdom. The Peshwa declined, Waghmare says. Disappointed, they joined the English army and trained well.

On January 1, 1818, the Peshwa army attacked the 1st Regiment of Bombay Native Infantry, comprising 500 Mahars led by Capt Francis Staunton. The disciplined Mahars defeated the huge army of the Peshwa. This battle helped the English army emerge unchallenged in India.

The British built a statue on the battleground, inscribing the names of 20 soldiers who lost their life in the battle, and created a Mahar regiment in the army, the first such in Indian Army history.

Continuing struggle

The Mahars and other Dalits consider Bhima Koregaon a holy place.Each year, on January 1, Dalits throng the place. This year, more than 30 lakh people from all over the world visited the site, but the event got no media coverage!

“Why is this episode from 200 years ago neglected? Why are ultra-nationalists condemning the Mahars as traitors?” wonders Waghmare. Ultra-nationalists don’t want to end the millennia-old caste system, he alleges. “How could we call the activities of an era without a single nation, or even the idea of nationalism, traitorous? Their fight was in fact for equality,” he says.

The Mahars, part of Shivaji’s army, faced fierce caste discrimination during the subsequent Peshwa rule. “Even after a prolonged struggle by Mahatma Phule, Ambedkar, Periyar, Ayyankali, and Kanshiram, discrimination still continues in our society. That’s why the title of the movie is ‘Unending Journey,’ Waghmare explains.

 

 

 

 

 

The suicide of scholar Rohit Vemula in Hyderabad Central University and Muthu Krishnan in Jawaharlal Nehru University shows that the biggest social evil in India is not ending, he says.

Waghmare has dedicated this documentary to Vemula. The film will be shown at 6 pm on April 18 at Alternative Law Forum, Infantry Road, Bengaluru.

 

About the filmmaker

The documentary was shot at a congregation at Bhima Koregaon on January 1, 2017. It covers the various activities of the commemoration and collects opinions about the battle and the continuing struggle for social equality in India.

Somnath Waghmare, a mass communication post-graduate from Pune University, has been part of the Dalit movement since his college days. In 2016, he directed ‘I Am Not a Witch,’ a documentary on a superstitious custom in Maharashtra’s Nandurbar district.

He is now planning a film on Gail Omvedt, the American-born Indian scholar who writes incisively on the caste system.

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