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The Battle of Koregaon- The first victory of Dalits over the injustice and torture | Dalit History

The Battle of Bhima Koregaon

The Battle of Koregaon- The first victory of Dalits over the injustice and torture | Dalit History
B. R. Ambedkar and his followers at the Koregaon victory pillar on December 28th 1927

The battle of Bhima Koregaon was fought on January 1, 1818, between Peshwa Bajirao II, with an army of 20,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry, that vastly outnumbered the 800-odd men commanded by Captain FF Staunton of the East India Company. Narratives of the battle vary wildly, but most historians agree that the British army comprised 500 Mahars, the most populous of the Dalit sub-castes in the state.

While Staunton’s journals and letters mentions considerable losses and not an outright victory, subsequent British records – especially dispatches by then Pune resident Mountstuart Elphinstone -- paint the battle as a gallant stand against the Peshwas and a triumph for the European forces. Of course, it may be linked to the fact that within six months of this battle, the Peshwa had been categorically vanquished.

Today, the battle is a symbol of Dalit pride against casteism, embodied by the Peshwa rule where Dalits were forced to carry a spittoon on their neck and a broom on the back, so that even their dust couldn’t pollute Brahmins, as described in Ambedkar’s writings.


THIS VICTORY IS CELEBRATED BY MAHARS AND OTHER DALITS ACROSS MAHARASHTRA AS IT WAS ONE OF THE VERY FEW INSTANCES WHERE THE OPPRESSED FOUGHT THEIR OPPRESSORS AND DEFEATED THEM.


By the 1800s, the Marathas were organized into a loose confederacy, with the major constituents being the Peshwa of Pune, the Scindia of Gwalior, the Holkar of Indore, the Gaekwad of Baroda, and the Bhosale of Nagpur. The British had subjugated and signed peace treaties with these factions, establishing Residencies at their capitals. The British intervened in a revenue-sharing dispute between the Peshwa and Gaekwad, and on 13 June 1817, the Company forced Peshwa Baji Rao II to sign an agreement renouncing claims on Gaekwad's revenues and ceding large swaths of territory to the British. This treaty of Pune formally ended the Peshwa's titular overlordship over other Maratha chiefs, thus officially ending the Maratha confederacy. Soon after this, the Peshwa burnt down the British Residency at Pune, but was defeated in the Battle of Khadki near Pune on 5 November 1817.

The Peshwa then fled to Satara, and the Company forces took complete control of Pune. Pune was placed under Colonel Charles Barton Burr, while a British force led by General Smith pursued Peshwa. Smith feared that Peshwa could escape to Konkan and overpower the small British detachment there. Therefore, he instructed Colonel Burr to send reinforcements to Konkan, and in turn, call in for reinforcements from Shirur, if needed. Meanwhile, the Peshwa managed to escape beyond Smith's pursuit, but his southward advance was constrained by the advance of a Company force led by General Theophilus Pritzler. He then changed his route, marching eastwards before turning north-west towards Nashik. Realizing that General Smith was in a position to intercept him, he suddenly turned southwards towards Pune. Towards the end of December, Colonel Burr received news that the Peshwa intended to attack Pune, and asked the Company troops stationed at Shirur for help. The troops dispatched from Shirur came across the Peshwa's forces, resulting in the Battle of Koregaon.

Peshwa's forces

The Peshwa's army comprised 20,000 cavalry and 8,000 infantry. Out of these, around 2,000 men were deployed in the action, constantly reinforced during the battle. The force that attacked the Company troops consisted of three infantry parties of 600 soldiers each. These soldiers included Arabs, Gosains and Marathas (the caste). The majority of the attackers were Arabs (mercenaries and their descendants), reputed to be the finest among the Peshwa's soldiers. The attackers were supported by a cavalry and two pieces of artillery.

The attack was directed by Bapu Gokhale, Appa Desai and Trimbakji Dengle. Trimbakji was the only among these to enter the Koregaon village, once during the attack. The Peshwa and other chiefs stayed at Phoolsheher (modern Phulgaon) near Koregaon. The titular Maratha Chatrapati, Pratap Singh of Satara, also accompanied the Peshwa.

Company forces

The Company troops dispatched from Shirur comprised 834 men, including:

1.Around 500 soldiers of the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Regiment of Bombay Native Infantry, led by Captain Francis Staunton. Other officers included:

  • Lieutenant and Adjuntant Pattison
  • Lieutenant Jones
  • Assistant-Surgeon Wingate

2.Around 300 auxiliary horsemen under Lieutenant Swanston

3.24 European and 4 Native Madras artillerymen with two 6-pounder guns, led by Lieutenant Chisholm. Besides Chisholm, Assistant-Surgeon Wyllie (or Wyldie) was the only officer in the artillery.

The Company troops of Indian origin included Mahars, Marathas, Rajputs, Muslims, and Jews.This was mostly the troops that Capt. Staunton had raised three months ago with the object of strengthening the defense of Poona that was already under British control.

The battle


The Company troops left Shirur at 8 pm on 31 December 1817. After marching all night and covering a distance of 25 miles, they reached the high ground behind Talegaon Dhamdhere. From there, they spotted Peshwa's army across the Bhima River. Captain Staunton marched up to Koregaon Bhima village, which was located on the banks of the river. The village was surrounded by a low mud wall. Captain Staunton made a feint of crossing the shallow Bhima river. A 5,000-strong infantry, which was slightly ahead of the Peshwa's base, retreated to inform him about the presence of British forces. Meanwhile, Staunton stationed his forces in Koregaon instead of crossing the river. He secured a strong position for his guns, posting one of them to guard an approach from the Bhima river (which was running almost dry), and another to guard the road from Shirur.

After the return of his 5,000-strong infantry, the Peshwa dispatched three infantry parties of Arab, Gosain and Maratha soldiers. Each party comprised 300–600 soldiers. The parties crossed the Bhima River at three different points, supported by two cannons and rocket fire. Peshwa's troops also made a feint attack from the Shirur road.

By noon, the Arabs took control of a temple on the outskirts of the village. One of the temples was retaken by a party led by Lieutenant and Assistant Surgeon Wyllie. The Arabs also captured the sole gun guarding the river, and killed eleven gunners, including their officer Lieutenant Chisholm. Driven by thirst and hunger, some of the Company's gunners suggested negotiating a surrender. However, Captain Staunton refused to yield. A group led by Lieutenant Pattison retook the gun, and found Lieutenant Chisholm's body with the head cut off. Captain Staunton declared that this would be the fate of those who fall into the enemy hands. This encouraged the gunners to fight on. The Company troops successfully defended the village.

Peshwa's forces ceased firing and left the village by 9 pm, driven by the fear of approaching British reinforcements under General Joseph Smith. At night, the Company troops managed to procure a supply of water. The Peshwa remained near Koregaon on the next day but did not launch another attack. Captain Staunton, who was not aware of General Smith's advance, believed that the Peshwa would attack the Company troops on the Koregaon-Pune route. On the night of 2 January, Staunton first pretended to go in the direction of Pune but then marched back to Shirur, carrying most of his wounded soldiers.

Casualties

Out of the 834 Company troops, 275 were killed, wounded or missing. The dead included two officers — Assistant-Surgeon Wingate and Lieutenant Chisholm; Lieutenant Pattison later died of his wounds in Shirur. Among the infantrymen, 50 were killed and 105 wounded. Among the artillery, 12 were killed and 8 were wounded. The dead Company soldiers of Indian origin included 22 Mahars, 16 Marathas, 8 Rajputs, 2 Muslims, and 1-2 Jews.

According to the British estimates, around 500 to 600 of Peshwa's soldiers were killed or wounded in the battle.

Mountstuart Elphinstone, who visited Koregaon two days later on 3 January 1818, wrote that the houses had been burned and the streets were filled with dead bodies of horses and men. There were around 50 dead bodies lying in the village, most of them of the Peshwa's Arab soldiers. There were six dead bodies outside the village. In addition, there were shallow graves of 50 native sepoys, 11 European soldiers and the 2 deceased officers belonging to the Company forces.

Aftermath

When Elphinstone visited the battle field shortly after its completion, he found that the Company Soldiers had completely lost their morale and were reluctant to believe the praises that were showered on them .

General Smith arrived in Koregaon on 3 January, but by this time, the Peshwa had already left the area. A company force led by General Pritzler pursued Peshwa, who tried to escape to Mysore. Meanwhile, General Smith captured Satara, the capital of Pratap Singh. Smith intercepted Peshwa in a battle on 19 February 1818 at Ashtoon (or Ashta); Bapuji Gokhale was killed in this action. The Peshwa then fled to Khandesh, while his jagirdars accepted the Company's suzerainty. A dejected Peshwa then met with John Malcolm on 2 June 1818, and surrendered his royal claims in exchange for a pension and a residence in Bithoor. Trimbakji Dengle was captured near Nashik and imprisoned at the Chunar Fort.

As a reward for their bravery in the Battle of Koregaon, the 2nd battalion of the 1st Regiment of the Bombay Native Infantry was made Grenadiers. Their regiment came to be known as 1st Grenadier Regiment of Bombay Native Infantry. The official report to the British Residents at Poona recalls the "heroic valour and enduring fortitude" of the soldiers, the "disciplined intrepidity" and "devoted courage and admirable consistency" of their actions.

Captain Staunton was appointed an honorary aide-de-camp to the Governor General of India. The Court of Directors presented him with a sword and a sum of 500 guineas (gold coins). Later in 1823, he became a Major, and was appointed a companion of the Most Honourable Military Order of the Bath.

General Thomas Hislop called the battle "one of the most heroic and brilliant achievements ever recorded on the annals of the army". According to M.S. Naravane, "this gallant defense by a small number of Company's troops against an overwhelming Maratha force is rightly considered as one of the most glorious example of valour and fortitude in the annals of the Company's forces."

Decisiveness

Neither side achieved a decisive victory in the battle. Shortly after the battle, Mountstuart Elphinstone described it as a "small victory" for the Peshwa. Nevertheless, the East India Company government praised the bravery of its troops, who could not be overpowered despite being outnumbered.

Notwithstanding this, the battle being one of the last ones to be fought in the Third Anglo-Maratha War, has since came to be remembered as a Company victory after the war ended with Peshwa's defeat.

Legacy

The battle resulted in losses to the Maratha empire, then under Peshwa rule, and control over most of western, central and southern India by the British East India Company.

After India's freedom, in the mid-2010s, this otherwise forgotten battle suddenly came into news when groups of Mahars converged to celebrate the war as the victory of the side on which their mahar forefathers had fought. After centuries of generally desultory treatment, this battle was the first time that Mahars had been included in a battle in which they won.

Memorial

To commemorate its fallen soldiers, the East India Company commissioned a "victory pillar" (an obelisk) in Koregaon. The inscription of the pillar declares that Captain Staunton's force "accomplished one of the proudest triumphs of the British Army in the East."

References



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