Bhima Koregaon has been the epicentre of violence since the last few days. Recently, leftists organised an event to celebrate the so called victory of ‘dalits’ over ‘Peshwas’. Neither the event nor the speeches of Jignesh Mevani and Umar Khalid warrant our attention. Suffice here to say that these ‘break India’ forces are at work again this time by trying to create a rift along caste lines in Maharashtra with an eye on the State Assembly elections due next year. However, we need to take a closer look at the ‘battle’ that took place on the banks of the Bhima River 200 years ago. This was a battle between (take note of the two sides carefully) BRITISH AND MARATHAS. Undoubtedly the Marathas were led by the Peshwas and a few hundred Mahars were a part of the British army but to call it a caste war would be missing the point completely. That apart we would soon see why it was not a loss to Marathas but in fact their victory.
There is a difference between strategic retreat and fleeing the battlefield; the Peshwa opted for the former which has been twisted and presented by British historians. After the Yerwada battle Peshwa Bajirao II adopted a strategy to confuse the British and make them complacent. He gave them the impression that he was fleeing by leaving Yerwada and along with his forces he reached Pusesavali through the Purandar Fort. Here he met his general Appa Desai Nipankar. From Pusesavali he left toward Miraj but turned east towards Pandharpur midway. All this while the British who were on the Maratha trail thought that the Peshwa and his troops were headed south. They realised they were tricked only after they reached Pusesavali but it was too late by then and the Maratha troops were out of British reach.
When the British forces were going towards Pandharpur they met with Maratha forces led by Senapati Bapu Gokhale who proved too difficult for the former. By this time Bajirao and his troops passed Pirgaon (Nagar Zilla) and were moving towards Nashik. Not only did the Peshwa elude the British but his was moving at such a pace that it became impossible for the British to follow him. Realising the futility of chasing the Marathas, Brigadier General Smith decided to give up the chase and went to Shirur instead of Nashik. From Shirur Smith went to Sangamner and was under the impression that Peshwa would have reached Nashik. However, Bajirao had outsmarted Smith and along with Tryambakji Dengle he had turned left from Sangamner and crossed the Brahmanwada Ghat to head towards Pune. By the time Smith could figure out Peshwa’s strategy, on 30th December 1817 Bajirao had reached Chakan and was a stone’s throw away from Pune; he was just about 25 kilometres away from Pune.
Since he left Pune on 18th November for about a month and half he kept the British on their toes. His idea was simply to tire out the British by making them run in circles behind him. He left Pune and passed through Purandar, Mahuli, Pusesavali, Miraj, Pandharpur, Pirgaon, Sangamner, Ozar, Junnar, Khed and Chakan to head back to Pune. Now imagine the frustration of Smith having run around in circles behind Peshwa Bajirao II and not even getting a glimpse of the Peshwa. All his running around were obviously in vain. Peshwa ensured that he always left behind some of his troops who could be spotted by the British. These troops would be moving in the opposite direction to that of Bajirao thereby tricking the British. When the Peshwa’s troops were confident that their leader was out of British reach they would take the route through the jungles and join the Peshwa. It was not until too late that the British would come to know of the trickery.
Battle on the banks of River Bhima
When Bajirao reached Chakan, British troops in Pune were under the command of Colonel Bur. Finding Peshwa close at hand and Smith not having returned, Colonel Bur sent message to Captain Francis Staunton stationed at Shirur. Staunton arrived with cannons, guns and other war equipments. His party comprised of 300 Marathi soldiers out of a total of 500. Having left Shirur at night around 8 on 31st December 1717, he and his men reached a hillock near Koregaon on the morning of 1st January 1818 around 10. Peshwa adopted the same strategy he had used against smith and tricked Staunton. Seeing large number of Maratha forces on the banks of River Bhima, Staunton and his men headed into the village of Koregaon. The Peshwa left around 3000 men to fight the battle at Koregaon and moved in the direction of Solapur.
Staunton and his men were already tired due to the travel they had undertaken to reach Koregaon and at such a time war was staring them in the face. Having no choice, they placed their canons in the direction of Bhima River. Marathas outsmarted them by attacking from the opposite direction. In the battle that ensued, Arabs in Peshwa’s army damaged one of the British canon tanks and Lieutenant Chisholm was killed while Lieutenant Swanston and Assistant-Surgeon Wingate were seriously injured. The Marathas had already cut off water supply to British troops and the injured British men took shelter in a Dharamshala in the village. Maratha army took control of a Gadh in the village from where they could easily attack and kill British troops. Marathas had successfully kept the British men closed in the village thereby giving time for Peshwa to move away smoothly. The Maratha men decided to leave the village as their mission of providing a safe passage to Peshwa Bajirao II was accomplished. Besides it would have been difficult for the Marathas to leave the place if Smith arrived with reinforcements.
In essence the Marathas were successful in not just starving the British of water supply but also in confining them in the village. This battle was not a victory for the British but for Marathas. In the battle there were casualties on both sides; 250-275 men on the British side and 500 Maratha soldiers lost their lives.
Lies propagated by the British
We know the British adopted a policy of ‘Divide and rule’ and that is how they used this event as well. There were men of all castes in the Maratha army as well. A few Mahars were a part of the British battalion. This battle was actually a loss of face for British; neither did Staunton pursue the Peshwa nor could he help Colonel Bur in any way. Koregaon was not on Maratha radar because their aim was to gain control of Pune. Unlike what is floating around, not 28000 (that was the Peshwa’s total army strength) not more than 3000 Maratha soldiers were deployed in the battle of Koregaon. The British use the event to further caste divides four years after the battle was over that is in the year 1822 by erecting a ‘Vijay Stambh’ at the village after the fall of Marathas and when they were sure there was no one to counter their act. They even inscribed the phrase ‘one of the proudest triumphs of the British army in the east!’ Ah! How easy was that?
A lie that is repeated often is assumed to be the truth. That is the policy that British operated on and unfortunately one on which some of our own people (read politician) operate as well. A war which was between the British and Marathas is presented as a caste war and one which the British lost is presented as their victory. History has been distorted for long enough and despite what contemporary Marathi sources said about the battle, British turned history on its head in 1822. That lie continues to rule the roost today because it suits some politicians. Isn’t it time we believed our historians than being mental slaves of the British?