Battle of Saragarhi has become a symbol of valour, but Battle of Koregaon has no takers
Battle of Saragarhi and Battle of Koregaon Bhima both had Indian soldiers fighting for the British, but only one got a mainstream Bollywood film.
There are two battles that are separated in time by almost 80 years and in space by 1,700 km —the Battle of Saragarhi(1897) and the Battle of Koregaon Bhima (1818). Only one of them got a film, Kesari, featuring Akshay Kumar.
By Dilip Mandal
There are some obvious similarities between these two events. In both cases, persons of Indian origin were fighting for the British. The ‘idea of India’ was yet to be formed, so we can’t and should not brand anyone a traitor for being a part of the British army. But let us clear some facts.
The Battle of Koregaon Bhima took place on 1 January 1818 at Koregaon, a small village near Pune in Maharashtra, between the British East India Company and the army of Peshwa Bajirao II. The Company contingent consisted of many Dalit Mahars, who were considered untouchables by the Peshwas. Although outnumbered by the Peshwa army, the Company battalion still won. The battle heralded the end of the Peshwa empire in India.
The Battle of Saragarhi took place on 12 September 1897 at the Saragarhi Fort in the hills of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in present-day Pakistan. Saragarhi was a small communication post of the British army, manned by 21 soldiers of 36 Sikh regiment. The fort was attacked by a large number of Pashtun rebels because they wanted the British to leave. The battle started in the morning and continued till the evening, and all the British soldiers were killed.
The Mahars and the Sikh both fought valiant and heroic battles, and both were lauded for their bravery by British military historians. Inscription on the memorial obelisk at Koregaon describes the battle as “the proudest triumphs of the British army in the East”. And all the 21 Sikh soldiers, who fought to death in Saragarhi, were awarded the Indian Order of Merit (IOM).
As Indians flock to watch and celebrate Akshay Kumar’s Kesari based on Saragarhi, a year ago violence broke out when hundreds of Dalits congregated to commemorate 200 years of Bhima Koregaon. The clash saw cars being burnt, stones being pelted and abuses hurled towards Dalits. Most chose to ignore the moral reason behind why so many Mahars had joined the British in their fight against the upper caste Brahmin Peshwas.
Neither the Peshwas nor the Pashtuns can be called freedom fighters as they were fighting their own regional battles and sided with the British when it was convenient. The Peshwas and the Nizams sided with British many times including in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore war, which ended the sultanate of Tipu Sultan. With him dying in this battle, the hope of ousting the British from Indian subcontinent ended.
In a nutshell, Koregaon and Saragarhi are remembered as stories of heroic battles of British soldiers of Indian origins. But history isn’t just about what happened — it’s about how we interpret it, write it and choose to remember it. Historiography is all about the political choices we and our ancestors have made.
While the Battle of Saragarhi has become a symbol of valour and courage, the Battle of Koregaon Bhima has still not got its due in history.
Several books have been written on the Saragarhi battle. A Bollywood movie has been made on it. The Punjab government has announced a public holiday on 12 September in remembrance, and every year, a huge celebration takes place in Saragarhi Saheb Gurudwara to commemorate the Sikh soldiers of the British army. The Sikh regiment celebrates this day as Regimental Battle Honour Day.
But what about Koregaon Bhima? A battle of equal historical importance and grit. No detailed books and no Bollywood takers. An independent filmmaker tried to make a movie on this battle, but the project is yet to take off. Last year, a few Britain-based filmmakers announced a movie on Bhima Koregaon. But this topic hasn’t generated much enthusiasm.
The Battle of Saragarhi is celebrated by the state and mainstream press, whereas Bhima Koregaon is celebrated only by the Dalits — and the irony is that they are persecuted for doing so.
So, why this difference in treatment? I have two hypotheses to decode this dichotomy.
One, Saragarhi was a battle between Sikh soldiers of the British army and the Pashtuns, who professed Islam. So, it suits our mainstream popular nationalistic narrative. The most extreme form of this narrative is, in Orwellian language, anything Islamic is bad and anyone fighting against the Muslim is a hero.
Second, in Koregaon, the battle of the British was against the Brahmin Peshwas, who had dislodged the Maratha king from the seat of actual power and were controlling the empire. Fighting against them were the Mahars, who were facing the worst kind of human rights violation and oppression during the Peshwa rule. For them, it was a battle to reclaim their dignity and rights. That is the reason B.R. Ambedkar visited the place on 1 January 1927. The narrative of Dalits rising against Brahminical forces is seen as problematic by not only Hindu nationalists but also Left-liberal democrats. It may explain the silencing of Koregaon Bhima in nationalist history books. No one loves the story of Koregaon Bhima as proved by the numerous ongoing court cases against activists.
Dalit assertions like in Bhima Koregaon have spooked the Narendra Modi government. And it won’t be hailed by mainstream cinema or historical texts anytime soon, unlike the Battle of Saragarhi.
The author is a senior journalist.
Courtesy: The Print
Note: This news piece was originally published in theprint.in and use purely for non-profit/non-commercial purposes exclusively for Human Rights objectives.