– By Tanvangi
The battle of Bhima Koregaon is one of the last of the battles that were fought during what is popularly known as the Third AngloMaratha War. Although technically a stalemate with the scales tilting in the Maratha faction’s favour ever so slightly, this battle would have been a mere footnote in the long history of the Marathas if it had not been for the caste angle that sprung up a few decades later.
Now the Bhima Koregaon battle is being touted as the battle between the lower caste and the upper caste Peshwa and his army. Many people claim that this battle was a brave attempt on the part of the lower caste people to oppose and fight the tyranny of the Brahmanical oppression to which they were subjected under the Peshwa. This claim is far from true. The battle was a part of the Third Anglo Maratha War which had no caste angle. It was fought between the Marathas, who under the leadership of Peshwa Bajirao II were desperately trying to hold on to their influence in Maharashtra and the neighbouring regions and the British who were hell-bent upon ending the Maratha influence and hence the Maratha confederacy once and for all. The Maratha armies had always been a mixture of various castes. They even had Europeans fighting for them until the Second Anglo Maratha War. It was the terrible betrayal by the Europeans and the subsequent defeat in the war that led to the absence of the Europeans in the Maratha armies. The Maratha army that fought at Bhima Koregaon mostly comprised of Arab mercenaries, Gosavis and the Marathas. The British army had both natives and Europeans. So, making this battle into a clash between lower caste and upper caste is foolish. There is ample evidence that the Maratha army under the Peshwa employed people from various castes. The lead up to the Bhima Koregaon battle is thus. After the intrusive treaty of Vasai and the Second Anglo Maratha war that followed it, the Maratha power was shaky. The Second Anglo Maratha War had considerably reduced the powers of Marath chiefs and crippled the Peshwa’s hold over the administration. All the outward show of cordiality was abandoned when Gangadhar Shastri, who was acting as an envoy of the Gaiekwads on British insistence and had come to Poona to settle some official matters was murdered and the blame was put on Trimbakji who was a close confidant and an advisor to Peshwa Bajirao II. Triambakji surrendered to the British and was unceremoniously sent to the Thana fort’s prison. No trial was conducted and no proof of his guilt was ever produced. Technically speaking the Peshwa had the rights to administer the required punishment to Trimbakji had his guilt been proven. But neither was his guilt ever proven nor did the Peshwa get to have any say in the matters pertaining to Trimbakji’s punishment. After having been humiliated so thoroughly by the British, Peshwa Bajirao II dropped all pretence of cordiality and began preparations for the clash with the British that seem inevitable now. The British were also not unaware of his movements and were preparing a counter to all his moves.
Matters came to head in November 1817. The Battle of Khadki ended with a victory for the Marathas, although barely. The battle at Yerwada ended in a victory for the British and when it became amply clear that the battle was lost, Bapu Gokhale, one of the Maratha chiefs entreated the Peshwa to leave the camp at the soonest. So, after the battle of Yerwada, Peshwa Bajirao II left Poona with valuables and guns and turned towards Satara and Poona fell to the British. The general populace of Poona watched on helplessly as the Union Jack was unfurled on the Shaniwar Wada which had until then been the symbol of Maratha pride and glory. Next few weeks went in General Smith and Elphistone pursuing the Peshwa while the Maratha troops under various chiefs harassed and frustrated the British army by cutting off food and water supply. Many minor skirmishes began to beak out. The Peshwa, with the help of Bhills and Ramoshis (tribals), had managed to block off various roads quite successfully. On his instructions, these tribals harassed the British troops and looted them whenever possible. At the onset of this pursuit, Elphistone had expected that the Peshwa would seek refuge at one of his strongholds and the war would end after a short siege. These hopes were dashed and the prolonged warfare was making Elphistone anxious. He recognised the need to cut this war short lest the other chiefs who were sitting on fence for all this time decided to join the Peshwa’s cause. Post the battle at Yerwada, the Peshwa avoided a direct conflict with the British. Instead, he arranged for the pursuing British troops to be harassed. In between the Yerwada battle and the Bhima Koregaon battle, the Peshwa was joined by various southern jahgirdars. Appa Desai joined him with his troops consisting of 1000 Arabs and 200 cavalry. Naropant Apte joined him with 3000 horse. At Nashik, he was joined by a party of Bhills, Ramoshis and Arabs. On the morning of 1st January 1818, both armies hastened to occupy advantageous positions in the village. Although the British managed to grab a fairly advantageous position for their guns, their guns were still vulnerable to the enemy fire. Most advantageous positions were occupied by the Marathas.
Dr Mrs S G Vaidya in her book Peshwas Bajirao II and the downfall of the Maratha Power describes the battle thus, “A terrible hand to hand fight ensued. The Marathas, who had been marching too fast to carry any artillery with them, could bring up only two guns in the actions. But the Maratha army, numbering about 3000, especially the Arabs and infantry fought with great valour and courage…”
The Gazetteer of Bombay describes the battle in these words. “Every foot was disputed, several streets and houses were taken and retaken, but more than half the European officers being wounded, the Arabs were themselves masters of a small temple, where three of the officers were lying wounded. Assistant surgeon Winget, one of their number, got up, and went out, but was immediately stabbed by Arabs and his body mangled. Lieutenant Swanston, who had two severe wounds, advised his remaining companions to suffer the Arabs rifle them, which they did but without further violence. In the meantime, a party of the battalion under Lieutenant Jones and Assistant Surgeon Wyllie came to the rescue, retook the temple and carried their companions to a place of greater safety. Thirst drove the besieged nearly frantic and some of the gunners, all of whom fought with glorious bravery, thinking resistance hopeless, begged for a surrender.” Blacker’s Memoirs also mention that the British troops, weary due to their long march, terrible heat and lack of food and water wanted to surrender. Such was the ferocity of the Maratha attack. Although things turned unfavourable for the Marathas as the day passed, Blacker mentions that “This exhortation had the desired effect, and the enemy began to doubt the success of further attacks. They, however, maintained their original position in the village till nine P.M. …” Blacker also explicitly mentions that the whole of the Peshwa’s army was not present at Koregaon. Only his infantry was present which mounted such a fierce attack on the British troops. The battle did not end decisively.
In fact, Peshwas Bajirao II and the downfall of the Maratha Power mentions that a small party of the Peshwa’s troops under Naropant Apte came up to Wagholi and with that, the English made preparations to evacuate the capital. Now, this certainly doesn’t seem like the behaviour of an army that has just had had a decisive victory. Does this seem like a reaction that a defeated army might give? I leave that up to the readers to decide. Elphistone, in his journal, wrote that “Peshwa had gained a small victory at Koregaon.”
Now, even if we were to reject this particular entry, from the available evidence it can be concluded that the battle ended at a stalemate at the most. It was certainly not a decisive victory for the British as they later claimed. What’s more, this battle and the entire Anglo Maratha war was not a struggle between upper caste Peshwas and the lower caste. It was between the Maratha confederacy and the British. And with the British victory in the Anglo Maratha war, the Maratha rule ended and most of India came under the British rule.