The Millions

Unchecked Complacency and Privilege: On Prayaag Akbar’s ‘Leila’

The first day of this year marked an important event for the Dalit community in India. Historically marginalized by the caste system, where a Brahmin is ascribed the status of priest and scholar of religious texts, and the Dalits (formerly called “Untouchable Hindus”) are declared “impure” owing to the economic functions they are to this date often forced to be confined to—the cleaning of human feces, euphemized as “manual scavenging”—members of this community gathered at the village of Koregaon Bhima in Maharashtra to celebrate the bicentenary of a British victory over Peshwa ’s forces. A victory pillar, erected by the British to commemorate its fallen soldiers stands at the site of the battle; inscribed on the pillar are the names of 22 soldiers belonging to the Mahar community, a group that bore the worst brunt of the orthodox Brahmin rule of the Peshwas. While the Mahars had been valued for their military skills for centuries, under the Peshwas they were consigned to the impure category, forced to hang pots around their necks and tie brooms around their waists, to prevent the “purer castes” from coming into contact with their spittle or footprints. In 1818, during the Battle of Koregaon, the Mahar

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