The judicial commission inquiring into the events leading up to the caste violence in Maharashtra’s Bhima Koregaon village on January 1 shifted its focus to the contested history underlying the events as it began its first round of hearings in Pune on Wednesday.

“We have called witnesses who can inform us of the history of the event at Pune,” said an official associated with the commission.

Every New Year’s day, Dalits gather in large numbers in Bhima Koregaon, 30 km from Pune, to commemorate the 1818 Battle of Koregaon, in which a small group of Mahar soldiers fighting under the British is said to have defeated the numerically superior Brahmin Peshwas, who were then ruling a large part of the Maratha Empire and were notorious for enforcing untouchability. While the Third Anglo-Maratha war, of which the Battle of Koregaon was a part, helped establish British rule in large parts of western India, for Dalits, the battle is crucial to their struggle against untouchability.

The first day of this year marked the 200th anniversary of the battle. As a result, more people than ever before streamed into the village and gathered at the victory pillar to pay their respects to the Mahar soldiers.

At the same time, a parallel conflagration was on in the neighbouring village of Vadhu – home to the samadhi of Sambhaji Maharaj – where tensions over a contested history of which caste group conducted the murdered Maratha ruler’s last rites had been building up for weeks before the historical event.

The celebrations at Bhima Koregaon were marred by clashes between Dalits and Marathas in which one person was killed and several injured. But the story has since snowballed with the Pune Police arresting five social activists in June and putting another five under house arrest in August. The police have linked the 10 to an Elgar Parishad or public meeting on December 31 where they say provocative speeches were made that fuelled the caste clashes a day later. More importantly, the police have accused the activists of using the Elgar Parishad to further a Maoist conspiracy, including a purported plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Versions of history

On Wednesday, freelance journalist Chandrakant Patil, who has been researching the role of the Maratha Light Infantry in the second World War, deposed before the commission. Patil said that after hearing and reading several media reports about the history of both Vadhu and Bhima Koregaon, he grew interested in both events.

“As there was a reference of the Mahar regiment being in the Battle of Koregaon, I decided to take up this issue for research,” Patil said. He added that the history of the pillar went beyond what has been discussed in the media and that the history “had a background which goes back as far as 1795”.

Patil submitted historical documents from the Mumbai and Pune state archives extensively detailing the political history of the Maratha Empire, from the time of Sambhaji Maharaj’s murder in 1689 on the orders of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, to the rule of the Brahmin Peshwa ministers, to their final disintegration and intrigues with the British in the years leading up to 1818 and the definitive collapse of Peshwa rule.

Crucially, in his deposition, which went on for the entire day of the hearing, Patil did not mention the role of Mahars in the British forces that clashed with the Peshwas even as he emphasised that the Peshwa forces were smaller and less trained than recent stories allow. He noted that this was only one part of the Third Anglo-Maratha War and that Peshwa Bajirao II had surrendered to the British only in June 1818. This is likely to be a subject of cross-examination when the hearing resumes on Thursday.

Patil touched on other contentious subjects, implying that there is no historical record to prove that Govind Gaikwad, a Mahar, conducted the last rites of Sambhaji, as the story goes, and that the British might have forbidden religious ceremonies at the site of the memorial pillar at Bhima Koregaon.

Long way to go

The judicial commission of inquiry, comprising retired Kolkata High Court chief justice JN Patel and former Maharashtra chief secretary Sumit Mullick, was set up in February to investigate the January 1 violence. It has received more than 490 affidavits, mostly from Mumbai and Pune.

The commission began its hearings in Mumbai on September 5. In seven days spread across the month, only three of the 12 witnesses it had summoned deposed before it. In Pune, the commission has summoned 17 witnesses over four days. They include the descendants of the individuals whose communities claim to have conducted the last rites of Sambhaji, elected officials and government employees of the two villages, and witnesses to the violence.

The commission will hear out the individual witnesses first and then examine the state officials. It is likely to receive an extension from the Maharashtra government to continue its work beyond October 8, the deadline for the commission to submit its report.