On Thursday, the second day of the Bhima Koregaon Commission of Inquiry’s hearings in Pune, the lawyer for Milind Ekbote – a Hindutva leader accused of instigating violence against Dalits in the villages of Vadhu and Bhima Koregaon on January 1 – suggested that the government consider preventive arrests to ensure there is no violence during the commemoration of historical events in coming years.

Dalits and Marathas had clashed violently in Bhima Koregaon during a celebration of a 200-year-old military battle by the former. The violence in neighbouring Vadhu was over a contested piece of history relating to the last rights of the Maratha ruler Sambhaji Maharaj.

Appearing for Ekbote, Niteen Pradhan, in his cross-examination of witness Chandrakant Patil, said there were four steps the government could take to avert violence: return control of the land on which the Bhima Koregaon memorial pillar is located to the Army; add the history of “communally controversial and sensitive issues” to school curriculum; take effective administrative steps such as intelligence gathering to nip public agitations and violence in the bud; and on the basis of such intelligence, take preventive action in discussion with stakeholders and use Section 151 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which pertains to preventive arrests, to crack down on miscreants.

On Wednesday, Patil, a freelance journalist with an interest in historical research, had presented a large dossier of archival documents to the commission. He submitted that the history of the 1818 Battle of Koregaon was misunderstood and that the cause of the violence this year was “ignorance”.

According to the terms of reference of the judicial commission comprising retired judge JN Patel and former Maharashtra chief secretary Sumit Mullick, its final report will include short- and long-term suggestions to the district administration and police to prevent such incidents of violence.

On Pradhan’s first suggestion, Patil said the state ought to take care of all historical monuments and medals that are a matter of pride for Army regiments. On the second, Patil agreed that school students should be taught such history so that they do not become “victims of distorted historical facts”. He declined to comment on the remaining suggestions, saying these were the responsibility of the state.

Contested history

The British fought the Peshwa forces in the Battle of Koregaon on January 1, 1818. This fight was part of the Third Anglo-Maratha War, following which the British established control over much of western India. In 1822, the British erected a memorial pillar at the site of the battle to commemorate a defence by around 800 of its soldiers – several of them Mahars – against 25,000-odd Peshwa troops. It is commonly held that the Mahars joined the British troops to fight the untouchability practised under the Brahminical Peshwa rule.

After BR Ambedkar visited the memorial pillar in 1927, people – a large number of them, Dalits – started travelling to Bhima Koregaon to commemorate the battle every New Year’s day. This number has swelled to several lakhs in the last 15 years or so.

In the week leading up to the bicentennial commemoration of the Battle of Koregaon on January 1 this year, violence broke out 4 km away in Vadhu, where tensions had been building over a contested but unrelated piece of history. Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj, the son of Shivaji Maharaj, was murdered on the orders of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1689. His remains were scattered in the Bhima river and washed up in Vadhu, where his samadhi now lies. The contested history pertains to whether it was the Marathas or the Mahars who conducted the king’s last rites in defiance of imperial orders.

According to the Pune rural police’s case against him, Ekbote is accused of inciting violence in Vadhu and Bhima Koregaon through inflammatory messages about the Dalit version of events. In addition, the Pune city police have arrested 10 activists from across the country in the past four months for allegedly being part of a Maoist plot to instigate Dalit-led violence at the celebrations on January 1.

Social media posts show plans for violence had been circulating for at least two weeks before the event. These posts included calls to ensure the commemoration of the battle became a “Kala Divas” or Black Day, as well as to remind Mahars and other Dalits of their “aukaat” or status to discourage them from celebrating a military victory.

Patil’s testimony touched mostly on the battle’s military history and the political intrigues leading to it. He noted on Wednesday that a group of only around 7,000 Arabs fighting on behalf of the Peshwa had engaged the British, while the rest of the Peshwa forces had stood back and then retreated from the battleground. He did not touch on the caste or religious composition of the British troops.

In his cross-examination, Ekbote’s lawyer Niteen Pradhan noted that there was no mention of caste in the three battalions that made up the British forces, or on the memorial pillar, which records the names of those wounded and injured. However, several names inscribed on the pillar end in “Nak”, a signifier for people of the Mahar caste. Patil also made no reference to oral histories that oppose these records and might throw light on the social relations of that time.

Agreeing with Pradhan, Patil said British records showed that the Peshwa armies were made up of foot soldiers of the Mang and Ramoshi castes.

Appearing for another witness, Tukaram Gaware, who deposed before the commission in Mumbai in September, advocate Sandeep Dongre asked that the commission record its proceedings in Marathi and not English, as this could lead to a loss of nuance. But the commission rejected his application.

The first round of the Pune hearings will conclude on Saturday.