The third round of hearings of the judicial commission inquiring into the events leading up to the caste violence in Maharashtra’s Bhima Koregaon village and its surrounding areas on January 1 concluded on Saturday in Pune. The commission was set up by the state government in February.

The caste violence at Bhima Koregaon village, which lies 30 km from Pune, broke out on the 200th anniversary of a battle in which a small group of Mahar soldiers, fighting under the British, defeated the numerically superior Brahmin Peshwas, who were notorious for enforcing untouchability. Mahars and other Dalits consider this battle to be a significant step in their ongoing struggle against caste-based oppression, and every New Year’s day, people gather in large numbers to commemorate this victory.

Matter of a memorial

The inquiry commission, chaired by Justice (retired) JN Patel and member Sumit Mullick, has finished deposing four witnesses since its first round of hearings began on September 5 in Mumbai. In Pune, where the deposition of one witness was completed and three have begun, the focus has been on establishing contested versions of history.

The commission examined freelance journalist and history enthusiast Chandrakant Patil for two days and then shifted its focus to the events at Vadhu, a village around 4 km away from Bhima Koregaon, where there was a trigger for the larger violence that unfurled on January 1.

Vadhu is the site of the resting place of Sambhaji Maharaj, who succeeded his father Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj as the ruler of the Maratha empire. Both Marathas and Mahars say that members of their communities conducted his last rites after his brutal murder on the orders of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1689.

On Saturday, Prahlad Gaikwad, a resident of Vadhu, appeared before the commission. He is a 10th generation descendant of Govind Gopal Gaikwad, a member of the Mahar community who is said to have conducted the last rites of Sambhaji Maharaj. A memorial to Govind Gaikwad lies in Vadhu, and many people who visit Bhima Koregaon also pay their respects here. This memorial was vandalised on December 29, days before violence broke out at Bhima Koregaon. A dispute over this memorial and a flex banner put up at the village about Govind Gaikwad fuelled much of the January 1 violence.

Contestation of history

On Saturday, the contestation of history continued at the hearings, with Prahlad Gaikwad claiming that Rekha Shivale, the sarpanch of Vadhu, had misused an affidavit he had submitted to the gram panchayat in May to claim that there was no memorial to Govind Gaikwad built on his land.

According to Prahlad Gaikwad, he had submitted a request to the gram panchayat in May to add his name to the village’s land records. The former deputy sarpanch Santosh Shivale asked him to submit an affidavit declaring that his ancestral home had been damaged in a flood in 1997. Gaikwad claims that his affidavit was altered to state that there were no encroachments on his land, which implies there was no memorial to Govind Gaikwad there either. Gaikwad said that this affidavit was then submitted without his consent to the commission as an appendix to Rekha Shivale’s affidavit claiming that there was no memorial built on his land.

Members of the gram panchayat and of the Shivale clan denied this charge in interviews to the Pune Mirror, saying that Prahlad Gaikwad was under political pressure to change his statement.

Other contestations

The text of a banner at the village about the history of Govind Gaikwad was also a significant subject on Friday’s hearing, when Sharad Dabhade, a resident of Vadhu and one of those arrested on December 29 for allegedly tearing down the banner, testified before the commission. He has been charged under sections of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and is currently out on bail.

In his testimony, Dabhade, who lives behind a school adjoining the memorial, said he saw the board being put up on the evening of December 28, but did not stop to look at it. On December 29, he says he saw a crowd of around 1,000 people gathered at the site and that the poster was torn down when he got there. Around 20 people in that crowd, he said, belonged to the extended Gaikwad family. He claims to have left shortly after for his work as a sub-registrar in a nearby village.

According to Dabhade, he read the board only after it was torn down, and that once he read it, he found the information to be false. The story he had been told since childhood, he claimed, was that two Maratha individuals, Bapu Buva and his wife Padmavati, whose busts are displayed on the memorial, had conducted the last rites of the deposed king.

Dabhade said that the memorial of Govind Gaikwad was erected only around three years ago, which was the first time he heard of this dispute.

However, during his cross-examination by lawyers appearing for victims and eyewitnesses of the violence on January 1, Dabhade admitted that he has little knowledge of all events in the village. Though Dabhade’s family has lived in the same house for nearly three generations, he claimed to be unaware not only that Dalit residents every year put up posters in honour of the slain king on his birth anniversary, but also that any Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations were held at all in the village.

Other witnesses examined

The commission also recorded the chief testimony of two other witnesses from Vadhu, but cross-examination has been held until the next session in Pune.

“In Pune, we are taking ground facts in the order they happened,” said Ashish Satpute, advocate for the commission. “We will first establish the history and factual position of the village and in the next list will call people from Koregaon Bhima.” Koregaon Bhima is the name by which the village is referred to in the census, though it is popularly known as Bhima Koregaon.

One of the 17 witnesses called in Pune is Sagar Gavhane, a clerk at the village of Koregaon Bhima, a copy of whose affidavit has accessed. While the commission ran out of time before he could be called to testify, Gavhane’s affidavit states that he was asked to type a false call for a bandh on January 1 at Bhima Koregaon by the former deputy sarpanch of the village, Ganesh Phadtare, despite no meeting of the gram panchayat being convened. This notice was submitted to the police on December 31. Phadtare was arrested from Goa in January for his alleged role in inciting violence at Vadhu and Bhima Koregaon.

The hearings will continue in Mumbai from October 22.