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History on test at Bhima Koregaon hearing

November 26, 2019 09:23 IST
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At this point commission member Sumit Mullick asked the government counsel: 'Your job is to protect the State. How are these questions on Peshwas relevant?'
Jyoti Punwani reports from the Bhima Koregaon hearing.

IMAGE: Thousands of Dalits protest at Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra on January 1, 2019. Photograph: PTI Photo

The cardinal beliefs of Dalits regarding the historical battle of Bhima Koregaon, fought between the British and the Peshwas were repudiated on Monday, November 25, during the hearings of the judicial inquiry commission set up to inquire into the violence that took place on January 1, 2018 at Bhima Koregaon.

"We don't find any connection between the battle of Bhima Koregaon, the killing of Chhattrapati Sambhaji Maharaj ordered by Aurangzeb, and the avenging of the practice of untouchability by the Mahars," said Justice J N Patel, prefacing the remark with the caveat: "Subject, of course, to our final findings."

Justice Patel heads the two-man commission with Maharashtra Chief Information Commissioner Sumit Mullick being the second member.

More than a hundred years separated the killing of Sambhaji Maharaj and the battle of Bhima Koregaon, added Justice Patel; the first took place on March 11, 1689 and the latter on January 1, 1818.

Researcher Chandrakant Patil was being cross-examined when this remark was made.

He had just been shown a video, a blog and a picture of a flex board, all three propounding the theory that in the battle of Bhima Koregaon, Mahars avenged the humiliation of untouchability that they faced at the hands of the Peshwas.

The video titled 'Chhattrapati Sambhaji Maharaj and 500 brave Mahars', mentioned that these practices of untouchability, including one that forced Mahars to carry a broom and an earthen pot round their necks, had been imposed on them after they sewed up the dismembered parts of the body of Sambhaji Maharaj and cremated him, in defiance of Aurangzeb's orders.

According to the blog written by one Rajesh Khadke on January 14, 2018, the body of Sambhaji Maharaj had been dismembered by Brahmins, in accordance with the tenets laid down by the Manusmriti.

This was because he had violated Manu's laws by learning Sanskrit, composing in it and becoming an expert in the scriptures.

A flex banner was also shown to the witness that presented this version of the battle of Bhima Koregaon.

Patil was asked whether all the three items: The video, the blog and the flex banner, depicted correct historical facts.

He replied that on the basis of his study, some of the facts were not correct.

A number of Dalit witnesses who have deposed before the commission have testified to the above version of the battle of Bhima Koregaon.

These witnesses have told the commission that they make an annual trip on January 1 to the Jai Stambh at village Koregaon to pay homage to the Mahar soldiers who helped the British defeat the Peshwas.

They have also spoken of the belief that the Mahars first offered to fight for the Peshwas on condition that they be freed from the practices of untouchability.

When the Peshwas refused, they chose to fight under the British.

These witnesses have also testified that along with homage to the Jai Stambh, they also pay their homage to the samadhis of Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj and of the man believed to have performed his last rites, Govind Mahar Gaekwad, at village Vadhu not far away from Koregaon.

On January 1, 2018, the 200th anniversary of this battle was being observed, when stones were pelted at the Dalits gathered there.

In the clashes that followed, one person was killed and many properties destroyed.

The Commission was set up to investigate these incidents.

Chandrakant Patil, who made a documentary called The Great Maratha on the role of the Maratha light infantry in World War II, filed an affidavit based on his research on the Battle of Bhima Koregaon, which he decided to study after the violence on January 1, 2018.

Earlier, Patil had stated in his cross-examination that according to his research, the battle of Koregaon was not between Brahmins and Mahars, but between the Peshwas and the British.

He had come across British documents stating that the Peshwas's army also included Mang and Ramoshi foot soldiers, as well as Arabs.

On the British side, the Madras artillery, the Bombay native infantry and the Poona auxiliary horse batallion had participated. He maintained that he had not studied the caste composition of these batallions.

Monday saw the conclusion of Pail's cross-examination, which began more than a year ago.

IMAGE: Chandrakant Patil. Photograph: Jyoti Punwani

Interestingly, the questions asked by both the lawyers who cross-examined him on Monday: Pradip Gawade representing the Vivek Vichar Manch, a think-tank close to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and Shirish Hiray, representing the Maharashtra government, had the same goal: to prove the Dalit version of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon wrong.

Some of their questions were similar.

For instance, Gavade asked: "In your study have you come across facts that showed that 500 Mahars had approached the British to join their army to take revenge on the Peshwas?"

Hiray asked whether Patil had come across any material in his research suggesting that the Mahars had participated in the battle of Koregaon on the basis of "caste spirit".

Gavade: "In your study have you come across facts that show that the battle of Bhima Koregaon was the result of treatment meted out to the Mahars, and the killing of Sambhaji Maharaj?"

Hiray: "In your study have you come across any material to show that the Battle of Bhima Koregaon was fought on the basis that Mahars wanted to be free from Peshwas' practices of untouchability?"

Hiray also asked a series of question about the Peshwas.

"Was the Battle of Koregaon between the British and the Maratha kingdom or between the British and one family, the Peshwas?"

"Will it be correct to say that the Peshwas were the administrative set-up of the Maratha kingdom? Were they independent kings?"

At this point commission member Sumit Mullick asked him: "Your job is to protect the State. How are these questions on Peshwas relevant?"

"The job of the State is also ensure bonding between communities," answered Hiray.

Interestingly, Niteen Pradhan, counsel for Milind Ekbote, chief of the Samasta Hindu Aghadi and one of the two leaders named in the first first information report lodged after the January 1, 2018 violence, has repeatedly asked witnesses whether the Dalit version of the battle of Koregaon is being propagated to 'mislead' society on caste lines.

Significantly, the theme of the Elgar Parishad held in Pune on the eve of the 200nd anniversary of the battle of Bhima Koregaon, was to 'smash the nayi Peshwai' of the Bharatiya Janata Party-RSS.

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