It was in 1818, almost 200 years ago, that Pune and the rest of the Peshwa territories came under the control of the East India Company. The British crown eventually took over and the following years until 1947 sculpted what became a large and integral part of our city’s history.
Through the years, the then Poona was an important military establishment for the British, and received much attention from the rule. While they did modernise the city, introducing electric train lines and telegraph communication (for selfish reasons of course), the true legacy of Pune lies in the role it played in India achieving independence. Simply put, Pune was a center of social reform and nationalism that contributed to our freedom.
The Rise of the Press and Bal Gangadhar Tilak
In as early as 1844, Pune saw the rise of Marathi newspapers – pamphlets that spoke about the fight we were fighting against the British. The first leader of the Indian independence movement, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, called Pune home.
He, alongside educationist and thinker Gopal Ganesh Agrarkar, was instrumental in using the availability of printing presses in Pune to start the Marathi newspaper, Kesari, that was the spokespiece for the Indian National Freedom Movement. Incidentally, Tilak and Agrarkar set up several educational institutions in Pune like the Deccan Education Society and Fergusson College.
Bal Gangadhar Tilak is arguably Pune’s greatest icon of the Freedom Movement. A nationalist, teacher, social reformer and lawyer, he was such a formidable force that even the British Colonial authorities referred to him as the Father of the Indian Unrest. Accepted by the people, he became “Lokmanya”, and we all know of Swaraj from our history textbooks. Tilak’s advocacy of Swaraj was one of the most historic moves of the later Indian Independence movement.
“स्वराज्य हा माझा जन्मसिद्ध हक्क आहे आणि तो मी मिळवणारच” (“Swarajya is my birthright and I shall have it!”)
Tilak was also instrumental in several other aspects to the Freedom movement; the glorification and grand public celebration of Ganeshotsav and Shiv Jayanti to build national spirit and unite Brahmins and non-brahmins in a highly casteist India.
He was also responsible for founding the Swadeshi movement that was an economic strategy targeted at removing the British Empire from India. Strategies of the Swadeshi movement involved boycotting British products and the revival of domestic products and production processes.
Pune: A Center of Nationalism
Apart from Tilak’s reforms and movements, several other bodies and persons played a key role in the 19th and 20th century in their contributions to making Pune one of the major centers for nationalism.
Civil society body, Poona Sarvajanik Sabha, was a sociopolitical organisation in British India. It was founded with the aim of working as a mediating body between the Indian government and its people to popularise the peasants’ legal rights and was considered the forerunner of the Indian National Congress, established in 1885.
The Sarvajanik Sabha took active part in relief efforts during the famine of 1875-76. Other civil society bodies that took form during this period were the Arya Mahila Samaj and the Sathyashodhak Samaj, which aimed at liberating the untouchables.
Women of Freedom Movement
The Pune chapter of the Indian Independence movement would hardly be complete without the women who, in a time when being a woman was disadvantage enough, fought their oppression and looked beyond to fighting for a greater cause – the suppression of a whole nation.
Take for instance, Tarabai Shinde; perhaps India’s first feminist and an activist who protested the patriarchy and caste in 19th Century India. She is known for her published work, Stripurush Tulana (“A Comparison Between Women and Men”), originally published in Marathi in 1882. The pamphlet is a critique of upper-caste patriarchy, and is often considered the first modern Indian feminist text. A founding member of the Sathyashodhak Samaj, she was a social reformer in the pre-independence era.
Another stellar example is Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati. An Indian social reformer, a champion for the emancipation of women, and a pioneer in education. She was accorded the titles of Pandita as a Sanskrit scholar and Sarasvati as a scholar after being examined by the faculty of the University of Calcutta. Pandita Ramabai was a social worker, scholar and a champion of women’s rights, freedom and education. Pandita Ramabai participated in the freedom movement and was one of the 10 women delegates of the Congress session of 1889.
Pune’s Testament to the Pre-Independence Era
Be it Yerawada Central Jail, where Mahatma Gandhi was imprisoned several times or Aga Khan Palace where he was under house arrest, Pune has no dearth of landmarks that stand as testament to its history and contribution to the freedom movement.
If you get around Pune a lot you can see popular and not-so-well-known landmarks of our pre-independence history, including the remains of a secret radio station that helped spread word to the revolutionaries, Bhau Rangari’s dispensary, where intellectuals met in secret chambers behind medicine cabinets to discuss British businesses and weapons. Even one of the first schools – called Bhide Wada, started in 1848- set up for girls by Jyotibai Phule and his wife, Savitri.
Whatever said and done, once you scour through the history of Pune, there is no denying that it was the seat of intellectuals who came up with some of the best political ideas for pre-independence India; a magnificent contribution to our past and future.
Happy Independence Day!
Feature Image by Meena Kadri