Pune became an important centre for the war against the British Raj, with its various mass movements and social reforms that paved the way for the fight for freedom. The city gave birth to many prominent freedom fighters. In honour of Independence Day, we looked back at the lives of a few Punekars who were a part of India’s freedom struggle.
Vinayak Damodar Savarkar
The great freedom fighter, better known as Swatantryaveer Savarkar, was born in Bhagur, near the city of Nashik. However, a great part of the leader’s grooming took place in the city of Pune, when he enrolled in Fergusson College. Always a fierce patriot and inspired by the new generation of radical politics, he formed a political outfit called Abhinav Bharat. Savarkar organised the first public bonfire of foreign clothes in Pune in 1905, due to which he was expelled from college but allowed to appear for his degree examinations.
He passed the BA examination and would soon shift to London, writing articles and books that inspired the young towards revolutionary means of freedom struggle and organised revolutionary activities. He was arrested on arrival in London on March 13, 1910 and while being shipped to India, Savarkar tried to escape by jumping through the port hole and swimming to the shore. However, by the time he could successfully escape, the alarm was raised and he was recaptured.
Savarkar was brought to Yerawada Central Jail and kept here for a few days until he was sentenced to 50 years of rigorous imprisonment in the infamous Cellular Jail in Andaman. He would spend many years at the Andaman jail and write poems dedicated to the Motherland on the walls of the prison cells using thorns and nails. Many of those great poems are recited in Marathi even today.
Vasudev Balwant Phadke
Phadke was born on November 04, 1845 in Shirdhon village in Panvel taluka. As a child, he preferred learning skills like wrestling and riding over school education and soon dropped out. He eventually moved to Pune and took up a job as a clerk in the military accounts department. He trained as a wrestler under Krantiveer Lahuji Vastad Salve.
Salve also encouraged Phadke to fight for freedom against the British Raj and preached the importance of getting backward castes into the freedom movement. He attended lectures by Mahadeo Ranade and in 1870, Phadke joined a public agitation in the city.
However, the incident that propelled Phadke to start an armed rebellion was the inability to visit his ailing mother due to a delay in getting approval for a leave. His mother soon died of her ailments and Phadke launched protest speeches against the government. He gathered people from the Ramoshi caste along with Kolis, Bhils and Dhangars, intending to build an army of his own. Lacking the funds, he and his band raided Dhamari village in Shirir taluka, in the Pune district. He went on to lead raids in the Shirur and Khed talukas of Pune.
Despite setbacks, Phadke kept raiding and organising attacks on the British in various areas. He recruited 500 people of the Rohila tribe and soon a bounty was offered for Phadke. He was captured on 20 July, 1879 while on his way to Pandharpur and taken to Pune to undergo a trial.
Phadke and his comrades were housed in a district session court jail building near Sangam bridge, which today happens to be the state CID building. In jail, Phadke began a hunger strike and breathed his last on February 17, 1883. Phadke’s life was a source of inspiration to many revolutionaries, and freedom fighter Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel ‘Anand Math’ incorporated several of his acts. Phadke is the founder of the Bhave School in Pune and a founding member of Poona Native Institution, later known as the Maharashtra Education Society, which today has over 51 educational institutes in six districts.
Bal Gangadhar Tilak
Tilak was born on 23rd July 1856 in Ratnagiri but later shifted to Pune for education. Pune would become a huge part of Tilak’s freedom activism and life. He studied in the Deccan College of Pune and acquired a Bachelor of Arts degree with first class in Mathematics. Along with colleagues Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, Mahadev Namjoshi and Vishnushastri Chiplunkar, Tilak founded the Deccan Education Society, which established the New English School and Fergusson College in 1885. Tilak would later teach mathematics at Fergusson and begin mass movements towards independence.
He started a Marathi weekly, Kesari, of which Agarkar acted as editor. To bring all sections of the society together and defy British laws of the time, which banned people from organising large events, Tilak started the celebration of Shiv Jayanti on the birth anniversary of Shivaji Maharaj and organised the first public Ganesh Festival in Pune in 1894.
Tilak joined the Indian National Congress in 1890 and was known for his radical views. He was the first to emphasise ‘Swaraj’ or self-rule as a birthright. He even encouraged the Swadeshi movement and emphasised on boycotting foreign goods. He found support in fellow nationalists like Bipin Chandra Pal and Lala Lajpat Rai. The trio was referred to as ‘Lal-Bal-Pal’ and led the Jahal matavadi or radical faction of the Congress when the party split. Tilak would be soon be imprisoned in Mandalay from 1908 to 1914.
After his release, Tilak had to mellow down due to his health condition, but he continued with his activism against the British Raj and the social reforms to bring various sections of the society together.
In 1896, the city of Pune was suffering from the epidemic of bubonic plague, leading to numerous deaths in the city. To stop the spread of the disease, a special Plague Committee was instituted under WC Rand. According to Gokhale, the British officers who were in charge were ignorant of India’s language, customs and sentiment. Harsh measures were taken to stop the spread of the disease and houses were raided without the presence of a warrant. Reports of women being raped surfaced and Tilak wrote to the Queen about the same.
Enraged due to the incidents, the Chapekar brothers decided to take action. During the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of the coronation of Queen Victoria in Pune in 1897, they selected a spot near Ganeshkhind (today Senapati Bapat Road) and waited for Rand’s carriage to arrive. Damoder Hari shot Rand and was arrested for the murder he committed. He stated the atrocities committed by the officers, which included breaking of sacred idols during searches, demeaning behaviour towards women and more. Later, his brothers Balkrishna Hari and Vasudeo Hari, co-conspirators in the murder, were also found and arrested and all three of them were sentenced to death by hanging. Their story inspired many revolutionaries to take up armed rebellion against the British.
Did You Know?
- Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Bal Gangadhar Tilak have a lot in common. Both were born in Ratnagiri District, were Chitpavan Brahmins, attended Elphinstone College, became professors of mathematics and were important members of the Deccan Education Society as well as active in the Congress.
- Mahatma Jyotirao Phule had a favourable opinion about the British Rule in India and lauded them for introducing the country to modern technology and policies, bringing education to all sections of the society and for taking action against prevalent customs (sati, dowry, child marriage, etc.).
- Savarkar was the first Indian leader to perform a bonfire of foreign clothes. The bonfire was organised in Pune in the year 1905.
- Mohandas [Mahatma] Gandhi was imprisoned in Yerwada Jail and later placed under house arrest at the Aga Khan Palace from 1942 to 1944. His wife Kasturba Gandhi as well as aide Mahadev Desai took their last breaths in the Palace.
Happy Independence Day, Punekars!