x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Highlighting the heroes of India's freedom fight

From robbers feeding the poor to revolutionaries, a tour in Pune details the prominent role in achieving independence from Britain.

Participants of the bicycle tour visit the statue of Umaji Naik, one of the freedom fighters who fought against British occupation.
Participants of the bicycle tour visit the statue of Umaji Naik, one of the freedom fighters who fought against British occupation.

NEW DELHI // A secret radio station that spread the word to revolutionaries and a "Robin Hood" who stole from the British to help poor farmers are just some of the stories of India's freedom struggle that activists in one city hope to keep fresh 66 years after independence.

Between 1875 and 1910, the city of Pune in Maharashtra state was a hotbed of agitation against the British.

Prajakta Panshikar, an anthropologist, has now helped put together a tour showcasing the city's role in achieving India's independence on August 15, 1947.

"Pune was an important intellectual seat for ideas about freedom," Ms Panshikar said. "The freedom struggle contributions from here are very much alive and we just wanted to give it a proper programme."

The tour, which launched on Wednesday, visits 16 spots to tell the stories of 17 revolutionaries from the city.

The first is a dispensary, a two-storey building that belonged to Bhau Rangari, an Ayurvedic doctor and revolutionary in the 1800s.

Political activists met in secret chambers hidden behind doors disguised as medicine cabinets, said Srikrishna Bhave, a historian and secretary of the Bharat Itihas Sanshodhak Mandal, an institute for historical research.

The clandestine meetings covered a range of topics, from looting British businesses to weapons smuggling.

These were common ideas "at that time, but people were not allowed to discuss such things in public because the British banned public meetings", Mr Bhave said.

The building that once housed a secret radio station no longer exists but the walls of the residential building that replaced it - another stop on the tour - are plastered with newspaper articles from the 1960s about the history of the site.

The station was started in the 1940s by Aruna Asaf Ali, one of India's most prominent female independence activists at the time who was jailed several times for protesting against the British. Mrs Ali ran several newspapers and magazines that published the works of Indian literary minds supporting the independence movement.

The radio station was set up to transmit information about clandestine gatherings discussing ways to disrupt British rule such as organising protests or planning attacks, Ms Panshikar said.

Although India's freedom struggle is widely known for Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent resistance, Pune was one of the hotbeds for those who advocated a different approach.

According to Mr Bhave, Pune produced one of India's earliest militant revolutionaries, Vasudev Balwant Phadke. Phadke worked in the British military's accounts department but rebelled in 1879 over the plight of farmers, who were forced to grow cash crops such as indigo instead of food. He raided British businesses to fund an army he created.

"He was like Robin Hood of that time," Mr Bhave said. "The British ignored him when he would go out and talk to people in villages, but soon he became a nuisance for them."

In 1881 Phadke was jailed in Aden, Yemen, which was under the British administration at that time. He died four years later after a prolonged hunger strike against his imprisonment.

"There are things that are studied in history books, but what most people don't know is how the freedom fighters' lives were shaped by this city," Ms Panshikar said. "This [tour] goes back to a period that gave the country the best political ideas."

One such idea was women's emancipation, she said.

The tour, which snakes through some of the oldest parts of Pune, passes one of the first schools for girls set up by Jyotibai Phule, an engineer, social activist and revolutionary, and his wife, Savitri. Called Bhidewada, it was started in 1848 with 10 students in a room on the second floor of their house, at a time when educating women in India was unheard of, Ms Panshikar said.

Not all the tour sites are so obscure. The Aga Khan palace, where Mahatma Gandhi was placed under house arrest several times between 1942 and 1944 and where his wife Kasturba died in 1944, is one of the landmarks.

"You see it in the film Gandhi but if you go, there is nothing there to connect you with the place's history of how it contributed to the struggle," Ms Panishkar said. "We intend to change that."

Mohan Shethe, a high-school history teacher who led Wednesday's tour, said the best part of the job was teaching people about the lesser known figures who fought against the British.

At a tour stop at the memorial to Bhaskar Karnik, Mr Shethe recounted how the British weapons factory employee smuggled out the explosives used in 1942 to bomb an English-language cinema in Pune. The blast killed four Britons.

"When he was captured he swallowed a cyanide capsule," Mr Shethe said, "because he was afraid about betraying his friends if interrogated by the British."

A group of about 20 people on bicycles and motorbikes took part in the inaugural tour which costs 50 rupees (Dh3) for students and 150 rupees for everyone else.

Maithali Sane, 26, a postgraduate student studying public administration, said she learnt of the tour after a friend saw it advertised on Facebook.

"My main motivation was to get to know the legacy of the city," she said.

"They showed us some beautiful places that many people don't know about."

The 14-kilometre, three-hour journey has been organised by a non-profit heritage conversation group called Janwani - "people's voice" in the local Marathi language - and will be held twice a month.

 

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae