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Monday, July 23, 2018

The Forgotten Freedom Fighter

Attempts to restore the lost glory of Umaji Naik.

Written by Prajakta Hebbar | New Delhi | Published: April 7, 2013 3:22:47 am

Attempts to restore the lost glory of Umaji Naik.

Amidst the clatter of rickety typewriters and arguments about contracts,leases and wills,few notice the rusted signboard on a peepal tree at the Haveli Tehsil office in Pune. The signboard in Marathi reads,“Umaji Naik was hanged in this Tehsil office on February 3,1832,by the British Government. His dead body was hanged on this peepal tree for three days to strike terror into the hearts of the public.”

The Haveli Tehsil office,located in the old part of the city,suffers from a colonial hangover,apparent in the offices and the adjoining police station built in Georgian style and with a neighbouring 19th century prison evoking the British era. Tucked away from the hullabaloo,inside the office premises,is a modern monument dedicated to Naik,one of the earliest freedom fighters of the country. In an attempt to preserve his story,the Adya Krantiveer Umaji Naik Kshatriya Ramvanshi Sanghatna (AKUNKRS),an NGO dedicated to uplifting the Ramoshi community,has preserved various mementoes — from his weapons to the cell in which he was kept in solitary confinement — of the man who is also known as “the second Shivaji maharaj”.

Freedom fighter and revolutionary leader Umaji Naik (born in 1791) belonged to the Ramoshi community,which was branded a tribe of thieves during the British rule. The tribe,which migrated from Telangana and settled down in Maharashtra during the Maratha period,was entrusted with night patrolling and policing by the Marathas. After the defeat of the Marathas in 1818,the British administration of the Bombay province found it difficult to restore order in the region and was unable to absorb the Ramoshis into the police. Consequently,many unemployed,able-bodied men were left disgruntled and were prepared to train those who wished to overthrow the British government.

From 1825 onwards,under the leadership of Umaji Naik and Bapu Trimbabji Sawant,the Ramoshis rose in revolt and resorted to outlawry. They were so turbulent that the government was forced to pardon many and even granted land and recruited some into the hill police in Maharashtra. Nevertheless,the Ramoshis continued to attack their oppressors,mainly moneylenders and the British. Naik also issued a manifesto directing his men to execute every “angrez European” they came across.

Ashok Jadhav,chairman of AKUNKRS,says,“Naik was caught on December 10,1830 in Pune. The British caught him by devious means and he was kept here in this prison.” Even during the confinement,the revolutionary learned to read. “But the British lost no time in setting him up as a ‘plunderer’ and soon executed him,” says Jadhav.

At the place where Naik was hanged,now rests a bust of him. The weapons that the British had confiscated from him were buried in the same premises. “We found them several years ago and have kept them as reminders of the Indian freedom struggle and Naik’s brave fight,” says Ramchandra Makar,who founded AKUNKRS in the ’70s. However,the prison where Naik and others were kept during their trial has fallen to disrepair and is now being used as a storeroom by the Tehsil office. AKUNKRS is now fighting to convert the entire premises,including the prison area into a monument-cum-museum dedicated to Naik and the history of Ramoshis. But Naik’s vibrant history seems lost both in the smooth granite of the monument as well as behind the neglected 19th century prison doors.

Naik was buried at his hometown of Bhiwadi,in Purandar taluka,Pune,after his execution on February 3,1832. One of his successors Chandrakant Khomne,who is now in his 50s,works on the ancestral farms in the tiny village. He says,“Apart from the birth and death commemorations,no one cares about Umaji Naik,nor the Ramoshis.” Makar adds,“The small shrine dedicated to Naik at Bhiwandi is now used by shepherds to catch a nap on hot summer afternoons.”

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