Many of us might have heard or read that the 1857 revolution was the first uprising of Indians against the tyrannical rule of the British. But that is not true. The first spark of the rising discontent was ignited by Adhyakrantiveer Umaji Naik. That tiny flare was to conflagrate into a searing fire for next 14 years.

Umaji Naik was born on 7th Sep 1791 in a Ramoshi- Berad family in a village called Bhiwadi, which nestles in the foothills of fort Purandar. (Wikipedia: The Ramoshi (alternately Berad) is an Indian community found largely in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh ,Tamil Nadu ,Madhya Pradesh, and Karnataka, and they are historically associated with great empires, important historical conflicts and agriculture. They are also described as the Bedar.)

Umaji’s parents were Laxmibai and Dadaji Khomane. However, his family was respectfully known as Naik (a leader), as his family was traditionally responsible for protection of fort Purandar. Umaji was a bright and intelligent child. He was tall and well built. In his formative years he was trained by his father into all the contemporary martial arts. He soon became adept in using weaponry like swords, lances, bow and arrow. He also grew up into traditional profession of his community; that is being connected to the community and gathering intelligence inputs for the rulers. Ramoshi community usually helped the rulers to keep their fingers on the pulse of society as well as hostile activities.

By this time the British had started consolidating their empire in India. They started acquiring parts of the then Maratha Empire. Soon they captured Pune, which was the nerve centre of the Maratha Empire. In 1803 they appointed Bajirav II as their representative. After that, in order to dismantle the network of local resistance, they started appointing only those people that they trusted, to the positions of responsibility. Accordingly, they took away the responsibility of protection of the Purandar fort from the Ramoshi clan. They also resorted to exploitation of local people and worked towards suppression of the voices of dissent. Gradually, the principles of good governance started being violated.

Umaji Naik was extremely disturbed with these developments. Finally, he decided to give a clarion call for self-rule. He had Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj as his ideal. He made a resolution that he would never allow foreigners to rule the land of his forefathers. He, along with his associates Vithuji Naik, Krushna Naik and Bapu Solaskar took the oath in the holy temple of Khandoba situated in the Jejuri town of Maharashtra, to fight for freedom. Thus he became the first freedom fighter in the history of the British rule in India. He started helping the poor and downtrodden by robbing rich people, both the British and locals. Any woman being harassed, just had to appeal to him for help and he spared no efforts in seeking justice for her and a punishment for the offender.

Because of widening sphere of his activity, he was sentenced to 1 year of imprisonment. Umaji Naik used this period to learn reading and writing. After release from the prison, Umaji took his fight to the next level. Since Umaji Naik was fighting for his people and not out of any selfish motives, many people started joining his movement. While Umaji’s popularity grew, many British officers were trying their best to recapture him. But Umaji managed to thwart all these attempts.

Finally, Captain Alexander Mackintosh was given the task of capturing Umaji Naik. Captain Mackintosh ordered the local district administrator to capture Umaji. The district administrator mobilized his forces. In the fierce battle that ensued, Umaji defeated the British troops. Umaji beheaded five soldiers and sent back their severed heads to the British. There was fear and consternation in the British camp. Umaji’s fighters engaged in guerilla warfare, safe in the hilly area that they knew so well.

In 1824 Umaji raided the British treasure in Bhamburda, a suburb of Pune, and used the money to renovate temples and distribute among poor people. In 1827 he asserted that this was not an isolated freedom fight. Many such sparks of revolutions will be ignited from Satpuda to Sahyadri. On 21 December 1830, he defeated yet another British army unit led by British officer Boyd. The skirmish happened near Mandharadevi hill, which is a famous religious space in the Sahyadri mountains.

Umaji and his fighters used sling shots and guns to drive away the British unit. On 18 February 1831 he announced a total revolution, appealing people of all India to quit government jobs, and launch mass protests and generally induce a situation of anarchy. He urged people to raid the treasuries, avoid paying any kind of taxes, to bring an end to the foreign rule. He believed that the British rule is going to be a short lived. He also warned the people, that those who are working for the British and are helping the current government will be severely dealt with when self-rule is established.

Umaji’s activities had reached such a level; the British could no longer ignore them. They felt that left unchecked, Umaji’s movement will become a mass movement. They declared huge bounties on Umaji’s capture. Kaloji Naik, who had been punished by Umaji Naik earlier, for abducting and abusing a woman, decided to take his revenge by joining hands with the British. The lure of Ten thousand Rupees and four Hundred bighas of land started a spate of betrayal in the Umaji Naik’s ranks. Umaji Naik’s trusted aide Nana Chavan also defected. Based on the information of the traitors, many of Umaji’s freedom fighters were arrested. Umaji Naik started facing financial difficulties.

The cross web of betrayals had to have an inevitable end. On 15th December, 1831 Umaji was arrested in Utroli village in Bhor district near Pune, by Captain Mackintosh. He was interrogated by the British very rigorously, but they could not get any useful information from Umaji Naik. The British were so infuriated, that they decided to end Umaji’s mass movement. Umaji was imprisoned in a dark dank room for a month, while Captain Mackintosh interrogated him. He jotted whatever meagre information he could torture out of Umaji. In due course Umaji was sentenced to death by hanging, by Judge James Tailor.

On 3rd February 1832, Umaji Naik was hanged to death in Pune. He willingly gave his life for the freedom of his country. He was only 41 when he died for his country.

To make an example of Umaji Naik and instill terror and fear in the minds of other freedom fighters, that fearless fighter was left hanging for three days after his death. But they could never extinguish the fire lit by Umaji Naik. This inspiring story of Umaji Naik is what has inscribed his name in our collective psyche as a first and foremost freedom fighter. Even the British officers respected his valour. A British officer Robert wrote to East India Company in 1820: “Umaji’s Ramoshi clan is up in arms against us. They are actively working for an alternate political dispensation. People are supporting their cause. Who knows, he might be another Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj”. Captain Mackintosh, who arrested Umaji Naik said: “Shivaji Maharaj was Umaji Naik’s idol. If he was not hanged, he would have become another Shivaji”.

We collectively bow our heads to this first and foremost freedom fighter Umaji Naik!!

By Sunil Jadhav

(The author is associated with Social Studies Foundation, Pune. The views expressed are personal)