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Raghoji Bhangare: The Tribal Freedom Fighter Forgotten By History

Translated from Marathi by Adv. Bodhi Ramteke

Many tribal freedom fighters have given great contributions to strengthening India’s freedom struggle. Raghoji Bhangare from the Mahadeo Koli tribal community is among them. The Mahadev Koli community has a great history of rebellion against the British and the Peshwas, history testifies that these were the people who risked their lives for the protection of King Shivaji at Patta fort and captured the last Peshwa, the second Bajirao, on the hill of Sindola.

Raghoji Bhangare was born in the village Devgaon in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra which is situated in the Sahyadri Ranges. Following in the footsteps of his father Ramji Bhangre and sister Rukmini Khade, Raghoji fought bravely against the exploitative British colonial system and the lenders (Savkars) who were acting arbitrarily while recovering the debt, grabbing lands in return for loans, and exploiting the tribals and the farmers.

His father Ramji was working as a Subhedar in the British government. But after the defeat of the Maratha army by the British in 1818, they removed all traditional rights of the Mahadeo Koli Community which created dissatisfaction against the British. There was a robbery in Konkan, which was blamed on Raghoji's father. Raghoji's family was severely harassed by the police. Amrutrao Kulkarni, a police officer from Rajur province, met and talked to the two about stopping the harassment. But angry Raghoji cut off his head and put it in a corner. No one dared to stop Raghoji. Under the leadership of Raghoji Bhangre and Bapu Bhangre, the torch of revolution began to shine brighter.

In 1828 as the moneylenders started grabbing lands in exchange for loans. Raghoji intensified the revolt against the moneylenders and the British. Gangs of rebels were formed in Nagar, Pune, Nashik, and Thane against British rule.

In 1930, Rama Kirwa a partner of Raghoji Bhangre in this revolution that ravaged the British territory was arrested at Ahmednagar (MH). After his execution in 1830, the Britishers offered Raghoji Bhangare a position in their government to stop him from getting involved in the rebellion or forming a new gang. He accepted the offer however, the Britishers continued the exploitation. Hence, he decided to quit his job and and thus began this revolutionary rebellion.

Statue of Raghoji Bhangare (Source - Wikipedia)

The uprising started in North Pune and Nagar districts under the leadership of Raghoji Bhangre and Bapu Bhangre. Raghoji Bhangare was the hero of Mahadev Koli people of Akole Nera. In 1838, he had started a revolt in the vicinity of Ratangad and Sangar forts. Capt. Mackintosh collected information about all the difficult gorges, ghats, valleys, roads, and forests and blocked all the routes on the ghats. Captain Mackintosh revealed all the secrets of the revolutionaries. Even so, the tribal revolutionaries did not give up. In 1838, a revolt broke out in the vicinity of Ratangad fort. But as the British increased their force, they succeeded in blocking the ways of tribal revolutionaries. In response, the tribal revolutionaries looted three British villages. However, due to British intimidation and fear, some people turned back, and Capt. Mackintosh captured some people and imprisoned them. Nevertheless, Raghoji proved to be able to face the British. Britisher announced a prize of five thousand to catch Raghoji.

Raghoji Bhangare's rebellion has a history of three generations. Raghoji's father that is 'Ramji Bhangare was also a revolutionary during the British period. His legacy was carried on by Raghoji, the record of which is still available in the old gazettes of Thane, Pune, Nashik, and Ahmednagar districts. But aristocratic historians have ignored the participation of these tribal heroes in revolutionary struggles.

After the sinking of Peshwa, the British took away the rights of Mahadev Kolis to maintain forts, ghats, and forests in Sahyadri. The fortifications of each fort were removed and the salary was reduced. Mahadev Koli community was extremely dissatisfied with the removal of their traditional rights. In 1828, the British changed the procedure of collecting agricultural revenue due to which the poor tribals started increasing the need for cash, so they started taking loans from moneylenders at exorbitant rates. They were robbing the people by taking fertile lands in return for loans. They were getting orders to confiscate the property by filing lawsuits against the debtors. Irritated by this, the people in the leadership of Raghoji started revolting against the moneylenders and the British. According to the Ahmednagar Gazette, "Raghoji raided Marwadi's house. He lodged a complaint with the police against Raghoji. The police started an investigation and asked Raghoji's mother for his whereabouts." She denied information and so was brutally beaten. As a result, Raghoji fled from Nashik and Nagar districts. He cut off the nose and ears of every Marwadi who happened to pass him by. Due to this fear of Raghoji, the Marwaris in the village fled from their respective villages.

Hardyman's dissertation mentions the October 1843 uprising. On suspicion of having Raghoji's hand in a robbery in Konkan, Police Jamadar Amrutrao Bhat raided Raghoji's house, arrested everyone in the house, and tortured and sexually assaulted everyone to get a confession. This incident angered him greatly and he became determined to fight against it.

At the same time, there was an attempt to revolt against the British to bring Satara’s Chhatrapati Shivaji back to power. It also appears that Raghoji must have had a relationship with him. Antoba Lotekar, who met Marathe, Bhill, Ramoshi, and Mahadev Koli, claimed that Chhatrapati Pratap Singh's trusted colleague Atmaram Vani was an envoy of the Shinde government in Gwalior, had also met Mahadev Koli tribal revolutionaries in Akole taluka. Antoba and some of Raghoji's comrades had met on January 29, 1844 in the forest near the village of Akole in the neighboring taluka. From November 1844 to March 1845, Raghoji's rebellion reached a very high peak. Initially, he went to Konkan and started collecting ransom from lenders. Raghoji used to collect ransom for the purpose of raising money for rebellion, holding the society in check, and teaching a lesson to the persecuting moneylenders. At that time, he sent a letter to the District Collector of Ahmednagar, where he said, "The moneylenders and the British have exploited the poor a lot. The moneylenders have been taught a lesson, but if the government does not do something about it, we will continue to cut the noses of moneylenders”. He also wrote letters to the Governor of Mumbai mentioning that the British raided the homes of the rebel tribesmen, looted and tortured them, imprisoned and tortured their mothers and sisters, and many women who had been detained by the police died in custody. He wanted justice for this, from the governor.

Raghoji had great respect for women in his family and community. He was always on hand to help them. He did not insult or abuse anyone, nor did he tolerate the abuse of anyone in the gang. He believed that he had divine protection and blessings due to his devotion and faith. He always had two silver talismans in a bag with tiger skin around his neck. His intimate talisman, the divine sword, and the strength gathered in his long hair always freed him from the enemy.

Devji Awhad was Raghoji's chief colleague and advisor. Raghoji used to follow his advice. People believed that Raghoji's rebellion was a divine blessing. Due to their pure conduct and devotion, their morale was constantly maintained. Devji was killed in an encounter in 1845. He lost his mentor and spiritual guru. Devji was shot dead by the British while he was sleeping. At that time, along with him, 150 other tribal revolutionaries were killed and some were captured. Raghoji must have been convinced that the blessings of his divine power were gone, so he later started his pilgrimage in the guise of Gosava, at that time he had to go into hiding.

However, the support of the people remained with him, so he decided to go to Pandharpurto to pay obeisance to Vitthal, but at the same time, some of his close people were taken by the Britishers. He was forced not to carry his silver talisman and sword of divine power close to him and remove his long hair so that no one would recognize him. On January 2, 1848, Lieutenant Gail, an English officer, arrested Raghoji at Chandrabhaga River. He surrendered without any objection. Raghoji was chained. There, he was tried for treason before a special judge. Raghoji wanted a Parsi lawyer to take his case, but the lawyer refused, so a one-sided hearing was held without Raghoji's defense. Raghoji was convicted. He was sentenced to death. Raghoji was a true hero, he told the judge "Let me die like a hero with a sword or a gun instead of hanging". The company government did not pay any heed to this and on May 2, 1848, Raghoji Bhangare, the great revolutionary, was hanged in the Central Jail.

The nature of the rebellion and movement of the Mahadev Koli tribe was not limited to looting, stealing, and robbery. The revolt was for social justice. Like Raghoji, Dhawla Bhangre, Balu Pichad, Kalu Sable, Javji Bamble, Govindrao Khade, Ramji Bhangre, Kisna Khade, Rama Kirwa, Raya Thacker, and Rukmini Khade, were other tribal revolutionaries belonging to Akole, Ahmednagar who fought against the exploitation of Britishers. Raghoji did not only fight the war against exploitation but used every democratic means to convey his anger against the Britishers and the lenders. But unfortunately, the Indian education system and the ruling class didn’t portray their brave history hence they are unknown to many.

About the author:- Dr. Sunil Ghanghute (He belongs to Mahadeo Koli Community and working as Assistant Professor at Agasti Arts, Commerce and Dadasahebh Rupvate Science College, Akole – Ahmednagar)


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