After the 1857 revolt, was effectively crushed by the British, they had become the sovereign masters of India. All the rebellious princely states, were disbanded, while the others ended up as their vassals. It also meant they created a whole educated class, that believed anything Indian was inferior, and it was the Western civilization that was the greatest. Caught between a self-loathing, educated class, indifferent to the plight of her people, and the ordinary masses, who were drained of their spirit, energy, and had become a victim to casteism, superstition, ignorance, India was passing through her darkest phase. However the darkest times often throw up some of the greatest heroes, and one such would emerge during that time.
Vasudev Balwant Phadke, often called as the father of the Indian armed revolt, an inspiration to many a revolutionary. He was an inspiration for Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s landmark novel Anand Math, which incorporated many references from his life. A Chitpavan Brahmin from Konkan, who rallied the lower peasant castes like Dhangars, Kolis, Bhils as well as warrior communities like Ramoshis against British rule. He often attacked rich English businessmen or zamindars, to raise funds for his liberation struggle and at one stage, managed to secure complete control over Pune.
Phadke was born in the coastal Konkan village of Shirdhon, in Raigad district, on November 4, 1845. He showed no interest in regular school education, and preferred to learn wrestling, horse riding. He dropped out from school, and after some time managed to secure a job as a clerk in the military accounts department in Pune. His mentor was Krantiguru Lahuji Salve, an expert wrestler, and Dalit belonging to the Mang community, who taught him sword fighting, dandapatta and rifle shooting. But more than anything, Salve, emphasized the importance of getting the backward communities in the freedom struggle to Phadke.
It was during this time too that Phadke, began to attend lectures by M.G.Ranade, where he came to know of how the British destroyed the Indian economy, and was deeply anguished. He founded the Aikya Vardhini Sabha, a voluntary organization in Pune to educate the youth, and inculcate nationalist feelings. He along with Laxman Indarpukar, and Waman Bhave also formed the Poona Native Institution which became MES, one of the leading institutes now.He later started the Bhave School in Pune, and currently the MES runs around 77 institutes in Maharashtra. An interesting aspect, most of the freedom fighters in Maharashtra invested a lot in education, be it Tilak( Fergusson) or Phadke.
When the Gaekwad ruler of Baroda was deposed by the British in 1875, Phadke launched the protest against the Govt, and toured the Deccan, then reeling under a severe famine. However with most of the upper castes not supporting him, he felt only a mass based armed revolt, involving the smaller peasant communities, could strike against the British rule. The more backward peasant communities like Dhangars, Kolis, Bhils rallied around Phadke, while he took in the Ramoshis, who had a long history of being the footsoldiers in the Maratha wars.
These men were taught shooting, horse riding and fencing, and soon Phadke created an armed insurgent group of 300, that aimed to liberate India. In need of funds, he made his first raid on a small village near Shirur on a local businessman Balchand Sankla, in whose home, the income tax collected by the British was kept. Phadke attacked Sankla’s home, took the money for the benefit of the villagers, but was branded as a dacoit. Now on the run, he traveled from village to village, sheltered often by his followers most of whom were the poor peasants.
His followers were mainly small farmers, from the backward communities, who were worst hit by the British rule. The villagers of Nanagaon, offered him refuge in the forest nearby, from where he made his regular raids now.Soon he began to conduct many more such raids, primarily around Pune and Shirur, his followers began to swell. His raids were to raise funds for feeding the famine affected peasants, and would often involve cutting off all communications and raiding the treasury.
However Phadke suffered a major blow when his close associate, the Ramoshi leader,Daulat Rao Naik, was killed at Ghat Matha in Konkan on May 10,1879 by Major Daniel, while returning from a raid. He moved further south, to Srisailam, to escape from the British, where he spent some time incognito at the Mallikarjuna Temple. His grand plan of organizing multiple attacks on the British met with limited succcess. After a direct engagement with the British at Ghanur, a bounty was offered on his head. Phadke struck back offered a reverse bounty for the capture of the Governor of Bombay, and followed it up with offering bounty for any Britisher killed or captured.
Phadke tried to get the Rohillas in the Nizam’s army to fight along side him. However Abdul Haq then Police Comissioner of Hyderabad State, along with Major Henry Daniel, got wind of the plans, and he once again was on the run. The bounty offer by British was a succces, as one of his associates betrayed Phadke, and on July 20, 1879 he was captured in a temple at Kaladgi( now in Bagalkot dt), en route Pandharpur, after a bitter fight.
Phadke was taken to Pune for trial, where he was was defended by Ganesh Vasudev Joshi, a prominent lawyer, also called as Sarvajanik Kaka, after the organization he founded. Ganesh Joshi would later be the guide to Tilak and Agarkar, and one of the first generation freedom fighters. He was housed in Pune for some time district sessions court jail, located near Sangam Bridge that currently houses the state CID Dept.
Phadke was later transported to Aden, from where he tried to escape in 1883, breaking the prison door. He however was recaptured and went on a hunger strike unto death in prison. Finally on Feb 17, 1883, he breathed his last in prison, giving up his life for freedom. His legacy however would live on in Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s epic novel Ananda Math, which incorporated many episodes from his life. Coincidentally the year in which he passed away, would be the same year in which a certain Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was born.