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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Know Your City: Vasudev Balwant Phadke, the pioneering Indian revolutionary who made Pune the centre of armed struggle

🔴Once a 'pampered clerk' in British employment, Phadke got disenchanted with colonial power and dedicated his life to overthrow it. He was also the first non-royal to lead a revolt against the English, paving the way for more such leaders.

Written by Dipanita Nath | Pune |
Updated: November 28, 2021 8:13:34 am
Vasudev Balwant Phadke

A little more than 20 years after the 1857 revolt, variously described as the ‘first war of Independence’ and the ‘sepoy mutiny’, was crushed and the British Crown replaced the East India Company in ruling India, a fresh series of attacks began to target British interests in the country. The rebels would cut off railway lines and telegraphic communication, stop daks and sometimes cause a complete blockade in the flow of news from one part of the country to another. Their aim was swaraj and their strategy was to disrupt government activities, spread mayhem and panic, and embolden thousands of other Indians to take up arms against foreign rule.

In Pune, Major Henry William Daniell, District Superintendent of Police, received information that the leader of the rebels was Vasudev Balwant Phadke. In 1879, the British government posted a lookout notice for Phadke and announced a princely sum of Rs 4,000 as reward for his capture. Ironically, Phadke had been “a trusted and pampered clerk” in the office of the Military Finance Department until a few years ago.

Two places in Pune reveal Phadke’s transformation — rooms on top of Narsingh Temple at Sadashiv Peth, where he lived as a family man and read Guru Charitra Pothi under a peepal tree, and a memorial (Vasudev Balwant Phadke Smarak) near Sangam Bridge in Shivajinagar, where he was imprisoned and tried. In several bookshelves across the city are copies of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Anand Math, inspired by Phadke’s rebellion.

“Vasudev Balwant Phadke was undoubtedly among the first brigade of Indian revolutionaries and soldiers of freedom. His life was a saga of toil, sweat, blood and tears, the prototype of many martyrs after him. When even Pundits and great political leaders faltered in proclaiming our ideal of absolute political independence, Vasudev Balwant openly proclaimed it. He was the first Indian leader to go from village to village to preach the mantra of swaraj and to exhort the people to rebel against foreign rule,” reads a booklet titled Vasudev Balwant Phadke: A Profile, released by the Lok Sabha Secretariat in 2004, when his portrait was unveiled in the Parliament House.

A latent anger

Phadke was born in Shirdhon, near Panvel, on November 4, 1845, and was headstrong from childhood. “His paternal grandfather Anantrao was the last commander of the fort of Karnala, which was lost when the Peshwas were defeated by the East India Company in 1818. When Vasudev was still a child, his grandfather would carry him to the fort on his shoulders and narrate stories of war, the deeds of legendary warriors and the losses inflicted by the British,” says Pune-based historian Mohan Shete.

Phadke used to visit Mumbai or Pune to study and, in 1862, became one of the early graduates of Bombay University. As part of his career in Mumbai, he was posted to various organisations under the British government, such as Grant Medical College and Commissariat Examiner’s Office. The Aadya Krantiveer Vasudev Balwant Phadke Chowk in Dhobi Talao, which has a statue of him made from a single rock to signify his grit, commemorates Phadke’s time in Mumbai.

The Vasudev Balwant Phadke Smarak near Sangam bridge where he was imprisoned and tried by the British Government. (Express photo by Ashish Kale)

In 1865, Phadke’s bosses transferred him to Pune with a strong recommendation for promotion, and he joined the Military Finance office here, under the Controller of Military Accounts. In Pune, he mostly lived in Sadashiv Peth which was, at the time, considered to be part of the city’s outskirts and was surrounded by dense forest. “In the evenings, people used to be afraid to venture to this side,” says Shete.

Phadke was not a revolutionary at this time, though there was anger against the British. He worked in the cantonment and lived with his wife Saibai with whom he had a daughter. After Saibai died in 1872, Phadke married Gopikabai in 1873. “By now, he was becoming a revolutionary. He taught Gopikabai to read and write as well as wield swords, fire guns and ride horses in the surrounding forests. These were activities that men practiced, but to make one’s wife do it, and in a Brahmin household, was radical. Vasudev’s thinking was that his wife should be able to fight if there was war with the British,” says Shete.

Taking up arms against the British

Several events changed Phadke’s outlook in Pune. On a personal note, he was angry that his bosses rejected his leave application to see his dying mother or, a year later, to attend rituals for her first death anniversary.

“During this time, a number of public organisations were coming up in Pune, such as the Sarvajanik Sabha where people could discuss the state of the country. Lectures by Justice Madhavrao Ranade and Dadabhai Naoroji about the British draining India of its wealth and resources made a great impact on Phadke. After listening to them and reading their lectures in newspapers, Vasudev was convinced that they needed to fight the British. An armed revolution was the only way forward,” says Shete.

The Vasudev Balwant Phadke Smarak near Sangam bridge where he was imprisoned and tried by the British Government. (Express photo by Ashish Kale)

Phadke’s patriotism was also fuelled by Lahuji Raghoji Salve, who not only gave arms training but also generated feelings of patriotism in the minds of students. Apart from Phadke, Salve’s students would include Tilak and Mahatma Phule. “Salve was another reason Vasudev’s resolve was strengthened to fight the British,” says Shete. Phadke sent Gopikabai to her ancestral home as he was now ready to dedicate his entire life to the freedom struggle.

About the sufferings of farmers during the prolonged Deccan famine between 1870 and 1878, Phadke wrote in his diary, “Thinking day and night of this and a thousand other miseries, my mind was bent upon the downfall of the British power in India. I thought of nothing else. The idea haunted my mind. I used to rise in the dead of night and ponder over the ruin of the British until at last I almost became mad with the idea.”

He began to rally people to rise against the tyranny of the British and found support among the nomadic tribes residing in the vicinity of Pune, the Ramoshis, Kolis, Bhils and Dhangars, to organise a revolt. With a 300-strong army, he began his armed struggle.

The wealthy did not heed his call and refused to help with arms or money. Phadke has written, “Means do not by themselves matter. If the rich men do not voluntarily contribute the funds for swaraj, why not forcibly deprive them of their wealth to swell the coffers of swaraj?,” he wondered in his diary. The rebel forces began to loot wealthy people. On February 23, 1879, the first attack was on Dhamari, a village in Poona, where the houses of Marwaris were stripped of their wealth and their account books set on fire.

According to the book, Vasudev Balwant Phadke: A Profile, “Phadke waged his war with a high moral purpose. He had issued strict orders to his men that during raids womenfolk must never be molested; children must not be hurt. The political atmosphere in the country became surcharged with excitement as reports of the revolt of Vasudev Balwant were flashed across in newspapers, and the whole of India struggled hard to comprehend the real implications of the upheaval in the Deccan.”

Make in India, buy Indian

Shete says that since Phadke had taken the Swadeshi vow, everything he used was made in India. “In a letter, he asks the youth to become entrepreneurs and industrialists because the war against the British would not be fought with arms alone. The country needed to create products so that Indians did not use foreign-made goods,” Shete adds.

Historian VS Joshi writes his book, Vasudev Balvant Phadke: First Indian Rebel Against British Rule, that way back in 1879, Phadke proclaimed India’s ultimate goal of an Indian Republic, which became a reality after 68 years. “He was a pioneer in many respects,” Joshi writes.

To impress young minds, Phadke, with Waman Prabhakar Bhave and Laxman Narhar Indapurkar, set up the Poona Native Institution in 1874. Unlike British schools, the Poona Native Institution would inculcate a love for the motherland among children. Today, the organisation is known as the Maharashtra Education Society, which has 75 institutions with around 40,000 students and more than 2,000 teachers and administrative staff.

Igniting a lasting war

Phadke was nabbed at Devar Navadgi in Bijapur district on the night of July 20, 1879, and was put on trial in November that year. Among those present were his aged father and his weapons trainer Salve. Phadke told the court, “Day and night, there is but one prayer in my heart, Oh God, even if my life be lost, let my country be free, let my countrymen be happy. I have taken up arms, raised an army and rebelled against the British Government with this single aim. I could not succeed. But, some day, someone will succeed. Oh my countrymen, forgive me for my failure.” Phadke was sent to Aden, in Yemen, to be incarcerated. He escaped once, but was caught within a few hours. He died in jail on February 17, 1883.

In Pune, Phadke’s fight would be taken up by many others such as the Chapekar brothers, who lived down the road from Sadashiv Peth and in 1897 assassinated WC Rand, the Plague Commissioner who was blamed for taking oppressive measures to control the pestilence in the city. Anagha Bedekar, Treasurer of Aadya Krantiveer Vasudev Balwant Phadke Smarak Samiti, Mumbai, which maintains the Aadya Krantiveer museum in Shirdhon as well as a memorial in Mumbai, adds, “In Shirdhon, every school has a picture of the pioneering freedom fighter and he still fills them with a love for the country.”

But, as Phadke said in court, was he a failure? Shete often brings groups of young students to Narsingh Temple on his history tours. “I tell them to think of a pillar or a wall that we are striking with a hammer. If after 100 blows, the wall cracks and falls, were the previous 99 blows in vain? I would say the first blow was most important because it was struck when you couldn’t see success in the end. In that darkness, it was Vasudev who lit the first flame of freedom when the country was discouraged after the failure of 1857. He was also the first non-royal to lead a revolt, paving the way for leaders such as Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi, who came from ordinary homes unlike the leaders of 1857. Hence, Phadke is significant in history,” he concludes.

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