Vasudev Balwant Phadke, one of the first revolutionaries of India, also known as the ‘Father of the Indian Armed Rebellion’, was born to Balwantrao and Saraswatibai on 04 November 1845 in Shirdhon (present-day Maharashtra). His grandfather, Anantrao, was the Commander of the Karnala Fort before it was taken over by the British in 1818. In 1859, Vasudev Phadke married Saibai, with whom he had a daughter, Mathutai. Phadke graduated from Bombay University in 1862 and then worked with different government institutions. In 1865, he joined the Military Finance Office in Pune. It is said that despite serving the government for a few years, Phadke was denied leave, when he sought permission to be with his mother, who was on her deathbed. This angered the young Vasudev, who severely reproached the authorities for their stance. A year later, he was again denied leave, and this time he could not make it for his mother’s death anniversary. Phadke was incensed, and his resolve against the British government was strengthened.
In 1872, Saibai, Phadke’s wife passed away after a brief period of illness. A year later, he married Gopikabai. Going against the societal norms prevalent at the time, he taught Gopikabai how to read and write besides other skills like horse riding and sword fighting. Articles in magazines and newspapers criticising the colonial regime and speeches of leaders like Dadabhai Nauroji and M G Ranade (the latter led the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha in the 1870s) inspired Phadke. Phadke was a pioneer in many respects. 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. Phadke began delivering public lectures and mobilising the people across Pune. His aim was to strike an emotional chord with his audience and wake up their patriotic spirit. Phadke also aspired for more radical action against the British and was not in favour of the petitions and prayers that the leaders were advocating.
Other factors like the Deccan famine of the late 1870s, the government’s increased revenue demands, and failed relief measures that worsened the condition of the people further emboldened Phadke’s anti-colonial sentiments. In 1879, along with his associates Gopal Hari Karve, Vishnu Gadre, Ganesh Dedhar, and others, Phadke formed one of the first revolutionary armies of India. His aim was to create a well-organised band of activists to fight the British. It is believed that Phadke felt the need for an armed revolution after seeing the devastation caused by the famine. In 1886-87, during the great famine in Maharashtra, the group issued a proclamation condemning the economic policies of the government and warned the British of strong action. His resolve to fight India’s oppressors through a radical group of activists and his nationalist sentiments were an inspiration for many.
The party sought to collect money and amass weapons to fight the British through guerrilla warfare. To raise funds, Phadke’s party undertook some daring looting operations in the vicinity of Mumbai and later in the Konkan region. He diligently worked towards his goal and created small groups of people to carry out different activities. One group went among the people singing songs of patriotism that highlighted the pain of the masses; another mobilised school children through secret meetings, while the core group planned various activities to challenge the government. The authorities felt threatened, and they launched a search for Phadke. Phadke was arrested in July 1879 from Devar Navadgi in Bijapur district and was sentenced to life imprisonment. He attempted to escape from prison. However, his plans went awry, and he was arrested again. Phadke passed away in prison in 1883. In the short span of his life Phadke paved the way for an organised armed movement that would fight for the freedom of India.