Gangadharrao Balkrishna Deshpande is hailed as the leader of the Indian Independence movement from Karnataka. He was one of the first from the state to respond to Gandhiji’s call to fight for the greater cause of national freedom. In the early 1900s, anti-British sentiments were running high all over the country, and the need for change was sweeping the nation. Deshpande played a prominent role in arousing feelings of patriotism amongst the people of Karnataka and Maharashtra.
Born on 31 March 1871 in Hudli, Belgaum, (in present-day Karnataka), Gangadharrao Balkrishna Deshpande was initially more inclined towards social reforms. However, ever since he met Lokmanya Tilak, his life took a different turn, and till the latter’s demise in July 1920 Gangadharrao led the people of Karnataka in the youth struggle for Swaraj or Home Rule as advocated by Tilak. He was at the forefront of India’s struggle for independence and this earned him the name ‘Lion of Karnataka’. After the demise of Tilak and the rise of Gandhiji, Deshpande looked upon Gandhi as a natural successor of Tilak’s vision and philosophy. When Gandhi protested against the Salt Act at Dandi and started the Salt Satyagraha Movement, Deshpande too defied the law by selling contraband salt and was arrested on the very same day. .
It was during the Swadeshi Movement of 1905-1906 that he pushed for the boycott of British goods and the use of locally produced (swadeshi) goods. In keeping with Gandhi’s vision of a self-reliant India, Deshpande was instrumental in setting up a Khadi centre at Hudli, which was the first of its kind in South India. He was even called the ‘Khadi Bhageeratha of Karnataka’ as he went from village to village creating awareness about the Khadi movement.
Deshpande was the main organiser of, and the man behind the success of the 29th Congress Plenary chaired by Gandhiji in Belgaum in 1924. During the freedom movement, Belgaum played a pivotal role in bringing together the people in the southern part of the country. The presence of stalwarts like Sarojini Naidu, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru, Saifuddin Kitchlew, and others added significance to this historic session in the city. While garnering funds and support from the local merchants and businessmen for this session, Deshpande also ensured the supply of drinking water to a mammoth gathering of 70,000 people. This was a great feat considering it was a time the region was reeling under a severe water crisis.
The Quit India Movement in 1942 also saw Belgaum play a pivotal role. The protests and agitation saw more than 5,000 people imprisoned at Belgaum. The British government even announced a cash reward of Rs. 5,000/- on five of the most wanted freedom fighters from Karnataka, and the irony is that all of them belonged to the Belgaum District. Such was the spirit amongst the people of Belgaum. The effective organisation and implementation of the Quit India Movement in Belgaum and its surrounding districts soon came to be known as the ‘Karnatak Pattern’ and this became popular in the entire country.
Deshpande’s valour, his oratory skills, prodigious learning, austere life, and his towering personality combined to give him a stature that was unique and unsurpassable. This ardent disciple of Lokmanya Tilak and avid follower of Gandhiji devoted 60 years of his life fighting for an independent India. Deshpande passed away on 30 July 1960.