The revolutionary movement in India, the most fascinating chapter in the history of the struggle for freedom, had burst into a mighty tempest after the Partition of Bengal (1905). The origin of the movement, however, can be traced to an earlier period. Maharashtra may be regarded as the pioneer of the revolutionary struggle and the nerve-centre of sedition.
The credit for organising the first secret revolutionary society in Maharashtra in the post-Mutiny (1857) phase, with the objective of overthrowing British rule, belongs to Wasudeo Balwant Phadke (1845-83), a Chitpavan Brahmin of Kolaba district, Bombay.
Phadke was moved by the exploitation of Indians and had made a bold attempt to drive out the British by physical force.
Phadke’s hatred against the British Government was first roused by his failure to secure leave to visit his ailing mother. The devastating famine of 1876-77, which affected a large part of India, made him a determined enemy of the British. He was firmly convinced that the miseries were rooted in exploitation and the economic drain, also articulated by Dadabhai Naoroji.
After considerable reflection, he vowed to organise an armed rebellion against the British. He decided to give up his job in the Military Accounts department, the comforts of his family life, and devote his life to the task of liberating India. In his autobiography (1879), Phadke revealed the state of his mind in 1878 on the eve of his resignation from government service ~ “From morning to night, bathing, eating, sleeping, I was brooding over this and I could get no proper rest. At midnight, I used to get up and think how this ruin might be done until I was almost mad. I learnt to fire at targets, to ride, also sword and club exercise”.
Phadke travelled extensively in the guise of a sannyasi, with matted hair. His plan of action has been described in his autobiography thus: “Having obtained Rs 5000 from a sowkar, I proposed to send to all sides three or four men a month in advance so that small gangs might be raised by them from which great fear would come to the English. The mails would be stopped and the railway and telegraph interrupted, so that no information could go from one place to another. Then the jails would be opened and all the long-sentenced prisoners would join me because if the British Government remained they would not get off.”
Phadke realised that his objective could only be attained through a secret organisation, which he formed to preach the message of independence among school boys. There were also active members who were engaged in revolutionary activities. The members were bound by a secret pledge that they would sacrifice everything at the altar of their motherland. On the Vijayadashami day the most important ceremony was solemnised. Arms were collected secretly. The goddess of war was worshipped with prayers. The Revolt of 1857 was often the subject of post-prayer speeches.
The educated class, however, did not support Phadke’s ideas and he turned for support to the turbulent and backward people belonging to the Ramosis community. With their help, he planned to disarm the police guard of the Khed treasury and then loot the place. He then decided to attack the jails, release the prisoners (almost reminiscent of the siege of Bastille) and with them swell the number of his followers. With their help he decided to carry out his long-cherished desire to destroy British rule. His plan failed and he could neither secure the men nor the money.
The difficulty to obtain funds from the bhadralok has been described with pathos by Phadke ~ “In their hearts they wish the British to be driven out, but you must not ask money of them”. In sheer desperation, he thought of raising funds by committing dacoities. His attempt to collect money through dacoities with the help of the Ramosis failed as this group was never inspired by patriotic ideals. They quarrelled over the distribution of the looted money and deserted Phadke after receiving their share. His attempts to enlist the support pf other backward communities, such as Kolis and Dhangars, also failed.
However, Phadke gained the support of the countryside and he struck terror in the hearts of the British Government which announced a reward of Rs 4000 for his capture. Through a poster, he announced one and a half times the reward offered by the Government to any person who would bring to him the severed head of Sir Richard Temple, the Governor of Bombay Presidency, Panic gripped the administration.
Phadke turned to religion for solace and guidance. In April 1879 he left the few followers who were still with him. He went to Poona and spent a few weeks in “Shri Shaillya Malik Arjun”, a shrine in Karnal district in Madras. He then went to the Nizam’s territory where he masqueraded as a holy man from Benares. He was, however, arrested in Kaladagi district Kaladagi in Nizam’s state by Major Daniel and Abdul Haque, the Police Commissioner of Hyderabad, in July 1879. He was sentenced to transportation for life and imprisoned in Aden from where he fled in October 1880. He was however, rearrested within a few hours. He was fettered and soon developed phthisis, which turned out to be a terminal affliction. He died at a prison in Aden on 17 February 1883 after undergoing severe torture.
The single-handed fight of Phadke against the British Empire, wrote Dr R C Majumdar, was bound to end in complete failure. But it left its legacy and the seeds he sowed grew into a mighty banyan tree. His patriotism, his political activities, his secret organisation and his method of secretly collecting arms and money through political dacoities were taken up by the leaders of revolutionary movement in other parts of India. The spirit which he represented continued to live through the revolutionaries of a later period. His method acquired a strong philosophical foundation and a broader social basis. He may justly be called “the father of militant nationalism in India.”
Though forgotten by history and ignored by historians, Phadke must be given a place in the history of the revolutionary movement, an integral part of the Indian freedom struggle. It has rightly been pointed out that the credit for organising the first secret revolutionary society in the post-Mutiny period with the avowed objective of overthrowing British rule in India belongs to Wasudeo Balwant Phadke.
(The writer is a former Associate Professor, Department of History, Sivnath Sastri College, Kolkata)