About Vasudev Balwant Phadke-A torch bearer of the Freedom Movement

  • Know about the life and armed struggle of Vasudev Phadke against the British as early as the 1870s.

In the sacred yagya of India’s freedom struggle, many patriots sacrificed their life, some of them are remembered whilst many are forgotten for e.g. Vasudev Balwant Phadke. I earlier wrote about two not so written about freedom fighters Umaji Naik and Shivram Rajguru.


In early 19th century the British began to rule India. Many praised British rule because they believed such rule was good for them. However, those with guts and valour disagreed and began an armed struggle against the British. Phadke was one of them. During the 1857 revolt many freedom fighters claimed and fought for Chhatrapati’s ideal in Maharashtra. But when the revolts failed the majority accepted British rule.


Thus, revolutionary movements stopped until the rise of Vasudev Balwant Phadke.


Vasudev was born on November 4, 1845, in a Brahmin family in Shiradhon. His ancestors were killedars (caretakers) of Karnala (near Mumbai) fort. In his childhood he had zero interest in academia so his grandfather sent him to Kalyan (near Mumbai) for education. After completing his education he got a job in GIP (Great Indian Peninsula) Railway office in Bombay. But due to conflicts with the Head Clerk, he left the job and went to Pune, where he got another job as a Clerk. He got married at 15 and had a daughter named Mathutai.


In Pune, his destiny changed forever. Pune was a hub of revolutionaries then. Due to the awareness created by leaders like Mahadev Govind Ranade (1842-1901), Vasudev got attracted towards the movement and became a staunch advocate of Swadeshi.


During the job his mother got seriously ill. So Phadke applied for leave to meet his mother. The British officers did not grant leave. His mother’s health worsened so Phadke went to meet his mother without permission. Sadly, his mother died before he reached. Her death broke Vasudev.


After his mother’s death he asked for permission to complete the last rites of his mother but the British officers rejected his request and insulted him. This was a turning point in his life. After the incident, he studied history and was hugely influenced by Chhatrapati Shivaji, Dattaji Shinde and Yeshwantrao Holkar.

After the death of his mother, he became alone. He started leading a devotional life and met with several spiritual saints.


After reading the biographies and books on Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, Dattaji Shinde he was determined to devote his life to the nation. Initially, he gave speeches in public places in Pune. He was a believer of Ahimsa in the early days. But he soon realized that speeches and ahimsa were not ways to achieve freedom. Freedom is achieved only by sacrificing one’s life and by fighting a war against the British.


He started gathering youth from Pune and arranged secret meetings to discuss strategies against the British. Phadke was himself a master in handling swords, guns and hand to hand combat. He started teaching these skills to youth of Pune. Along with ramoshis (forest tribe, during the times of Maratha Empire they were in charge of intelligence) many from middle class families also joined Phadke. Now he started training youth in gun and sword war and started war practice on the Ferguson hill. (Hill in Pune where Vasudev trained new revolutionaries)


After examining Chhatrapati Shivaji’s life he sought help of Ramoshi tribes for armed struggle against the Britishers. Ramoshi leader Daulatrao accepted his proposal and joined Vasudev against the Britishers.


On the day of Vijayadashmi in 1878, he started his war against the British by looting and attacking British sympathisers i.e. Money lenders. At that time, there was a severe drought in the Deccan and the British government mismanaged it. Further, it increased taxation on crops resulting in the death of thousands of people. Anger against the British began to build up. The Ramoshis and common villagers started to support Phadke who attacked British territories. This frightened the Britishers, who knew of the huge people support he had. They took strong action against him and deployed an army of 500 soldiers to catch him but failed.


To prevent being caught by the British Phadke moved from village to village, was sheltered by sympathisers and well-wishers who belonged, mostly the lower class of society. Impressed by his zeal and determination, the villagers of Nanagaum offered him protection and cover in the local forest. The general plan would be to cut off all the communications of British forces and then raid the treasury. The main purpose of these raids was to feed famine-affected farmer communities. Phadke performed many such raids in areas near Shirur and Khed talukas of Pune.


In Pune and Bhor presidency his actions became regular. But the British failed to arrest him.


On 17 March 1889 Phadke declared his manifesto and warned the British with these words, “British Government must stop their tyrannical rule. We want to tell the Government that, you have tremendous amount of grains and our people are dying because they don’t have grains to feed themselves and their families. Because of drought and your mismanagement, lakhs of people died. They don’t have jobs and government is increasing taxes on them. I just want to warn you that you must provide essential help to people, you must cut off some percentage of salary of Europeans and turn that money for the welfare of our people who are dying in droughts. You must ease your tyrannical taxation policies. You must encourage the local business and local people. Otherwise, we will wash out all the Europeans and this will result in another 1857 war.”


After his manifesto, the British government declared a booty price on the head of Phadke. After hearing this, Vasudev declared another manifesto which read, “Those who behead the Governor and collector of Pune, will get honour and booty prize from me.”


A scared British government dispatched a huge army under Daniel and Capt. Bren. But they failed to capture Vasudev.  Phadke and his fighters ransacked government offices and also defeated the British army in a skirmish. After this incident, the British sent their army from all sides to capture Vasudev.


Vasudev had an army of 500 Ramoshis and another freebooters (who come in army to get share of loot and leave) numbering 100-200. The commander of that army was Daulatrao Naik, a fierce warrior.


Vasudev and his army continued their attacks and frightened the government. Smelling large protests like 1857 the Britishers took serious steps against Vasudev. Many small battles took place between the British and Vasudev. But in the ambush on Thisubai hill, Vasudev’s general Daulatrao got killed by Daniel.  


The death of Daulatrao Naik was a major blow to the freedom struggle initiated by Vasudev. All ramoshi army was disheartened. It broke Vasudev and his system. He again went in exile by meeting spiritual leaders and arranging the army to restart struggle. The government was after Vasudev like a hound so he had to relocate from city to city.


After a few months he formed an army of 500 Rohillas and waited for an opportunity. He stayed in village for some arrangements and this news spread to the wife of a havildar. The Havildar informed to British government and the army troops came silently while Vasudev was sleeping in a temple at Kaladagi (he was seriously ill then). The Rohilla army changed sides, supported the British government. Vasudev was finally arrested by the British, after a long hand to hand combat, with huge amount of ammunition.


He was arrested under the charges of waging the war against government. Lawyer and social activist G V Joshi, fought the case against the Government i.e. from the side of Vasudev.


In his last speech in court, Phadke said in his defence:

“Hindi people were dying due to starvation and during this time Britishers were taking excessive salaries and living their life luxuriously. There is huge discrimination between Europeans and Indians. Due to your discrimination and atrocities against us during the drought, I with my small army started an armed struggle to throw out Europeans from my motherland. But I failed, my Indian citizens. Please forgive me my dear Indian people for I couldn’t get you freedom.” Vasudev was sentenced to life imprisonment in Aiden jail.

In jail he was regularly tortured. He tried to escape from jail but failed. He was soon recaptured and then went on a hunger strike. He died on 17 February 1883.

Vasudev Balwant Phadke is a brave who was forgotten by us. The courage and valour shown by him should be remembered forever. In a way Phadke’s fight was a precursor to what Netaji Bose did centuries later. 

To read all articles by author


1) महाराष्ट्रातील स्वातंत्र्य लढे by Vi Go खोबरेकर 

2) Dictionary of martryers of India's freedom struggle

3) Struggle for freedom by R C Majumdar


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3. How the Indian National Army (INA) got India independence?

4. Did Ahimsa get India freedom

5. About Rajguru

6. About Bhagat Singh

7. Veer Surendra Sai  

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