Most portraits of the late 19th-century revolutionary Vasudev Balwant Phadke depict him with big brooding eyes, a ragged face and a bulky body. His posture signifies that he is a man with ferocious intent and purpose. Known as one of India’s first independence activists, the stories about Phadke valiantly fighting the British with a band of members of the Ramoshi community have created a mythic, cult-like status around him: to some, he is a modern-day avatar of Shivaji, a progenitor of Hindu civilisational supremacy.

Phadke’s arrival on the political scene in the second part of the 19th century coincides with the arrival of new narratives in Western India. This includes a projection of Phadke’s rebellion of 1877 as the first Hindu rebellion after 1857 and his autobiography as the first-ever Marathi work about a rebellion against the British.

The Sangh Parivar has attempted to portray him as a key figure in the pantheon of Hindu leaders. The Organiser, the official publication of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, continues to commemorate his birth and death anniversaries. Phadke’s heroic persona has been embedded in the popular consciousness by theatrical products and also films, such as Ek Krantiveer Vasudev Balwant Phadke made in 2007.

But like with so many historical figures, Phadke’s imagery has been carefully crafted. His towering physical persona has often stood in the way of allowing for a detailed analysis of who he was, what philosophical principles he followed and what his vision of an Independent India was. However, by revisiting the first comprehensive biography of Phadke published in 1947, it is possible to see that Phadke was not just as an isolated militant figure and to situate him in the social context of rising conservatism of the period.

A painting of Vasudev Balwant Phadke. Image source: 'Vasudev Balwant Phadke' published by Lok Sabha Secretatiat, December 2004

Born in 1845 in Panvel near Mumbai, Phadke was passionate about attaining Swaraj or self-rule. He was influenced by MG Ranade’s speeches about how colonial economic policies were impoverishing India. In 1875, he organised a group of around 300 men, mainly from the Ramoshi community, intending to free India from British rule. Four years later, he was captured. He was transported to jail in Aden but escaped by taking the door off its hinges. He was shortly recaptured and died in 1883 after staging a hunger strike.

Phadke is someone whose worldview, relations with fellow freedom fighters and the personalities he influenced posthumously can be seen as part of an intellectual genesis of a Hindu nationalist consolidation.

That can be gleaned from a close reading of VS Joshi’s Marathi biography Adya Krantikarak (First Revolutionary), which is, now in its fourth edition. Adya Krantikarak is a prime example of the power of print in reinforcing a de-historicised glamorised notion of that militant phase in India’s freedom struggle. Though the book is largely a sympathetic account of Phadke, it offers enough personal anecdotes and historical documentation that can be used to move beyond the reductive tale of pride and valour.

‘Superior blood’

Phadke was born in a Chitpawan Brahmin family and, as the author notes early on, spoke proudly about the historical achievements of members of his caste. This is a reference to the recently extinguished glory of Peshwa rule and how the regime purportedly fought for the betterment of all Indians. This ahistorical projection of fellow feeling for “countrymen” in the 18th century when the modern idea of India had yet to take shape is supported by the author, who gloats about Brahmins being historically aware of the merits of democracy and how it functions.

By noting that Phadke’s grandfather was a low-ranking officer at Karnal fort that was handed over to the British after they vanquished the Peshwas in 1818, the author creates the impression of Phadke as a hero attempting to resurrect the sense of honor lost in the defeat. This is reiterated by the story about how Phadke, while urging the Ramoshis to kill British people, put prizes on the heads of governors and other senior officials by signing a document to them as the “The Prime Minister of the Peshwa”.

Phadke’s intensely Brahmanical imagery was strengthened by suggesting that he had a profound spiritual demeanor and coaxed the Ramoshis to espousea brand of patriotic valor.

Quest for a wife

Attaining Swaraj was not just a political matter for Phadke. Spirituality was deemed crucial to give pure meaning to militant action. This was apparent from a report in the Yugantar newspaper, which claimed that his acts of “robbing from rich people and using money for benefit of Swaraj is a sign of Dharmic goodness”.

Right from his childhood, Phadke was seeped in studying religious texts such as thePurushsukta, Vishnusahastranama, Amarkosh Path, the Vedas and the Sanskrit language. He shared some conservative beliefs of his time. This is most evident in his views on marriage: his quest for a suitable wife emphasised the importance of how the woman must belong to the same family clan as his. He dismissed the idea of marrying a woman from some specific communities because their jatihad “bad elements”; others were unsuitable because they did not belong to a clan of “superior blood”.

Gopikabai Phadke, wife of Vasudev Phadke. Image source: 'Vasudev Balwant Phadke' published by Lok Sabha Secretatiat, December 2004

His knowledge of specific religious texts informed his public outlook significantly: while recruiting Ramoshis to the cause, as he started organising sessions to teach the community members to chant shloks or prayers. Phadkewas a deep admirer of Dattatreya, an incarnation of the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Phadke’s piety for Datta was so intense that he produced an edited volume titled Datta Lahiri (Datta Passion).

Datta became a constant guiding light even during the heyday of his revolutionary activities. The dovetailing of Phadke’s exclusivist spiritual leanings with his political ambitions can be discerned by how he makes it clear in his tract Datta Mahatmay that the planned armed struggle should be seen as nothing but a prologue to the rule of Hindu dharma. His exclusivist spiritualism also impacted his militant phase between 1875 and 1879 primarily through his patronising treatment of the Ramoshi tribesmen.

The religious moorings of his rebellion are well captured by a quote of the historian Jadunath Sarkar mentioned in the book in which he praises Phadke for his acute sense of his duty to his subjects and to the Hindu world at large.

Even a cursory glance over the information Joshi provides of how the British and sundry journalists perceived Phadke provide useful insights. For instance, Richard Temple, who was the governor of the Bombay presidency from 1877-1880, took notice of Phadke’s actions by describing them as a fight for “Maratha nationality”, “Hindu nation” and for the supremacy of the “Hindu race”. At a time when the terms “Hindu” and “nation” hardly had any political meaning and purchase, its usage by a senior British administrator certainly hints at one possible source of Hindu nationalism.

Phadke’s influence was so powerful that the young Lokmanya Tilak is said to have taken sword-fighting lessons and participated in physical exercises overseen by the revolutionary.Inspired by Phadke, several others with distinctively upper-caste surnames congregated at the premises of local temples to chart out their future plans for dacoities and rebellions. Several of these men went on to subscribe to Tilak’s brand of conservative politics.

A memorial pillar for Phadke at Shirdon. Image source: "Vasudev Balwant Phadke" published by Lok Sabha Secretatiat, December 2004

Joshi’s book suggests in the initial first few pages that Phadke’s biggest admirer was the father of Hindu Nationalism himself, VD Savarkar. Because the first edition of the book was published by Veer Savarkar Publications, Savarkar wrote a short introduction to the book. He noted that he had been in awe of Phadke’s physical and muscular presence since childhood.

Phadke’s embracing of the spiritual path had parallels with Savarkar similarly being attracted to spirituality in his childhood days. Joshi emphatically suggests Savarkar’s indebtedness to Phadke by stating how Phadke was Savarkar’s first guru in every sense of the term.

Like many historical figures whose significance is reduced to one set of traits, Phadke is largely remembered today as an action hero devoid of the social and cultural context of this times. To fully understand him, though, his legacy must be considered against the backdrop of the tumultuous historical period of late 19th century Western India.

Surajkumar Thube is a DPhil student at the Faculty of History, University of Oxford.