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Oriyas unite: Fight the abject poverty, not each other
"For the last few months a certain coastal locality of the Mahanadi delta of Orissa is noticing some horrific infighting. Proposed establishment of a certain large scale industry has polarised the inhabitants to such an extent that they have resorted to fighting pitched battles... Intensity of their hatred gives me the feeling that if these penniless factions had the money, they would buy fighter-planes and battle-tanks to settle the score!"
Dr. Nachiketa Das : July 19, 2008
I have lived and worked in 6 countries, including India, and visited dozens more. I am purposefully harping on my cosmopolitan experience to add authenticity to my observations that have an important bearing on the subject matter of this article. I have seen quite a few Oriya cultural associations in foreign lands and have participated in some, either as a member or as an invitee. The single most noticeable feature of Oriya associations abroad, regardless of their size: be they tiny with 10 members or vast, a thousand times bigger, unfortunately is infighting. Without naming names for the fear of inviting unnecessary threats of litigation, which seem to have become a newly acquired norm for Oriya associations in western countries, I would like to mention that last year, in 2007, I saw a vast number of accusations, counter accusations, threats, liberal trading of insults over some very petty issues, going on and on and on and on, endlessly in a public internet forum, until the warring parties decided to head for the court of law in a foreign land. So exasperated I felt that I wrote a small piece captioned ‘Oriyas Unite’, and circulated it through the earlier mentioned Oriya internet. I received some very passionate emails in response to my small write-up pleading with me to do something, to persuade the warring factions to stop fighting. The fact, however, remains that they are Oriya warriors, descendants of the valiant Kalingan soldiers who fought Ashoka, and who have never known what surrender is. That venerable Oriya association, whose member I once was, is now split, and I have lost all interests to count the pieces. To all those warring Oriyas I say, however smart you lot may think you are, you are no more than a laughing stock.
Excerpts from the piece, ‘Oriyas Unite’
Following are Excerpts from that small piece I wrote and circulated in 2007.
‘…I feel hurt to see members trading insults at such a public forum. These mean venomous attacks, in print, will stay in record for ever, and could prove very damaging in future…I would like to appeal to you, ladies and gentlemen, to support each other, and to help one another. If there has to be a criticism, let it be a constructive one, and not destructive. Let us develop a culture of not making snide and spiteful remarks. Let us not indulge in self-destruction.
In the last five hundred years we Oriyas have destroyed ourselves by infightings, betrayals and a lack of unity. A quick reference to the pages of Orissan history will not be out of place.
After the death of Prataprudra Dev in 1533 AD, Orissa experienced numerous revolts and acts of treachery. Prataprudra’s own minister, Govinda Vidyadhara killed Prataprudra’s two sons and became the king in 1534 AD. Govinda Vidyadhara was succeeded by Chakra Pratap who was killed by his own son Narasimha Jena in 1557 AD, inside the premises of the Jagannath temple. Within a year, King Narasimha Jena was killed by Mukunda Dev, who was a respected general of the Orissan army and the Governor of Cuttack. Mukunda Dev became king in 1559 and ruled for 9 years till 1568 AD, and is generally considered to be the last independent king of Orissa. He died fighting a fellow Oriya king, Ramachandra Bhanja, when they both should have been united to defend Orissa from the impending onslaughts by the Moghul and Afghan armies. Mukunda Dev moreover, was betrayed by his own Oriya generals. Demise of this last independent king of Orissa led to the utter disintegration of the Oriya nation, substantial parts of which are still outside the present day political boundaries of the state of Orissa.
Following the death of Mukunda Dev, Orissa came under the occupation of the Moghuls and the Afghans. Subsequently the Marathas ruled until the British occupation of Orissa in 1803 AD…
The age old proverbs, “United we stand, divided we fall”, and “Union is strength” are correct, more so for us Oriyas.’
At the behest of some of my friends, who liked the piece and wished a greater circulation of my appeal for peace and unity among Oriyas, I sent the write-up to an Oriya newspaper The Dharitri in the form of a letter to the editor. The venerable Dharitri saw it fit, I suppose again for the sake of unity among Oriyas, to publish the piece. Of course, the appeal fell on deaf ears, which was expected. As a writer and commentator I did my duty then, and I will continue to appeal to the collective Oriya conscience to achieve unity in order for fighting the abject poverty that haunts the state even after sixty years of independence. Moreover, this is at a time now, when certain states, foremost being Gujarat, are powering ahead in terms of growth, development and attainment of quality of life, and we Oriyas, despite our vast resources, languish at the bottom of the pile.
Unity, a fundamental factor in the miraculous Japanese achievements
Now in 2008, as I inhabit, and admire the beauty and charm of this advanced developed country of Japan, I wonder why in Orissa we have to be so divided; divided along caste, wealth, education, regionality, political affiliations and ideologies. Japan does not have a strike, and any step in the direction of a communal good is accepted by all and sundry, and implemented wholeheartedly by one and all. No wonder Japan became a fully developed country within twenty years from the total annihilation of the Second World War that ended in 1945. In 1964, Japan hosted the Olympic Games in Tokyo in a spectacular demonstration of her fully developed status to the world. As a part of the Olympics, Japan among many other novelties, introduced the Shinkansen, commonly and affectionately known as the Bullet Train, the slowest categories of which travel at a speed of 210 km per hour. The trains do not run late, not even by one minute at any station anywhere in the country, and have been free from any accidents so far in their 44-year-old history with only one exception. In the city of Niigata in October 2004, a Bullet Train travelling at 210 km per hour derailed due to an earthquake of large magnitude of 6.9 in the Richter scale, but not even a single passenger out of 151 aboard was even hurt. Japan has achieved an endless number of seemingly miraculous feats through an approach of consensus and total unity.
Recent escalations in violent infightings in Orissa
For the last few months a certain coastal locality of the Mahanadi delta of Orissa is noticing some horrific infighting. The proposed establishment of a certain large scale industry has polarised the inhabitants to such an extent that they have resorted to fighting pitched battles. The other day they did not hesitate to attack each other with bombs. A few from either side were critically hurt, one died after a few weeks, and some more might succumb to their injuries. Intensity of their hatred gives me the feeling that if these penniless factions had the money, they would buy fighter-planes and battle-tanks to settle the score! This is infighting Orissa at a village level at its best. By the way, this is not an isolated incidence of violent infighting, it is happening in western Orissa, in central Orissa, virtually across the length and breadth of the state of Orissa, where ever a new large industry is planned. Inhabitants of these areas are getting divided, at times spontaneously, otherwise at the unwise counsel of self-serving politicians, into two groups, and resorting to violence to make their statements. I wonder where lay hid this Oriya streak of belligerence, when the misguided Oriya Brahmin convert to Islam, Kalapahada, in a systematic campaign of revenge in 1568 AD, attacked the vast majority of the temples of Orissa, decimating quite a few; or when Maratha horsemen also known as Burgis ran riot and ravished the entire land in the eighteenth century; or when British invaded to take possession of Orissa in 1803 AD!! I wonder what makes Oriyas so brave in fighting each other, and so utterly cowardly when facing the enemy from outside!! What a shame!
Rich history of infighting and treachery
Although Mukunda Dev’s ascent to the throne was paved with horrendous acts of treachery, people of Orissa as well as historians, hold him in respectful affection, quite rightly so, for a number of reasons. He was a military genius whom Moghul Emperor Akbar valued, so much so that he maintained a limited strategic alliance. Mukunda Dev provided a sense of security to the people of Orissa that had vanished since the death of Prataprudra Dev in 1533 AD. Much to their delight, Mukunda Dev in 1560 AD constructed a massive nine storied palace within the precincts of Barabati Fort of Cuttack, where he had been stationed earlier in his capacities as the Commander of Barabati Fort, and the Governor of Cuttack, before becoming the king. Although there are some doubts as to whether the palace was really a nine storied building, or simply spread over nine staggered levels, it certainly contained nine majestic courts. Moreover, Mukunda Dev patronised the scholarly traditions of Orissa and his court was adorned with many erudite scholars.
As mentioned earlier, this last independent king of Orissa in 1568 AD fought a fellow Oriya king, Ramachandra Bhanja. Although Mukunda Dev was a great military genius and a master tactician, he died at the hands of Ramachandra Bhanja at Gohiritikiri near Jajpur because he was betrayed by his own two generals, Sikhi and Manei. Ever since there is an old Oriya derogatory saying that depicts Orissa as the land of Sikhi Manei thereby stating that Orissa is a land of treachery. Ramachandra Bhanja, however, did not survive long; he was slaughtered the very same day by Afghan invaders of Orissa, who captured the state. Orissa was ruled for the next one and a half century by Afghans and Moghuls till Marathas conquered Orissa.
Maratha rule of Orissa of the eighteenth century was certainly oppressive, but was neither as bad as Moghul rule it succeeded, nor British rule it preceded. Although British historians in their writings on Orissa have been very harsh on Marathas, the fact remains that Marathas were very generous in their patronage of Hindu as well as Muslim religious establishments of the state. Marathas commissioned a large scale repair and maintenance of Jagannath temple at Puri, and allocated substantial tracts of agricultural land and villages to the temple for increasing the revenues. They made generous financial contributions to many monasteries at Puri as well as to the famous Islamic establishment Kadam Rasul of Cuttack. Moreover, during their reign they actively promoted Jagannath and substantially encouraged pilgrimage from various parts of India to Puri.
Yet on the 11th of September 1803, when British Major Harcourt launched an attack on Orissa from south, he offered a bribe of one hundred thousand (one lakh) rupees to the king of Khurda to betray Maratha rulers of Orissa. The naïve king, utterly ignorant of the devilish British designs accepted the offer of bribe, and Harcourt captured the temple city of Puri within a week, to be precise on the 18th of September 1803, without any resistance whatsoever. In fact priests of Jagannath temple offered traditional Hindu ceremonial welcome and blessings to Harcourt and his British soldiers. After British occupied Orissa, Harcourt conveniently forgot to pay the promised amount to the king, and after repeated requests paid a portion but not the entire amount. Subsequently Harcourt’s deputy Captain Hickland attacked the forces of the king of Khurda on 22 November 1804. Harcourt himself led the attacks on the nearby Banpur Fort and captured the king’s son and brothers. Subsequently Khurda as well as Banpur Fort were reduced to rubble by the British and the king of Khurda was captured on the 3rd of January 1805 and taken a prisoner to Barabati Fort at Cuttack. I suppose the traitor got his just reward!
Let me take my readers back to the invasion from south by Harcourt to paint the backdrop for attack on Cuttack. After the fall of Puri on the 18th of September 1803, Harcourt marched on Cuttack on the 24th of September and after encountering some very weak resistance from the weary Maratha troops on the way, reached Cuttack on the 8th of October 1803. Harcourt entered the city of Cuttack through Lalbagh Fort in the south, and proceeded to lay seize on the formidable Barabati Fort where the vast majority of Maratha troops were stationed. Now my readers, I can visualise you sitting upright and tense in your eagerness to learn of the imminent fierce battle. I am afraid, much to the disappointment of movie and TV producers who would love to show a heroic war, no such encounter eventuated. Cunning Harcourt repeated his trick and offered a bribe of one hundred thousand rupees to a highly placed Maratha officer by the name Shiv Prasad, who fell for the promised sum. I have always wondered the magic of a lakh of rupees on Oriya psyche! In stead of engaging you in an analysis of the psyche let me proceed with the narration of Harcourt’s march. On the 13th of October a portion of the southern wall of the fort was blown open by artillery fire, and on the 14th of October 1803 Harcourt captured the pride of Orissa Barabati Fort with minimal resistance. Maratha troops fled with great alacrity towards western Orissa with the British in hot pursuit.
Now I draw your attention to the conduct of the citizenry of Cuttack that consisted of Oriya and Maratha Hindus, and Muslims, who were in the habit of continual infighting. For once, in view of this British invasion, people of Cuttack forgot their differences and united, however, not to fight and resist the invasion but to flee en masse. They turned to their heels and crossed the many rivers and fled as far as Tangi, which lies some 15 km to the north, and no further. There the great urban population of Cuttack hid in the shrubs and bushes but did not venture any further to the north or to the west that harboured thick forests, for the fear of the big cats. In a few days they limped back to their hearths and homes, initially in a trickle that swelled to a torrent only to see British forces in complete control of their city. The capture of Barabati Fort struck such terrors in the hearts of the citizenry of Cuttack that they never uttered a single word of protest against the British for nearly a century, until the advent of Mr Madhusudan Das in 1881. The next one and a half centuries of British misrule utterly destroyed Orissa. This is the story of my brave countrymen, and I ask you to tell me where lay that Oriya belligerence when it was needed most!!
I remember British Carry On film series of 30 or so extremely hilarious movies such as Carry On Doctor, Carry On Nurse and Carry On Cleo that were made between 1958 and 1978. If an Oriya film director ever wishes to extend Carry On series by producing another, all the materials are right here in this article for producing one entitled, Carry On Traitors.
Demolition of Barabati Fort
Ananga Bhima Dev III of Ganga Dynasty built Barabati Fort between 1211 and 1238 AD, and as stated earlier Mukunda Dev constructed a nine storied palace within its precincts in 1560 AD. During the mid-nineteenth century, this majestic fort that had stood tall as the pride of Orissa since the early thirteenth century experienced a deliberate and systematic disintegration at the behest of British administration of Orissa, in a devilishly cunning design to destroy Oriya nationalism. I have made a strong statement, and I stand by it; justification of my stance follows.
After the capture of Barabati Fort in 1803, British used it as a prison for a good few years for incarcerating state-prisoners. Once British established a total control over Orissa, there were no state-prisoners and Barabati Fort was purposefully abandoned without any maintenance whatsoever. Then in an attempt to accelerate the disintegration of the fort, British started using the stonework of the fort as a quarry for supplying building stones for road works, embankments and other civil constructions. And please bear in mind that Cuttack is surrounded by an abundance of quarries that could supply as much building stones as necessary for building a new Rome or an Athens. A conscientious middle ranking British officer Mr Shore, perhaps unaware of the covert British policy of destroying Oriya nationalism, while functioning as the Magistrate of Cuttack, disapproved of the destruction of the fort.
He appealed to the British Governor of Bengal, in whose jurisdiction remained Cuttack. Shore’s persistence forced the Governor to write a letter on the 31st of May 1856 to stop the demolition of Barabati Fort, but there were no attempts whatsoever either for the renovation or even preservation of the fort. Moreover, by the time the letter was drafted, destruction of the fort was so far advanced that various British agencies entrusted with civil constructions in the city, after giving the fort a brief respite, resumed quarrying the fort for the stones. Unscrupulous and greedy Oriya vandals of Cuttack plundered the stone work too.
Now, I throw a challenge to any national or international big businesses who are queuing up to set up large scale industries in Orissa to come forward to take up the reconstruction of the majestic Barabati Fort and the nine storied palace that stood within its precincts. Whosoever reconstructs Barabati Fort and the palace will earn the enduring affection of the Oriya people. A British agency may take up the reconstruction, in order for making amends, which will only be a small measure though, for the horrendous harms they have caused to the Oriya nation.
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Orissa needs a Madhu Babu now
As stated earlier, demise of the last independent king of Orissa, Mukunda Dev in 1568 AD led to the utter disintegration of the Oriya nation. Subsequent Moghul rule divided the coastal Orissa known as Moghul Bandi into five Sarkars: Jaleswar, Bhadrak, Cuttack, Kalinga Dandapat and Rajamahendri. By the time Marathas occupied Orissa they controlled only the three northern Sarkars, while the southern two Kalinga Dandapat and Rajamahendri stayed with Muslim rulers of Hyderabad. By the middle of the nineteenth century during British rule, Orissa ceased to exist as a separate entity. The southern portion of Orissa was a part of Madras Presidency, the western part belonged to Central Provinces and the coastal Orissa was a part of Bengal. Literary establishment of Bengal, Bengali aristocracy as well as their general administration started a campaign to completely destroy the identity of this once proud Oriya nation. Bengali establishment claimed that Oriya is not a separate language; in their estimation it was only a dialect of Bengali! At this very juncture, when this massive onslaught on the very identity of Orissa raged, Mr Madhusudan Das, affectionately known as Mr Das and Madhu Babu, appeared on the scene.
Madhu Babu was born in 1848 AD in a wealthy educated upper caste Oriya family in a village by the name Satyabhamapur about 20 km away from Cuttack. His father Choudhury Raghunath Das was a Persian speaking lawyer at Cuttack. After early education in the village primary school, Madhusudan enrolled at Cuttack High School, which was the premier educational establishment of the city, and was subsequently named Ravenshaw Collegiate School. He was a bright and conscientious student who noticed first-hand the systematic destruction of Barabati Fort.
After completion of his schooling Madhusudan Das left for Calcutta for higher education in 1866, just as the horrendous Na’anka famine caused by an utter mismanagement by the British administration of Orissa, visited the land. My friends from the British Isles and my anglophile friends from all over the world may think that I am being unreasonably harsh in my criticism of British colonial administration of Orissa, but I categorically state that I have not made any exaggerated claims. The famine killed a million people out of the total population of nearly 3.7 million of the three Oriya districts. While this famine raged, British administration continued to export rice procured from Orissa to overseas destinations. Subsequently, in 1867 when Sir Stafford Northcote became the Secretary of State for India, he admitted British mismanagement in the House of Commons, which I have cited to justify my claims, as follows:
‘This catastrophe must always remain a monument of our (British) failure, a humiliation to the people of this country (Britain), to the government of this country (Britain)…’
I would also like to record that many commentators and historians have blamed the British for an equally catastrophic famine in Ireland between 1845 and 1852 that killed a million out of a total population of eight million, and made another million flee to America. The hordes of indigent Irish migrants in America, by dint of their sincere labours, over a period of time gained affluence and recognition. My fellow Oriyas on the other hand stayed put in Orissa and continued their favourite past-time of fratricidal squabbles!
Now let me resume my narration of Madhu Babu’s life, as follows.
Although Calcutta is barely 400 km away from Cuttack, this distance in the mid-nineteenth century, in the absence of any direct rail or road links, was quite formidable. Young Madhusudan braved the journey, and spent a good fifteen years in the capital of the British Raj, Calcutta, where he completed a Bachelor of Arts degree, a Master of Arts degree and a Bachelor of Law degree from Calcutta University, in the process becoming the first Oriya ever to be so qualified. During his stay in Calcutta he noted the unification of Germany, and the unification of Italy that came about in the year 1871, in the immediate aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War. As the very first graduate and the post-graduate of an Orissa that did not have a separate existence, young Madhusudan nursed a divine calling to lead his nation establish her identity. In the twenty-first century parlance he would be termed a Non Resident Oriya (NRO).
Madhusudan married at the age of 25 in 1873, and his wife died five years later in 1879 when he was 31. He had no children, yet instead of going for a second marriage, which was a well-accepted norm then, I suppose more so now, and continuing with his practice of law and leading an affluent life as an advocate in Calcutta, Madhusudan resolved to dedicate his life to the cause of Orissa and to the service of Oriya people. This widower remained single till the end of his long and eventful life of 86 years, without ever marrying again. He returned to Orissa in 1881 at the age of 33 and practised law at Cuttack bar, as the very first Oriya barrister.
Utkal Union Conference and unification of Orissa
In 1871, an association by the name Utkal Sabha was created to promote Oriya language and literature. Utkal Sabha met twice a year to listen to famous Oriya writers and intellectuals, a practice that continued unchanged for a decade until 1882, when the scope of discussions was substantially expanded. In 1883, Utkal Sabha took a daring step when they discussed and resolved to call upon the British Government of India to implement Ilbert Bill of 1883, which had just been introduced by India’s Vice-roy George Ripon. Ilbert Bill had proposed to empower senior Indian judges to try European offenders of law in India, who until then were essentially never punished for any crimes committed against Indians in India. This proposal raised a storm of protest in overtly racist nineteenth century Britain, and was most fiercely opposed by Europeans based in India; consequently was drastically modified by the British Parliament.
Madhusudan Das after his return to Cuttack became involved with Utkal Sabha in the early 1880s. He sharpened the focus of the activities of the association, and concentrated on the specific issues of the problems of the Oriya speaking people. His brilliant legal mind, great integrity and powerful oratory in English, Oriya as well as Bengali, made him an automatic and unanimous choice initially for the position of secretary of Utkal Sabha followed by the vice presidency. During his tenure as the vice president, Madhu Babu drafted a long list of demands that included improvement in transportation through the establishment of rail links between Calcutta and Puri, remedial measures against draughts and famines, proper administration of Jagannath Temple, and unification of Oriya speaking people. The list of demands was submitted to Sir Richard Thompson, a senior British official, during his visit to Cuttack in November 1985. British administration however, remained totally indifferent towards the needs of the people of Orissa.
Madhu Babu then made a strategic move to establish closer links with the just founded Indian National Congress (INC) for securing benefits for Oriya people as well as for unification of Orissa. Utkal Sabha nominated delegations to participate in annual sessions of Congress since its very first year of formation in 1885. Initially Madhu Babu had a great deal of faith in Indian National Congress, but as time passed he realised that INC was primarily interested in national issues, and was not particularly keen on this mere appendage of Bengal, called Orissa. Oriya issues did not even figure in the agenda of INC. Madhu Babu was determined to unify Orissa, so he conceived a new forum, and established Utkal Union Conference (UUC), also known as Utkal Sammilani in Oriya language, in 1903. The inaugural session of UUC in December 1903, presided by the prince of Mayurbhanj Sri Ram Chandra Bhanja Deo, was a spectacular success, where the three main objectives of i) unification of scattered Oriya speaking people, ii) economic progress of Orissa through development of industries, and iii) social progress through general, technical and female education, were announced.
Since the inauguration in 1903 till its merger with Indian National Congress in 1920, Utkal Union Conference under the leadership of Madhu Babu held 16 annual sessions in the main towns of Orissa such as Cuttack, Puri, Balasore and Sambalpur, as well as in prominent Oriya speaking townships of Berhampur and Jeypore in the Madras Presidency, and championed the cause of unification of Orissa. Madhu Babu’s brilliant leadership and his sincere altruistic endeavours eventually achieved a separate statehood for Orissa on the 1st of April 1936.
I would like to record here that for-ever-young this fountain-head-of-energy and optimism, maker-of-modern-Orissa, was to an extent snubbed by his own disciples. I would not like to use the word ‘betrayed’, because that would be too harsh a criticism of all those idealistic young-men, who out-manoeuvred Madhu Babu in 1920 Chakradharpur convention of Utkal Union Conference, but they lacked the far-sight of the visionary elder-statesman Madhu Babu. In fact Madhu Babu’s leadership had been challenged earlier by Gopabandhu Das in 1919, when he proposed merger of Utkal Conference with INC. Madhu Babu however, resisted the merger proposed by his former apprentice, for he was apprehensive that sacrificing Oriya nationalism at the altar of Indian nationalism would derail the process of unification of Orissa. The radical younger generation led by Gopabandhu, whose following had steadily grown to the extent that it outnumbered Madhu Babu loyalists, were absolutely determined for a change at the Chakradharpur session. Sensing imminent defeat and humiliation at the hands of his own disciples, 72 year old Madhu Babu, who was to preside the session, cancelled his plans and did not attend. An associate of Gopabandhu, Jagabandhu Singh of Puri presided the last ever session that resolved merger of Utkal Union Conference with Indian National Congress.
This merger inspired many idealistic Oriya young men to join the Non-Cooperation Movement launched by Indian National Congress led by Mahatma Gandhi, but the objective of a successful unification of all the Oriya speaking tracts that remained scattered in the different administrative provinces of British India never materialised. Orissa did become a separate province in 1936, but large tracts of Oriya speaking areas such as Sareikala, Kharasuan, Singbhum in Bihar, Midnapur in Bengal, Phuljhar, Bastar in Central Provinces, Simanchal in Madras Presidency, never became a part of the separate province of Orissa. Madhu Babu’s apprehension proved correct.
Legacy of Madhusudan Das
On a personal note of tribute to this great elder-statesman or Kulabrudha, I would like to record here that I have often tried to visualise a speech Madhu Babu delivered at the Legislative Council on the 27th of July 1921 as a 73 year young legislator. I quote a portion of his speech where he delineated the role of a people’s representative as follows:
‘When a man comes in as a representative, first of all he has to govern himself. He must say to himself; my wish is nothing, my wants are nothing, my demands are nothing, first of all, all that is mine must be postponed to what belongs to my electors, my rights must yield to what is within the rights of those whom I represent.’
Can even a single people’s representative in the entire length and breadth of my vast country India, claim to subscribe to this idealism to-day! or for that matter, can even a single practitioner of the profession of law in India, claim to have the idealism and integrity of Madhu Babu! He has set very high standards for public figures indeed, perhaps unattainable in contemporary India.
Madhu Babu was a man of letters, held many powerful positions in his illustrious career and made full use of his positions as well as his gifts of oratory and writings to bring about massive social reforms in Orissa. He was a member of the Legislative Council of Orissa, Bihar and Bengal for nearly three decades starting from 1896, and was a member of Imperial Council from 1913 to 1916. He earned vast sums of money through his practice of law, and donated or spent it all on nationalist causes. The twenty-first century Oriyas forget the contributions of this great genius of a man. India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru paid homage to Madhu Babu with the words, ‘Madhusudan Das was not only a leader of Orissa, rather he was a great Indian leader, who did many pioneering works for the upliftment of Indian social and economic conditions’.
Madhu Babu was the very first national leader who took concrete measures for the upliftment of untouchables and underprivileged lower castes of Hindu society as well as minority communities of the country. He founded Utkal Tannery that was designed as a venture for the rehabilitation of untouchables, where a hundred skilled cobblers and tanners (untouchables), and 300 semi and unskilled low-caste Hindus or Dalits worked. Utkal Tannery was run and managed by untouchables and lower castes, who Madhu Babu, the childless widower, treated as his own children. Mahatma Gandhi visited Utkal Tannery on the 19th of August 1925, and was thoroughly impressed by the endeavours of Madhu Babu for the upliftment of untouchables. I want my readers to bear in mind that Madhusudan Das, the pioneer social reformist, inspired and mentored Mahatma Gandhi to work for the upliftment of untouchables. After visiting Utkal Tannery Mahatma Gandhi started a tannery at his Sabarmati Ashram in 1928 under the guidance of Madhu Babu. Gandhiji in a special article published in The Bombay Chronicle of the 15th of November 1932, wrote, ‘Madhusudan Das, a great philanthropist had himself learnt the modern process of tanning, had prepared statistics to show what the country was losing annually owing to the superstition of untouchability masquerading under the name of religion.’
Mahatma Gandhi held Madhusudan Das in high esteem, acknowledged him along side Count Leo Tolstoy as one of his two mentors, and time and again in his writings, acknowledged Madhu Babu’s influence on him. During his visit to Orissa in December 1927, Gandhiji reached Cuttack on the 18th of December after a fortnight of arduous walks and demanding daily schedules. The Mahatma presently 58 was taken ill, with a fever and a high blood pressure. So instead of staying in the place arranged by the Congress workers, Gandhiji rested for four days in Madhu Babu’s residence. Madhu Babu’s adopted daughter Sailabala Das in her book ‘A Look Before And After’ has recorded that ‘the very touch of his (Madhu Babu’s) fingers gave him (Gandhiji) immediate relief. After fully recovering from his exhaustion and fever, Gandhiji left Cuttack for Madras on the 21st December 1927.
I value Madhusudan Das for his exceptional erudition, for his uncommon idealism, and above all for the great Oriya nationalist he was. His tireless altruistic mass movement brought success to Oriya nationalist campaign, and by 1933 it become obvious that within a few years Orissa would become a separate state. Madhu Babu, however, did not see Orissa become a separate province in 1936, as he and passed away on the 4th of February 1934. I would like to record here that the charitable Madhu Babu towards the end of his life had become a bankrupt and had declared insolvency.
Within a generation of Madhu Babu’s demise, the era of idealism that he had so assiduously established in Orissa, was well and truly over. Idealism disappeared from the political landscape of Orissa, and Oriyas reverted to their five hundred year old, treacherous habits. I have often wondered the origin of an Oriya saying: ‘Nei aani thoi jaanile, chori bidyaa bhala’, which upon translation reads, ‘Managed properly theft is a good profession’. My response is that theft is never a good profession, and let us be very clear on this.
My non-Oriya Indian friends have pointed out that I need not single out Oriyas for habitual infighting, which they say is a ‘way of life’ for Indians from other states too, and perhaps holds true for the country as a whole. They are right, but Orissa is a small part of India, is a single linguistic entity, and by all logic should be easier to unite than uniting the whole country as diverse as India.
In this twenty first century, Orissa faces huge opportunities and vast threats. The incoming investments in a range of fields in Orissa are unprecedented in magnitude, and so are the challenges posed by the threats of global warming, natural disasters, and the agitations by the disgruntled people of Orissa who are sinking deeper into poverty and missing out on the economic growth.
In terms of per capita income Orissa remains the second most poor state of the country. Oriyas have to overcome all those differences of caste, wealth, education, age, regionality, political affiliations and ideologies to unite to fight the abject poverty to build a prosperous state, and to contribute in a much more robust manner to make India great again. Having criticised Oriya infightings, I conclude this article by stating that I admire this great spirit of aggression among the youth I see these days, and I hope it could be channelled to fight the abject poverty, and not each other.
(Author is the Director, NRI-Enviro-Geo-Tech - Australia, Sydney & presently based in Hiroshima, Japan)