Freedom will not come
Today, this year
Through compromise and fear….
I do not need freedom when I’m dead
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread
– Langston Hughes
Using brute police force to silence indigenous peoples’ mass uprising in Orissa is not just an act of sheer cowardice and criminality; it is a decision founded upon gross ignorance of the unique stream of struggles which characterize the class war in the land that has witnessed more organized revolutions than enforced reforms.
Orissan tribal uprising has a definitive historical pattern. It is not exclusive to the current state of unrest. The administrations – both Union and the State – deliberately fail to acknowledge the peoples’ organized movements as thus. It is not a Maoist prerogative to envision the path of violent resistance among the oppressed in Orissa. Quite the contrary, actually – it is the continuation of radical dissent among the peoples of Orissa that has generated a certain Maoist character within the struggle.
The indigenous in Orissa have never retired from their relentless rebellions against the land-grabbers. They have violently challenged the zamindars, formed alliances against the kings, conspired to overthrow the British, and have demonstrated ample courage in battling caste supremacism. Tribal resistance movements in Orissa have consistently targeted foreign interventions via expropriation of their lands that threaten to result in economic distress.
Prof J. H. Hutton (quoted in G.S. Ghurye’s “The Scheduled Tribes”, 1961) observes, “All these rebellions were defensive movements: they were the last resort of tribesmen driven to despair by the encroachments of outsiders on their land or economic resources. As such they could have all been avoided had the authorities recognized the aboriginals’ grievances and taken steps to remedy them out… but before the pressure on the tribesmen had made an outbreak unavoidable. Indeed anyone with first hand experience of conditions in the backward areas must be surprised, not by the occurrence of risings, but by the infrequency of violent reactions on the part of the aboriginals to the loss of their ancestral lands and to their economic enslavement.”
One of the first organized revolts by the indigenous, known as Ghumsar risings, during early 19th century, illustrates how the people have cried for freedom from invaders, both local and global. Ghumsar, a small estate in Ganjam district was ruled by the Bhanja dynasty. Owing to default in revenue payment to the Empire, the British intervened in the affairs of Ghumsar and its ruler Srikar Bhanja was deposed in 1800 CE. When the British took control of Ghumsar after overthrowing Srikar’s son Dhananjaya, it was Dora Bisoi, a leader of the Kandhs (who was awarded the title of Birabar Patra) who won the support of the common people as well as Kandh chiefs to decide on the fate of Ghumsar. Since a Kandh leader could not be allowed to rule, Bisoi brought a 12-yr old girl and substituted Dhananjaya’s son of that age with her and ruled the estate on her behalf. Dora Bisoi was the leader of the masses and this was the reason why the Collector of Ganjam failed to arrest him for over three years.
Administrative officers did their best to harass Bisoi and finally, he escaped to Torabadi at Soroda. The Kandhs then garnered support of the Savaras in this movement against the British and the royals. In the meantime, Srikar Bhanja was again placed on the throne, but he failed to manage the affairs properly upon which his son Dhananjaya was reinstalled on the condition that he paid the dues to the British. British force under Sir Henry Taylor finally occupied Ghumsar in 1834.
Dora Bisoi, the leader of the anti-Bhanja rebellion now led a revolt against the British which claimed lives of several British soldiers and burnt down British camps. British Government appointed a special officer George Russell to capture Dora. Rebel leaders including Kollada, Galeri, and Durgaprasad lent support to Dora in their collective fight against the British, while they found shelter in the mountains of Daspalla and Nayagarh.
Special Commissioner Russell unleashed one of the greatest assaults upon a resisting people that changed the character of India’s freedom movement. The British offered an unprecedented Rs 5,000 as a reward to anyone who could capture Dora. Many rebel leaders were captured and hanged, but Dora escaped first to Patna before escaping to Angul. It was there that the Raja of Angul handed him over to the British and received the reward. Dora Bisoi died tortured in a state prison of Madras. But his ability to lead and create many rebel leaders in Orissa continued to inspire. Great Oriya patriot and nephew of Dora Bisoi, Chakradhar Bisoi took his place and Ganjam’s destinies were reshaped after what the people demanded, not what was imposed from above.
In Banpur, the Kandhs alongwith another low caste people Panas organized their struggle under the leaderships of Krutibas Patasahani, Sadhu Jani and Dunai Jani. Kandhs of Baudh also joined the movement and were united by leaders such as Nabaghana Kahnar, Bira Kahnar, and Madhab Kanhar. The Kandhs remained united in struggle for social justice and economic improvements against both the British and their Rajas. All efforts by the British to divide and rule over the tribals drastically failed.
Elsewhere in India, people used to heed to their Kings as mediators between them and the British. Not so in Orissa. When the British could not accept their defeat in the hands of the Bisois and people of Ganjam, they used the Kandh practice of Mariah sacrifice as a moral justification to attack the indigenous. Chakra Bisoi flat refused to negotiate and the British brought the King of Baudh to intervene. Chakra Bisoi and his comrades not only defied the Baudh King, they burnt down the camp of the British agent and forced the Raja to be sent back with them.
Chakradhar successfully organized the Kandhs in the territories of Angul, Ghumsar, Boudh, Patna, Kalahandi and Paralakhemundi. He also led the Savaras in Paralakhemundi, the peasants in Nayagarh, as well as the Kandhs of Ranpur and Daspalla.
In 1846, right after rainy season, British officer Macpherson marched into Kandhamal to recover his prestige. His troops managed to burn down some houses of the Kandhs. But the Kandhs organized to strike back and plundered in every direction, making the revolt more widespread than before. Orissa’s tribal revolt against the royal thrones as well as British officers became such a matter of concern that the Madras unit of British Government sent a whole army under the command of General Dyee to control the situation. Government of Bengal cooperated with General Dyee to put an end to indigenous revolts.
Tribal leader Nabaghan Kahnar of Baudh and Chakra Bisoi harassed the British no end. Rani of Sonepur, Raja of Angul and Raja of Baudh tried their best to apprehend them and a reward of Rs 3,000 was declared this time. Failing in all their efforts to suppress tribal resistance, Raja of Baudh had to cede Kandhamal to the British.
Governments – both British and the feudal – tried all measures, including arresting Rendon Majhi, head of Borikiya Kandhs of Kalahandi on charges of performing human sacrifices. Most warrior class among the Kandhs, the Kutiya Kandhs joined the larger tribal movements and demanded the release of Majhi. Zamindar of Madanpur was removed when he failed to act against the rising violent rebellions. In the meantime, Chakra Bisoi escaped to Ganjam and joined with the Saoras to rise in rebellion under leadership of Radhakrushna Dandasena. The British ruthlessly attacked and burnt down scores of villages and hanged Dandasena.
Many rebel leaders were hanged and eliminated by the British forces. But this never stopped the march of the revolts. When the Baudha Raja in collaboration with the British oppressed the downtrodden in his state, a new leader Narayan Maliah led the Kandhs to lead yet another violent rebellion.
In 1868, the Bhuinya revolts determined the shape of things to come in Keonjhar. The newly appointed King Dhanurjaya was not recognized by the Bhuinyas. Tired of being brutalized by the royal family, tribal leader Ratna Naik led a popular agitation against the king. The Dewan of Keonjhar Nanda Dhal took help of officer Ravenshaw, the Superintendent of the Tributary Mahals. But the Bhuinyas did not remain silent for long. They rose in revolt, captured Nanda Dhal and Raja’s other associates, and plundered Keonjhargada, the kingdom.
The Bhuinyas found support from the Juangs and the Kols. The Deputy Commissioner of Singhbhum marched to Keonjhar and demanded that the indigenous groups return the captives. The Bhuinyas refused to cooperate and the Deputy Hayes requisitioned for another contingent of army from Singhbhum. Equipped with bows, arrows and swords, the Bhuinyas bravely confronted the British armies but had to finally surrender. Ratna Naik was captured by the Paiks of Pallahara on August 15, 1868 and brought to Cuttack. Paiks who were agents of the British helped arrest several hundreds of tribal revolutionaries. In a show trial, seven were sentenced to death, 27 were transported for life and 149 revolutionaries were imprisoned. Ratna Naik and three of his comrades were hanged in Cuttack.
Minor in age, but a boy of immense moral courage, Dharanidhar Naik of Bhuinya tribe was well educated for his age. The Raja of Keonjhar even appreciated his talents. But when he attempted to educate the fellow Bhuinyas, it did not sit well with the king. Dharanidhar, his brother and friends did not bury the lessons of their education. They organized the bonded labor class of Keonjhar against the King and demanded that they be paid for their work.
This infuriated the King of Keonjhar who had fancied that his tribal subjects were forever deemed to remain as slaves. Dharanidhar, even at such young age, did not submit to various temptations as offered by the King, and went ahead to foster a spirit of resistance among the oppressed indigenous peoples. Many of them then joined Dharanidhar in submitting a petition to the Superintendent of Tributary Mahals. The Superintendent obviously did not act upon the petition and the Raja arrested the petitioners.
Dharanidhar then went on to organize the people to revolt against the Raja. This shocked the ruling class. Dharanidhar led the people inside the palace and looted the palace and distributed the ill-gotten wealth among the people. The King of Keonjhar fled to Anandapur and sent his Assistant Dewan Fakirmohan Senapati to control the situation. Superintendent Ravenshaw also helped the King by sending a detachment of British force to Keonjhar.
Fakirmohan resorted to ugly tricks against the tribal leader. He assured Dharanidhar that the British police was there to help the tribal people. Dharanidhar on good faith appeared before the police officer, but little did he know that Fakirmohan was acting on behalf of the King and the British to punish the poor people who demanded their rights to dignity of life. Dharanidhar and his comrades were arrested and sent to years of rigorous imprisonment by the royal-feudal-bureaucratic-British nexus.
Not only were the Adivasis exploited economically, they were also culturally forced to submit to higher-caste whims. The tribal deities were Hinduised and the indigenous were compelled to show allegiance to the protectors of their new Gods. In the guise of developing personal relationships between the rulers and the ruled, the indigenous peoples were routinely recruited to fight on behalf of the ruling class.
Sambalpur was a classic instance of cultural exploitation during the Sepoy Mutiny. Surendra Sai, a claimant to the guddee of Sambalpur used the Gond and Binjhal tribal chiefs to wage a war against the British Government because the British opposed Sai’s demands. The Gonds of course cooperated in resisting the British, but they also figured out that they were being manipulated by the ambitious ruling class hierarchies.
Sambalpur and adjoining areas were inhabited by the Gonds and the Binjhal tribes who enjoyed autonomy in governance, economic and political. When the king of Sambalpur died without a son, the British Government let his widow Rani Mohan Kumari to succeed him. The patriarchal upper-caste mindset prevalent in the kingdom could not allow a woman to govern the state. The biggest opponent happened to be Surendra Sai, a royal descendant from the Chauhan Raja of Sambalpur, who himself aspired to the throne.
Under the prevailing tensions, the British removed the Rani and replaced her with Narayan Singh who was also from the royal family. The Gonds agitated against Narayan Singh who was appeasing the higher castes by creating 37 Maufi tenures. The Gonds made remarkable progress in Sambalpur. They shook the foundation of royal families which were ambitious in their designs and atrocious in their actions against the dispossessed indigenous.
The Gonds brought Sambalpur to a standstill and organized mass movements to teach a lesson to the Brahmins and the royal family collaborators. In a historic episode now described as “Gond Maru”, the Gonds attacked higher caste people, burnt down their ill-gotten wealth and killed the caste supremacists who were encouraged by the royal families. King of Sambalpur entrusted a Brahmin talukdar of 96 villages with the task of putting down the tribal agitation. The Adivasis rose in revolt against the prescript and killed several Brahmin landlords. The British Government directly intervened to suppress the uprising, but considerably failed to.
Kalahandi revolt was a direct result of economic exploitation of the Kandhs by the Koltas, a class of prosperous agriculturists from Western Orissa. Kandhs had been the pioneering agronomists in Kalahandi for generations, and yet, the Koltas, with financial and military backing of the kings expanded their reach. The Rajas supported the Koltas under the pretext of receiving higher rents, and the Koltas stopped at nothing to exploit the Kandhs, resulting in an agrarian revolt by the latter.
In May 1878, the Kandhs organized a meeting in Balwaspur where they decided to defend themselves against the Koltas. The British Superintendent of the State intervened to stop the Kandhs agitation. The Kandhs resolved to attack whoever came on their way. Several Koltas were killed and many more taken captives by the Kandhs in a mass agitation movement.
The British, acting on behalf of the wealthy, sent additional forces from Raipur, Ganjam and Sambalpur to suppress the Kandhs agitation. Ten Kandh leaders were hanged. Although “peace” was restored, the Koltas were afraid of committing any more atrocities upon the Kandhs in the region.
Attacks on the tribal sovereignty in Orissa continued from both the British regime and the rulers of the princely states. In 1897, several tribal village chiefs were forcibly replaced by the royal ruling class. In Gangpur, the Raja installed the aristocratic oligarchy of Sambalpur in charge of the tribal population.
The indigenous peoples led by Madri Kalo organized a mass agitation movement against Agharia and the rich elites. The Raja sought help from the British to suppress the tribal agitation, but open revolt by the oppressed remained difficult to counter. Many poor people were captured on charges of committing dacoities, but the class/caste war in Gangpur continued without a pause. In 1938, Gangpur witnessed a serious agrarian discontent when Mundas were forced to pay higher rents. The Munda uprising led by Nirmal Munda demanding exemption from payment of land revenues to the colonialists resulted in British intervention causing the Simko firing which killed 41 tribal rebels.
Revolution Never Ends
Orissa’s indigenous never ceased their strikes against the oppressors. Countless revolts – varying in scale – resulted from the organized dissent. This is the nature of struggle that the poorest section of Orissa have engaged in since centuries. It is unlikely that they shall abandon their freedom movement now, simply because the seat of power has been transferred from the white-skinned elites to the brown-skinned ones.
And just as the indigenous organizers were correct in their assessment of human values in the past, it is more likely that keeping in view the status quo of power dynamics in independent India, their dissent towards the power this time around, too, is indicative of appropriate impatience towards prevailing rampant social injustice.