A brief history of the Praja mandala Movement in Odisha

by Aditya Nag

Every year the month of August is very important for all Indians with songs, images, articles, shows and events which showcase how our nation’s great leaders had forged the modern nation of India. The struggle to India’s freedom has been a long and arduous one. It’s popular belief that the first act of gaining independence from the British was the revolt of 1857 but in Odisha it had kicked off much earlier by our valourous Paikas in the year 1817 when a little known military commander BuxiJagabandhu the commander in chief of the Khurda King led the revolt and surprisingly wreaked havoc on the British administration. Armed with just bow & arrows, cutlasses and matchlocks they were initially quite successful in ousting the British then under the British East India Company from Odisha. Sadly the revolt fizzled out due to the treachery of people associated with Buxi Jagabandhu. Odisha has many a names associated with our freedom struggle to free the nation from the British. The Odia people have some way or the other tried endlessly to end the British hegemony over Odisha and all were brutally suppressed by the British since 1804. Yes it was in 1804 after the Treaty of Deogaon with the Marathas did British have access to Odisha. For them Odisha was just a strategic land link between Calcutta and Madras but what they didn’t estimate was the true grit of the Odia people who refused to take on British rule and at many times till 1947 revolted against them till our nation was free of colonial rule.

One such act of defiance was the ‘Praja mandala Movement or ‘Garajata Movement’, which happened at the same time as the Indian independence movement, wherein the people of the various princely states of Odisha fought against their feudal overlords and the British administration simultaneously for their rights. The main demand of the Praja MandalaMovement was ‘equality of rights’. During the Mughal rule, Odisha was divided into two parts, Mughal Bandhi and Garjat. Mughal Bandhi states were ruled by Mughals and Garjats were the princely states. In 1803, the British captured Odisha following their victory at Cuttack over the Marathas and the former Mughal Bandhi areas came under the British. A new ruler did not change much, the woes of the people continued. The British effectively crushed any and all forms of defiance against them with a swift iron hand. Garjat states like Sambalpur, Khurdha, Mohuri and Angul went against the British. Subsequently they were crushed and their lands attached to British Indian possessions.

After this there was a growing dislike towards the British and it was manifested more than once in the 1800’s with leaders like Jayi Rajaguru and Buxi Jagabandhu revolting under the banner of the Khurdha Raja in 1804 and 1817 subsequently. Two more rebellions also happened -the Tapang rebellion of 1827 and the Banapur rebellion of 1836, each as violent as the previous one and each crushed either with the support or aid of the local Odia rulers who had eventually sided with the British.

“Most of the Princely States were autocratically ruled. The economic burden on the people was heavy, with high taxation and the waging ‘World War II ’ also added to this high taxation”

After the turn of the century the nationalist struggle took more importance than ever before. Freeing India from the British became even more important with the rise in education and the freedom struggle of people like Gopabandhu Das, Madhusudhan Das, Fakir Mohan Senapati, Gangadhar Meher and many others. The awakening of the Odia identity helped in the formation of Odisha as a state. It also helped sensitize people about the ‘rights of man’ as enshrined to all in a democratic nation. Mahatama Gandhi’s nationalist struggle of 1920-21 and 1930-32 had a major influence on the Garjat states, it brought into focus the problems and plight of the people of these Garjat states. Gandhiji was visibly moved by the plight of thepeople of Odisha when he toured the areas which were ruled by the princely states.

The carefree and careless attitude of the feudatory chiefs of Odisha had evoked periodical reactions from their subjects at different times during the first two decades of the early 1900’s. As a new city was laid down in what is now called ‘New Delhi’, the Odia people awakened through the spread of education amongst the people of princely states and the impact of the ‘Gandhian Nationalist Movement’, aroused consciousness and inspired the people of princely states to revolt. The Bamara peasant uprising, the revolt in Dhenkanal and Talcher in 1922, the uprising of Nilgiri in 1928, the uprising in Boudh in 1930 and resistance movement of the people of Talcher in 1932, though suppressed with an iron hand by the feudatory chiefs, prepared the stage for mightier revolts in the near future.

The attempt to organize the people of the feudatory states who were under extreme suffering due to their feudal lords, took real shape during the Civil Disobedience Movement, when the 1st All Orissa States People’s Conference was organized at Cuttack in 1931. It was revived again in 1937, with the efforts of Sarangadhar Das, known as “Garjat Gandhi” in the princely states of Odisha.The second session of the All Orissa States People’s Conference was held at Cuttack on 23rd June 1937. The conference declared its objective as the attainment of responsible government. It exposed the cruel character of the Garjat administration and urged upon the rulers to address the grievances of the people. The conference had a massive effect on the people of the Garjat areas and thus in almost all the states the people formed Praja Mandalas.

Madhusudhan Das                        Gopabandhu Das                 Gangadhar Meher

kishore chandra

against untouchability and started to break class barriers. Soon the national movement and the Congress party which were spearheading the freedom struggle, took note of the Praja Mandala Movement. In a resolution passed at the Lucknow session of Congress in 1936, the following was observed, “Congress… desires to make it clear that, in its opinion, the people of the States should have the same rights of self-determination as those of the rest of India, and that the Congress stands for the same political, civil and democratic liberties for every part of India. The Congress, however, desires to point out that the struggle for liberty within the States has, in the very nature of things, to be carried on by the people of the State themselves.”

The first action of agitation against the Garjat administration was witnessed in the state of ‘Nilgiri’, a small state in the border of ‘Balasore’. The action of the ruler of Nilgiri, on the people of the village of Ayodhya, incited the people. On 2nd May 1938, disturbances started in Nilgiri. The people under the leadership of Kailash Chandra Mohanty and Banamali Das pressed the ruler to yield to their demands, which included the recognition of their civil liberties and removal of unjust laws. Brutal and repressive measures adopted by the ruler to quell the agitation, failed to dislodge. Ultimately a compromise was made through the mediation of Harekrushna Mahatab. Thus, peace was restored in Nilgiri but only for a brief period. It would flare up again. Talcher and Dhenkanal were the two other Garjat states, where the activities of the Praja Mandala created troubles for their ruling chiefs.

In the state of Dhenkanal, a reign of terror was instituted by the ruling chief to suppress the Praja Mandala Movement, which had started its agitation against the reign of tyranny of the ruler in Dhenkanal. What shocked most people was the incident at the villages of Bhuban and Nilakanthapur on the night of 11th October 1938. There, the police party attacked the innocent villagers and killed six persons including a 12 year old boy, Baji Rout who had refused to obey the British and not allowed them to cross the river on his boat. The youngest martyr to be killed during the freedom struggle, he was a member of the Banar Sena of the Praja Mandala Movement. This sort of wanton repression not only invited condemnation but also it strengthened the determination of the people to fight for the fulfillment of their just demands. In the Garjat states of Athagarh, Baramba, Narsinghpur, Nayagarh and Tigiria the people raised their voice under the aegis of their Praja Mandala units.

In the state of Ranpur, near modern day Bhubaneswar also became a major flash point when Praja Mandala demonstrators were fired upon by the British. In the melee that ensued a British Major was killed by the mob who had simply gathered around the palace to demand for their rights.

“For the first time in the history of Odisha the demi-god like status of the princely rulers was reduced to that of a common man and they were answerable to the people.”

Women of Odisha also played an important role in the Praja Mandala Movement. Even in places like Sonepur where farmers simple demand to have access to their cotton produce fell on deaf ears. Many subjects of the Sonepur princely state took up agitation and a woman -Gurubari Meher from the weavers community fell to police firing. She became the first woman martyr of this movement.

The press also supported the cause of the people and made a general attack on the administration of the states through a newspaper called ‘Gadjat Tara’. Another paper ‘The New Orissa’ described the administration of the then ruling Chief of Dhenkanal as ‘veritable hell on earth’. The ‘Samaj’ and ‘Dainik Asha’ highlighted all the proceedings of the state’s workers’ conference which created vigorous enthusiasm among the people of the states. The last phase of the Praja Mandala Movement was started in 1946 in several feudatory states of Odisha. Soon after Independence, the Praja Mandala Movement was successful enough to realize its goals. India became Independent on the 15th August 1947 and with that a new constitution was drafted and enacted in 1950. ‘Zamindari’ and ‘Feudatory’ rule were abolished for good. The movement brought to the forefront, the power of the common people who had suffered for generations under the class barriers imposed on them by their ruling chiefs. It showed that if the government does not pay heed to the problems of the people, they will rise against the government and demand their rights.

The Praja Mandala Movement created many leaders who over the years would rise in state politics and become stalwarts in their own right. For the first time in the history of Odisha the demi-god like status of the princely rulers was reduced to that of a common man and they were answerable to the people. We remember the Praja Mandala Movement in Odisha, to commemorate this independence movement as one of the greatest struggles of not just freedom for the nation, but also freedom of people to express their will and their right, to govern themselves freely and justly.

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