Hon’ble Ministers, Hon’ble Members of Parliament, Com. Janardan Pati; Office-bearers and members of the Shaheed Raghu-Dibakar Smruti Sansad; Distinguished Guests; Representatives of the Media; and Ladies and Gentlemen:
It is indeed a matter of great honour for me to associate myself with this function being organised to pay homage to eight renowned freedom fighters of Orissa who laid down their lives for the cause of the nation. As we all know, this year, we are celebrating the 150th year of the First War of Independence, which fired the first salvo against foreign rule in an organized manner. Incidentally, we are also celebrating the Birth Centenary Year of Shaheed Bhagat Singh this year. It is all the more appropriate, therefore, that the Shaheed Raghu-Dibakar Smruti Sansad has organized this function to commemorate the martyrdom of some very eminent freedom fighters of Orissa. I join all of you here today in paying my humble tributes to these heroes and martyrs of our freedom struggle.
India’s freedom struggle was undoubtedly a pan-Indian movement in which people from across the country took part in very large numbers. The people of Orissa too played a very stellar role in our freedom struggle. In the long drawn and popular upsurge against alien rule, many men and women sacrificed their lives for the cause of the motherland. While there are historical evidence to the valour, bravery and gallantry of several of them, there are many unsung heroes about whom we do not know much. Nonetheless, a grateful nation always holds each one of them, known and unknown, in high esteem and reverence.
Among the martyrs to whom we are paying our homage today, the first to raise the banner of revolt against the British domination was Shaheed Jayee Rajguru. Last month, I had the privilege of associating with a function organized by my colleague Shri Braja Kishore Tripathyji in Delhi, in memory of Shaheed Jayee Rajguru. The Rajguru of Khurda was one of the first martyrs who resisted the British rule and fought against exploitation and injustice which characterized their reign. Daring to challenge the British rule in those early years of British colonialism in India, was indeed an act of heroism. Known for his courage of conviction and valour, he fought till the last and never surrendered to the foreign rulers. He was executed by the British as early as in 1806. His revolt represented a significant beginning and his heroic resistance gave momentum to some well known tribal movements in the later years. The Kol rising of 1832 and the Santhal movement of 1855-56, which was in a way the genesis of the epoch-making event – the 1857 War of Independence - drew largely from the Rajguru’s revolt. It speaks volumes of Shaheed Jayee Rajguru’s popularity, bravery and ardent nationalist spirit that even after two hundred years of his martyrdom, he is affectionately remembered and widely respected across the country.
Another distinguished freedom fighter from Orissa during the early years of the freedom struggle and who had the unique privilege of being the Advisor of Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi was Chandan Hazuri. Popularly known as Chakhi Khuntia, he played a very crucial role in the liberation struggle by mobilizing the Sepoys and organizing the mutiny, for which he suffered at the hands of the British. This valiant freedom fighter breathed his last in 1870 in Puri and it is only appropriate that we are paying homage to him also today.
As for the indomitable Veer Surendra Sai, his close involvement and active association with the freedom struggle, like that of Jayee Rajguru, predates the outbreak of the First War of Independence in 1857. He rebelled against the British rule in 1827 when he was only 18 years of age and continued his struggle even after his arrest in 1864. He was incarcerated in Hazaribagh jail for seventeen long years in the course of the sustained struggle against the British and died at the Asirgad Fort prison in 1884. Veer Surendra Sai was not merely a great freedom fighter; he was also an acclaimed revolutionary who championed the cause of the downtrodden and the tribal people. He endeavoured untiringly to bring the marginalized sections of society into the mainstream and succeeded in no small measure in enlisting their unstinted support to the freedom struggle. Acknowledging his invaluable contributions to our liberation movement, several scholars have commented that he was a ‘Child of the Historic Revolution of 1857’ as Napoleon was a ‘Child of the French Revolution of 1789’.
Yet another revolutionary leader who relentlessly espoused the cause of the tribals and also fought for national freedom was the legendary Birsa Munda. During his very short life of 25 years, he valiantly confronted the British for the fundamental human rights and freedoms of the tribals. Birsa Munda effectively used the myths and symbols of his society and culture to become a rallying point for the people, and in the process he brought them together to rise against foreign rule, oppression and injustice. The British colonial system had intensified the transformation of the tribal agrarian system into a feudal state in those years. As the tribals with their primitive technology could not generate a surplus, the non-tribal peasantry were invited by the chiefs in Chotanagpur to settle on and cultivate the land. This, in turn, impelled Birsa Munda to wage a struggle against the exploitation of the tribals who were deprived of their land. The movement sought to assert the rights of the tribals as the real proprietors of the soil, and the expulsion of the middlemen and the Britishers. His strategy and tactics of armed rebellion which he employed during the late nineteenth century is often compared with the strategy adopted by the legendary General Giap in Vietnam. His movement was also infused with the spirit of religious reform, social justice and cultural regeneration. Birsa Munda was caught by the authorities on 3 February 1900 and died in mysterious circumstances on 9 June 1900 in the Ranchi jail at the very young age of 25.
The youngest of the freedom fighters and martyrs to whom we are paying our homage today was Baji Rout, who, over the years, has become a legend in Orissa. I understand that Baji Rout, at the tender age of 12, was in charge of a country boat on the banks of the river Brahmani at Nilakantapur. Young Baji Rout was courageous enough to refuse the Police to cross the river in his boat so as to escape the wrath of the villagers for having killed some people who had revolted against the British. This act of bravery outraged the Police who fired on Baji Rout, killing him on the spot in October 1938. I am told that this act of bravery has been immortalized by the Jnanpith award winning progressive Oriya poet late Sachidananda Routroy in a poem which very poignantly captures the valour and bravery of the young patriot. Baji Rout will always be remembered and revered as one of the youngest freedom fighters in the history of India.
Another freedom fighter from Orissa who also fought for the rights of the tribals was Laxman Nayak. Responding to the call of Mahatma Gandhi, Laxman Nayak led a procession on 21 August 1942 and demonstrated in front of a Police Station. The Police fired at the demonstrators indiscriminately, resulting in the death of forty freedom fighters and injuries to as many as 200 of them. Subsequently, the British administration falsely implicated Laxman Nayak in a case of murder and he was hanged to death on 29 March 1943 in Berhampur Jail. Like Veer Surendra Sai and Birsa Munda before him, Laxman Nayak was also more than a freedom fighter. A socially sensitive leader, he endeavoured to create political awareness among the tribals and sensitize them about their fundamental rights. He also spread the message of adult education and the importance of abstinence and strived hard to bring about positive changes in the rural areas.
No one in our country can forget the invaluable contributions of the Prajamandal Movement in different parts of Orissa, including in Ranpur in which late Shaheed Raghunath Mohanty and Shaheed Dibakar Parida played the leading role. As you all know, when the national freedom struggle gained momentum, the rulers of the feudatory States solemnly professed their allegiance to the British government on condition of retaining autonomy by paying a lump sum amount as annual tribute and obeying their instructions and dictates. The result was unmitigated suppression of the people by these rulers. Undoubtedly, such wanton disregard for human dignity and freedom agitated the ordinary people who revolted against the injustice and tyranny. The agitation snowballed into a major movement which ultimately shook the very foundations of the British empire in India.
Friends, it was the unwavering commitment of leaders like late Dr. Harekrushna Mahtab, Nabakrushna Chaudhary and the great Socialist leader and thinker Sarangadhar Das which helped to mobilize the people of this State to join the freedom struggle in large numbers in the later years. These pioneers effectively articulated the anguish and grievances of the people and at the same time made them aware of their rights and duties to the nation as well. I also recall the pivotal role played by the octogenarian Comrade, Banamali Das, who in fact spearheaded the Prajamandal Movement in the Nilagiri area in Balasore district in 1938. The same year, the success of the Prajamandal Movement was replicated in Talcher and Dhenkanal. Soon, Ranpur followed suit under the able and inspiring leadership of Raghunath Mohanty and Dibakar Parida. An embattled British administration finally ensured that these two great freedom fighters were hanged to death on 4 April 1941. However, the death of Mohanty and Parida could not silence the popular protest and the revolt against the British rule. When the country got Independence, it was indeed the most befitting tribute to the sacrifice and suffering of all our freedom fighters and martyrs.
Friends, I am indeed happy that such a function has been organized today to commemorate the sacrifices made by the heroes of our freedom struggle. I would, however, suggest that such functions should not end in mere tokenism; rather, they should rekindle our interest in the valorous fight against foreign rule and the values of sacrifice, suffering and patriotism exemplified and epitomized by our martyrs.
At the same time, we must also introspect where we stand as a nation, sixty years into Independence. Our freedom struggle was a glorious and shining chapter in the history of the oppressed people’s fight against the forces of imperialism and colonialism. It was also a movement to secure for our people a control over their destinies, and to provide them with not merely political democracy but social and economic democracy as well. Six decades after freedom, we have to introspect seriously and ascertain where we have gained in consolidating our freedom and national integrity and where we have lagged behind in promoting the socio-economic development of our people. If we take a look at the human development indicators today, we all will agree that we have a long way to go to realize the goals that we had set for ourselves at the dawn of freedom. Equally importantly, we can also discern several fissiparous and divisive tendencies which pose, in the name of religion or language or lack of development, a grave threat to the unity and integrity of our country. We need to make concerted efforts to reach the fruits of development to every segment of our society, especially the weaker and vulnerable sections; similarly, all stakeholders have to strive relentlessly to defeat the evil designs of divisive forces.
Today, we can derive inspiration from the heroes and martyrs of our freedom struggle who cast aside their personal comforts and made the supreme sacrifice in the cause of the nation. Their saga of courage, conviction and compassion should ever be the beacon for each one of us and the nation as a whole.
With these words, I once again pay my profound respects to these martyrs whose everlasting memory we are honouring today.