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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 15, New Delhi, March 27, 2021

Odisha Assembly Marks Centenary of Gandhi’s First Visit to the State | S N Sahu

Friday 26 March 2021, by S N Sahu


It is quite instructive that on 23st March 2021 Naveen Patnaik Government in Odisha commenced a year long celebration of the centenary of Mahatma Gandhi’s visit to the State on 23rd March 1921. One of the objectives of that historic visit was to enlist people’s support for achieving Swaraj in one year by intensifying non-cooperation movement and collecting funds from Odisha for Lokmanya Tilak Swaraj Fund for which the total amount of one crore of rupees was to be raised from across India.

Odisha Assembly Resolution to include non-violence and Constituent Assembly Debates on Including Gandhi’s Name in Preamble

On 23rd March 2021 the forenoon session of the ongoing budget session of Odisha Assembly was devoted to discuss manifold legacies associated with Gandhi’s first visit to the State and members cutting across party lines took part in it. The Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution, based on the suggestion of the Chief Minister during the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhiji, that non-violence should be incorporated in the Preamble of the Constitution. It reminds Shibbanlal Saxena’s amendment moved in the Constituent Assembly on 17th October 1949. It had urged the Assembly to incorporate Mahatma Gandhi’s name and non-violence in the Preamble. However he was requested by some Members of the Assembly to withdraw it. Some of them stated that if Mahatma Gandhi’s name would be added in the Preamble and if in future a Government removed his name then that would constitute an offence to his memory and legacy. Therefore, the amendment was withdrawn. Seventy three years later Odisha Assembly passed a resolution to incorporate non-violence in the Preamble on the occasion of the centenary celebrations of Mahatma Gandhi’s visit to the State.

Unprecedented Celebrations

It was indeed educative that the centenary of Gandhi’s first visit was celebrated across the State as much by the Government as by civil society groups, numerous voluntary organisations and other bodies with enthusiasm and dedication hardly seen in recent history. They organised special marches carrying Gandhi’s photographs, held prayer meetings, appealed people to keep away from alcohol and intoxicating substances and stressed on interfaith and communal harmony to defeat divisive forces. All the prominent Odia dailies published well researched opinion pieces on that historic visit and brought out special pages giving fascinating details of what Gandhi did and say on his arrival in Cuttack and other places in 1921. One leading daily the Samaja, established in 1919 by Utkalmani Gopabandhu Das on whose invitation Gandhi visited Odisha for the first time in 1921, wrote an illuminating editorial “Centenary of that Welcome Visit.” Many authors in their articles recalled that when Gandhi arrived in Cuttack on 23rd March 1921 he was greeted by thousands and thousands of people from far and wide by shouting Vande Matarm and “Hindu - Musalman ki Jai”. The later slogan of that era capturing the spirit of the Khilafat movement underlined unity and solidarity among Hindus and Muslims and affirmed fraternity. Most of the TV channels of the State invited representatives of all political parties to discuss multiple dimensions of Gandhi’s visit and their contemporary relevance. The magnitude of celebrations and the scale of participation of people from cross sections of society was so impressive that a leading Odia daily The Sambad put it on top of its front page by saying “Gandhi was all around Odisha”

Gandhi and Odisha

Gandhi came to know about Orissa, now renamed as Odisha, on his return from South Africa to India in 1915, in the context of famines taking place recurrently in that British province and causing widespread havoc, mass scale starvation and deaths of thousands of people. In his speech delivered on 25th March 1938 near Puri he had said, “As soon as I returned to India I began to hear of Orissa’s poverty and famine. We raised an amount and sent over Thakkar Bapa in the capacity of a servant of this afflicted province and organized famine relief”.

Odisha a Mere Geographical Expression

Ten months before his visit to Orissa he, in the context of raging famine in Puri and large parts of the province, wrote in 1920, “Most of us perhaps do not even know where Orissa is…”; “.... it is a mere geographical expression……”; “For, even whilst India is pulsating with a consciousness of national life, we know little of Orissa”; “Orissa, in spite of its enjoying the honour of having one of the great places of pilgrimage, viz., Jagannath Puri, appears to be a godforsaken country.” He wrote that with his first visit to Orissa, the poorest province of India, he would complete his country wide tour. Subsequently Gandhi visited Orissa seven times and wrote extensively about his experiences which included his understanding that poverty of people in Odisha was worse than that of Champaran where Gandhi thought he saw the worst kind of poverty. He attributed that poverty and backwardness, among others, to frequent natural disasters like floods ravaging its different parts.

March for Abolition of Untouchability

During one of his visits to Orissa in 1934 he undertook a march, Harijan Padayatra, and he had decided to cover some distance of the march near Puri by train. On coming to know that some Sanatani Hindus threatened to kill him during the Yatra he decided to cover the entire distance by foot and non-violently face their threat. The objective of that March was to mobilise people against untouchability so that the social evil could be abolished and throw open temples to those who were denied access to them on grounds of their low caste status. In his aforementioned speech of 25th March 1938 he stated, “I also realized that if I could serve Orissa somewhat I would by so doing serve India” and added with emphasis, “...Orissa became for me a place of pilgrimage—not because the temple of Lord Jagannath was there—for it was not open to me, as it was not open to the Harijans—but because I thought of a novel way of touring the country for the sacred mission of the abolition of untouchability”.

Gandhi and Jagannath Temple, Puri

While he visited Jagannath Temple in Puri during his first first visit to Orissa in 1921, he did not do so in 1938 on the ground that Dalits were not allowed to enter the shrine. When Kasturba went inside it during her visit to Puri in 1938 in spite of his advice that she should visit up to the point till which Harijanas were allowed, he held himself responsible for the lapse on her part and said that he failed in converting her to the path of non-violence. He deeply regretted Kasturba’s action in entering the Puri Jagannath temple for the priest of which, he said, “silver coin is God”.

Gandhi considered death of an Odia as a model death for him

Gandhi was hugely impressed by stalwarts of public life of Orissa such as Utkalmani Gopabandhu Das and Utkal Gaurab Madhusudan Das. The later was a converted Christian and set up Utkal Sammilani in 1903 to unify Odisha the territory of which remained parts of Bengal, Bihar, Madras and Central provinces during British rule. Eventually Odisha was unified and it became the first province to have been created on the basis of language on 1st April 1936. Gopabandhu Das’s exemplary selflessness and dedication for the cause of freedom struggle prompted Gandhi to say that with such selfless workers Swaraj could be achieved in one year. Deeply influenced by Madhusudan Das’s work for the cause of Dalits Gandhi wrote in 1934 that his eyes were opened by Das’s explanation that India suffered economically because of untouchability.

Apart from being impacted by these great personalities Gandhi was impacted by Ordinary life, work and even death of common people. One such person was Krishna Chandra Nayak who died of snake bite in 1920 while distributing relief in areas devastated by famine. When Gandhi was requested to send a condolence message to the bereaved family he responded by saying that he would send a congratulatory message in place of condolence message because Krishna Nayak lost life while serving the famine affected people. He considered that death as a model death and wished to die such a death. In fact Gandhi chose only two deaths as model deaths and nursed the desire to die such a death. One was that of Krishna Chandra Naik and the other of Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi.

Demand to Correct the plaque in Puri not showing Gandhi’s visit to Jagannath Temple

Legacy associated with Gandhi’s visit to Odisha endures. The way in which the centenary of that visit was celebrated with gusto and enthusiasm speaks volumes for respect of people for his life and work. In Puri where there is a plaque in railway station stating that Gandhi did not want to enter Jagannath temple in 1938 on the ground that it was not open to Dalits, the priests of the temple demanded to include in it his visit to the shrine in 1921. The district officials of Puri recommended that VIP road of the town should be named after Mahatma Gandhi.

Discussions in the State Assembly

In the State Assembly Congress MLA Nrusingha Mishra while speaking on centenary of Gandhi’s visit stated that followers of Nathuram Godse are ruling the country. It was objected toby BJP MLAs one of whom said that rising sale of liquor in the State and violence against women tarnished the legacy of Gandhi.

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik while speaking in the Assembly mentioned that Gandhi’s non-violent resistance ignited many peaceful movements across the world and it is most appropriate to recall that idea in the land of Kalinga which inspired Emperor Ashoka to renounce war. He quoted Martin Luther King who said “Gandhi was inevitable. If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable. He lived, thought and acted, inspired by the vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony. We may ignore Gandhi at our own risk.” Adding further he referred to Gandhi’s commitment to pluralism and his message of tolerance and harmony and stressed that those values associated with his life remained relevant for the world confronting increasing polarisation and divisiveness. He quoted Gandhi’s Talisman which gives primacy to the poorest and guides to go beyond self after ascertaining the benefits of our action for the lowly and lost. He affirmed his Government’s commitment to the ideals and principles of Mahatma Gandhi and mentioned that the change of name of the State Secretariat to Lok Seba Bhavan was not mere symbolism.

Such comprehensive celebrations of the centenary of Gandhi’s first visit to Odisha are unprecedented in the history of not only Odisha but also of India. It should be studied at the national level where it got hardly any coverage both in the print and digital platforms.

(Author: S.N. Sahu was Press Secretary to the President of India the late KR Narayanan)

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