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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 23, New Delhi, May 22, 2021

Odisha’s Communist activist turned Sarvodaya Leader Rabi Dash Passes Away: A Tribute | Nava Kishor Das

Saturday 22 May 2021


by Nava Kishor Das

Odisha’s veteran Sarvodaya leader Rabi Dash breathed his last in Cuttack on Tuesday, 11 May 2021, after a prolonged health related complications. He is survived by his three daughters who are also variously engaged in social service activities, such as the movement for ‘right to information’.

The Naxalite turned Sarvodaya leader Rabi Dash of Odisha was a unique personality. As a social activist he had devoted his life to mitigate the sufferings of farmers, labourers, Adivasis, Dalits, and women in Odisha. Encouraged by his proactive teachers from his young age he had fought against casteism, communalism, and other forms of discrimination. His joining the communist movement was triggered by his passion for social activism.

Born into a Brahmin family, Dash was influenced in his childhood by his tutor, Kanduri Kar, who fought for land-rights of Dalits and their entry into the famous Sarala temple. Later he joined BJB College in Bhubaneswar. During his visit to the library of the Odisha University of Agriculture and Technology, he met the well-known Scottish mathematical biologist J.B.S. Haldane, who persuaded Dash to translate the book “What is Relativity” by Nobel laureate Lev Landau and G.B. Rumer into Odia. Around 2018 Rabi Dash had completed his book on Haldane, and he wanted Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to write the preface. It was Naveen’s father, former chief minister Biju Patnaik, who had brought Haldane to Bhubaneswar.

Dash lived in Tarapur village in Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur district. The true Gandhian Rabi Dash was a soft-spoken man who earned his living partially by tilling his land. “The principle of nonviolence propagated by Mahatma Gandhi is better suited to solve India’s problems than the violent ways of Maoists,” he used to say during his visits to my residence. During his fight against poverty in the Kalahandi region where he launched Sarvodaya activities he had approached the Supreme Court to challenge the administrative failures which led to the starvation deaths.

Rabi Dash wore a khadi kurta and dhoti, and with his hand spun khadi side bag on his shoulder, he used to travel hundreds of kilometres by bus and walking long distances to reach the impoverished tribespeople living in the remotest Kalahandi villages. Rabi Dash believed that it is spinning khadi that can alleviate the misery of the people. As reported in media, according to Sarvodaya leader Rabi Dash, "Gandhiji had told Madhusudan Das that Orissa had taught him Khadi" (Times of India, Oct 1, 2009).

During last three years he used to tell me about his translation works. I used to remind him how dutifully he had visited our home in Ambikapur, Sarguja, during his ‘underground’ era only to finalize the marriage alliance of his younger brother Ram Chandra with my elder sister Tara. (My poet-turned bureaucrat father was then posted in this part of Chhattisgarh).

Rabi Dash was arrested in 1971, and spent a few years in different jails in Odisha. He came out in 1977, when the Janata Party came to power. Dash believes that the Naxal movement forced Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to take pro-poor measures. “When I met her in 1980, she told me that the Naxal movement had opened her eyes,” he told to the Week magazine (September 16, 2018).

He gave up on the CPI (ML) long ago, but he said that the issues that gave rise to the armed uprising have still not been addressed. “Unless the basic problems are solved, the occasional flare-ups of Maoist violence will be there, in spite of strong police measures,” he had told to The Week magazine in 2018 (September 16, 2018). During college years he became a member of the CPI and wrote for the New Age. By 1962, he had also concentrated on writing popular science books. In April 22, 1969, the CPI (ML) was formed with a 14 founder member-central committee, and Charu Mazumdar being its general secretary. This committee included Rabi Dash. Police arrested Dash in 1971 near his village and was in jail for long eight years before his release.

When Kalahandi starvation deaths hit the headlines in 1985, Ram Devi, who was heading the Gandhi Smark Nidhi at that time, requested Rabi Dash to make inquiries. Rabi Dash’s report submitted at the Supreme Court was accepted by the apex court which confirmed the starvation deaths. Thus Kalahandi became the second home for Rabi Dash where he formed the Kalahandi Vikash Parishad (KVP) under the Sarvodaya movement. It was at that time that Maniben Nanavati, who was an associate of Mahatma Gandhi, figured out that the black soil of Kalahandi was suitable for growing cotton. She raised some money and gave it to Dash for cotton cultivation. Training was given to local people to spin and they produced khadi cloth (The Economic Times, 4 May 2009 and 1 Jan 2010).

He initiated cotton cultivation in Kalahandi region, which provide employment to the poverty stricken scheduled tribes and castes and mostly women. He used to lament that the tribespeople remained without the pattas of land they have been tilling for generations. He highlighted the bureaucratic neglect, tortures by police and officials and issue of drinking water.

Rabi Dash was deeply concerned with malnutrition, drinking water issue and sanitary conditions amongst the tribes of Kalahandi area. In order to find solution to iodine deficiency (goiter) among the Kalahandi tribes, he had visited Anthropological Survey of India, Kolkata and discussed the remedial measures with me and my colleague Dr. B. Sarkar, a goiter specialist.

Dash wrote a few books on science as well. How these books once came to his rescue he had told to Lalit Pattajoshi of the Week magazine (September 16, 2018). He said, “When I was on trial for Naxal activities, the judge figured out that I wrote those science books. He said it would be incorrect to give capital punishment to a person who wrote books to popularise science, even though my crime demanded it. He gave me life imprisonment. Of course, the Supreme Court later acquitted me.”

Remaining devoted to serve the ‘weaker sections’ even at the age of 80, Rabi Dash believed in an equitable society as strongly as he did back in his younger age. His simple logic was that “unless the basic issues of hunger and livelihood are addressed, the Naxal or Maoist threat will continue to exist”

In his opinion, the present-day Maoists are misdirected and the violence they propagate is unjustified. He used to say that in the initial meetings when the CPI (ML) was formed, there was no resolution to kill anybody. Unjustified bloodshed and murder are products of feudalism,” he used to say. The ideological movement of Naxalism, anyway, has lost its way long back. There was a split in the original movement and even though Dash tried for unity but he failed.

Dash used to say that the Gandhian approach is the best way to solve India’s problems. That was the reason he wore khadi. Cotton gives more money to farmers. It will give jobs through spinning and weaving and cotton seed will give oil. For Rabi Dash Gandhian philosophy of non-violence is always superior to violent modes of Maoists.

The self-sacrificing endeavours of Rabi Dash have not been duly recognized. The state and union governments need to document and publicise the proactive social activities of this modern day Mahatma of Odisha.

(Author Nava Kishor Das is a Social Anthropologist | E-mail: nkdas49[at]

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