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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 31, New Delhi, July 17, 2021

Rabi Dash: A Unique revolutionary | Manoranjan Mohanty

Friday 16 July 2021, by Manoranjan Mohanty


(Rabi Dash, one of the founding members of the CPI-ML who was active in the militant land struggles in Koraput in the late 1960s and early 1970s and spent the last three decades in Kalahandi organizing a handloom cooperative under Sarvodaya auspices died in Cuttack on 11 May 2021 at the age of 80. This is a tribute by a close friend.)

July 1971, I don’t recall the exact date, but at around 10 pm at night, Rabi Dash reached our Model Town house. During that time, he often reached our Delhi residence unexpectedly, so there was nothing unusual about that particular visit. My wife Bidyut immediately enquired about whether he had eaten and offered to prepare something for him. He answered that there was no time for that, ‘we must type out this petition urgently. Bapi and Numa (i e Nabakrushna Choudhury & Malati Choudhury) have arrived in Delhi today and are staying at Gandhi Peace Foundation. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has given them time to meet tomorrow morning at 11am.’ Rabi Dash said to me.

He asked me to get my typewriter and quickly type this letter. He had brought along a draft and asked me to follow that format.

The next day Bapi and Numa met Indira Gandhi.

They had, of course, been friends since the time they studied together at Santiniketan. Numa used to call her Indu.

Bapi’s main argument was that Nagbhushan Patnaik was a political leader. He was involved in revolutionary politics due to his ideological beliefs. So in the Parvatipuram conspiracy case, the death sentence given by the sessions court in Dec 1970 and confirmed by the Andhra Pradesh High Court should be revisited. They pointed out that this would be the first such case of a political prisoner being sentenced to death in post independent India.

Fortunately, the appeal had the effect. The President of India, converted the death sentence given to Nagbhushan Patnaik into life imprisonment.

Rabi Das was underground since 1968. A few days after this incident, he was arrested. He was implicated in the Chitrakunda conspiracy case being accused of organizing adivasis in the Machhkund Dam region of Koraput hill areas for armed struggle. There were also some other related cases against him.

In 1978 during the Janata Dal regime, after he was released from jail, he got busy trying to mobilise legal and political efforts to ensure the release of Nagbhushan Patnaik. In 1981, Nagbhushan got bail from the Indian Supreme Court. And later the Supreme Court declared him, Rabi Dash and many others innocent.

Nagbhushan then joined CPI(ML) Liberation and became the President of Indian People’s Front (IPF) and continued to be active in that role until the end of his life.

The purpose of recounting this story is that revolutionary Rabi Dash’s understanding of the concept and path of revolution had space for many transformative perspectives, Gandhism, socialism and many other related ideologies. So even when he immersed himself in the work for Kalahandi Vikash Parishad since 1985, that did not indicate his lack of faith in socialism. During the past decade , for example, Rabi Dash worked hard, travelling between Kalahandi to Cuttack, Bhubaneswar and Rourkela repeatedly, collected the works of another revolutionary figure of Odisha, the famous poet and writer, Manmohan Mishra and got them published. This also showed his continuing his faith in his socialist ideals. Rabi Dash’s immortal poetry collection titled Purba Ghata Laal (Eastern Hills are Red) which was published initially in 1969 was republished with some more poems, and with an introduction by poet Sailaja Rabi in 2019, had amazed everyone with the persisting revolutionary fervor contained in his poems. Six months before he died, he had just finished editing a book on the famous scientist JBS Haldane.

When Rama Devi asked him to go and investigate the Kalahandi starvation deaths in 1985 on behalf of the Sarvodaya relief committee, Rabi Dash set off immediately. Whatever work he started and continued there, it was a mix of the basic elements of Marxist and Gandhian ideologies. Utilizing people’s own land, taking advantage of Kalahandi’s black soil which was good for growing cotton,he established a whole process of production, processing and marketing. Starting with production of bales of cotton, he organized spinning the thread, making cloth, he organized the manufacturing of garments and came up with a plan of selling it. Adivasi women of the area gained a lot from this cooperative enterprise of being members of this comprehensive process of production.

I wish to recall another unforgettable episode of December 1973 which has had an indelible mark on every aspect of my life. Numa said to me, ‘Manoranjan, come with me to Vishakhapatnam jail to meet Nagbhushan, Kanu Sanyal & others and in Brahmapur jail, meet Rabi Dash. You will find a lot of things for your research.’ We first went to Vizag, stayed with one of Numa’s friends for the night, and went to the Central jail in the morning. Thanks to Numa’s stature, we immediately got permission to meet the prisoners. Five people came and met us. They were Kanu Sanyal, Kolla Venkaiah, Tejeshwar Rao, Saroj Dutta and Nagbhushan Patnaik. After a good deal of conversation, Numa offered some money towards the lawyers fees to Nagbhushan along with some fruits that she had carried. She later told me that she was saving up for a long time in order to provide this to those imprisoned.

While returning from Vizag, we stopped in Brahmapur and met Rabi Dash at the jail. I remember Rabi Dash speaking a lot about Shahid Laxman Naik who was awarded the death penalty and was hanged to death in this jail. He pointed at the place of his execution in the jail compound. He told us many details about the many Adivasi undertrials who were in custody at this jail and were being exploited not only outside but even within the jails.All this was the subject of much philosophical and political critique and discussion. At the end of our meeting Numa gave some money that she had put inside the fruit bag after which we returned.

As our train was going past the shores of the Chilika lake, Numa was softly singing lines from the poem of Utkalamani Gopabandhu Das: Mishu mora deha e’ desa mati re, desa-basi chali jaantu pithire (May my body dissolve into the soil of my country and let people of my country march on (in freedom) on that soil.). She went on speaking to me :’ We struggled hard for freedom and for realizing freedom for the oppressed, we created the Navjeevan Mandal. But we have failed in our mission and that is why new struggles have been initiated by people like Nagbhushan and Rabi Dash. They ask questions about whose freedom?’

Rabi Dash managed to hold on to his commitment to socialism encompassing in it, Gopabandhu, Rama Devi, Malati Choudhury and their movements. He was a part of the revolutionary movement in the tribal areas simultaneously sharing the vision behind Baji Raut Chhatravas, the residential educational initiative for children of adivasis, Dalits and the poor. He had no problem in treating them as key elements of Marxist social transformation. So being a part of armed revolution in Koraput against the expropriation of Adivasi rights over forest and land, even while having been injured by gunshots, to productive welfare activities especially the women’s collective in Kalahandi had the same significance for him. That’s clear from his life.

Creative, sensitive, friend, writer, the generosity of whose efforts spread amongst unlimited people, that was Rabi Dash. He would always call me Din Ilahi- ‘friendly to all’ (accepted by all). “In your Marxism, one sees Gandhi clearly. You respect all the Naxalite groups. You also work with socialists, CPI, and CPI(M).’ To that comment of Rabi Dash I usually didn’t have an answer as I had kept respecting them while raising questions all the time.

I have closely observed the life and work of this close friend of mine, the committed revolutionary comrade for sixty years. Rabi Dash’s inspiring life has been a constant reminder to me in my life. In 1960 when Rabi Sahoo and I went to a book shop in Cuttack to sell Yugaprabha, the magazine that we edited, a hot exchange of words had introduced us. He noticed that we had accepted a donation of Rs 50 from industrialist Biju Patnaik and frowned upon us calling us capitalist agents. We had run away from his wrath, only to be warmly united a few months later. That unique revolutionary was far ahead of us in thought and action all these decades and passed to history leaving us behind.

(Originally written in Odia for the memorial meeting on 21 May 2021, translated by Jinee Lokaneeta)

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