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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 45 October 29, 2022

Baji Rout, the Light of India’s Liberty | Kamalakanta Roul

Saturday 29 October 2022

by Kamalakanta Roul

Introduction: Achieving Swaraj by Indian Masses  

The paper examines the role and contribution of India’s youngest martyr Baji Rout who was just twelve years old when he laid down his life for the freedom of our country. He was martyred at the tender age while peacefully resisting the British troop to cross the river in his village by denying them the ferry boat. This year, the Ministry of Culture, Government of India has recognized him as “the youngest in the history of freedom struggle in India to gain martyrdom” and unsung hero of India’s freedom movement. Baji Rout was an active member of “Banara Sena” (monkey brigade) and wholeheartedly participated in Praja Mandal movement in Dhenkanal district of Odisha against the misrule of colonial sponsored Gadajata rulers. He courageously fought to make his village free from colonial domination and wanted to uproot their political agents. The terrible killing of Baji Rout fueled the fire of India’s freedom struggle and the movement was intensified in princely states.

 Mahatma Gandhi intended to leap the flame of India’s freedom struggle from below with the popular participation of Indian masses. Gandhi said, “...it is the inalienable rights of the Indian people ...to have freedom and to enjoy the fruits of their toil and have the necessities of life, that they may have full opportunities for growth...the government that deprives the people of their rights and oppresses them, the people have a further right to alter or abolish it” (quoted in Pradhan, 2011: 108). Gandhi always insisted that mere withdrawal of the British rule from India was not the real swaraj. Unless every villager feels that they are the maker of their own destiny, the real swaraj would remain an elusive concept. Gandhi’s idea of swaraj contains the epitome of liberty and rights. He believed that “the received rights of the people like the crumbs fallen from the table of the rulers are no rights. People could enjoy their right only when they know how to rightfully earn and acquire their rights” (ibid: 109). That is why he preferred satyagraha as the legitimate means for the rights to be acquired by the people. For Gandhi, the most challenging task was “mobilizing the hinterland society and lower classes of these societies which were affected by modern political systems in colonial period” (Duara, 2004: 5). For a successful massive mobilization from below, he learnt thirteen Indian vernacular languages including Odia. Godabari Debi taught him Odia during his Bari visit (Sambad, October 2, 2014 and also Mohapatra, 2022: 50-51). That way Gandhi connected people with the help of their own mother tongues to effectively spread the message of swaraj. He also adopted satyagraha as a means to convert the freedom struggle to a mass movement. He urged that unless people understand the objectives of swaraj and satyagraha in their own mother tongues, achieving national independence and inculcating patriotism for unifying Indian provinces was not possible (Roul, 2020: 8).

In the twentieth century Asia and Africa, nationalist movements had different ways of protests and mobilizations against colonialism such as violent and peaceful methods. Gandhi’s strategy of peaceful mobilization (ahimsha) specifically fascinated teen ager school children and rural masses. The school students reposed faith over Gandhi and were convinced that ahimsha was the only tool to emancipate India. School children played very significant role in India’s freedom struggle particularly in the “no tax campaign” of non-cooperation movement, swadeshi movement, civil disobedience movement, salt satyagraha and Praja Mandal movement against the colonial-feudatory chiefs (Roul, 2021: 4). Gandhi had deep impact over the freedom struggle in Odisha. Some young men of the princely states left their schools and colleges to join the non-cooperation movement launched by Gandhi (Pradhan, 1985: 338). Gandhian movement was widespread in the whole country which inspired these educated young men to take leadership of the tenant uprising in the princely states (Gadajata) of Odisha.

Role of Banara Sena in India’s Freedom Struggle 

Few Indian student groups became part of freedom struggle during the protest against Bengal Partition (1905). Afterward, the teen ager school students across the country were immensely inspired by Gandhi and emerged as a formidable force in freedom struggle. When Gandhi set out salt satyagraha at Dandi in 1930, “Indira Gandhi was a thirteen-year-old girl, bickering with her parents to let her take part, full time, in the freedom struggle. The teenaged Indira appealed to her parents time and again but was disallowed. In 1929, Indira was with Nehru as he typed the final copy of resolution for Purna Swaraj. When her father asked her to read out the resolution, she did so fervently” (Sohail, 2018). Once she finished, Nehru said, “Well, now that you have read it, you are committed to it”. “Indira became the first Indian citizen to pledge to the cause of Purna Swaraj”. As a child, that year Indira formed “Banara Sena” (monkey brigade) to fight against British colonialism and became part of civil disobedience movement. The teen ager students from rural to urban areas massively participated in “Banara Sena”. The Banara Sena “grew to include 60,000 young revolutionaries who addressed envelopes, made and distributed flags, and put-up notices about demonstrations”. They had also to spy on police and also to convey messages to nationalist leaders. Gandhi asked students “to withdraw from schools and colleges and students of all over the country responded promptly and they in big number boycotted schools and colleges”. It was for the first time that the student community was massively mobilised against the British colonialism in non-cooperation movement and also civil disobedience movement. Students were also active in Gandhi’s campaign for the use of swadeshi materials, Charakha, and Khadi. They also campaigned for village sanitation, adult education, communal unity and created awareness against caste untouchability. The contribution of students in ‘quit India movement’ was truly significant which proved the students’ power of India. Students from all parts of India “boycotted schools and colleges in large number. They organized mass processions and rallies in towns and cities” across the country. They were also very instrumental in picketing before liquor shops and boycotting foreign products. Students had also organised bonfire of foreign clothes. “Thereby they brought the government machinery to a standstill. Several students had been imprisoned and faced physical harassment and some of them were killed in police firings also”.

Banara Senas were also constituted in different districts of Odisha. Jogendra Moharana, a freedom fighter of Ala village, Jagatsinghpur joined Banara Sena at the age of fourteen that was formed by Indira Gandhi for young girls and boys. Moharana said, “the Sena played notable role in the freedom struggle, conducting protests and flag marches, as well as helping Congress leaders circulate publications on the Independence fight. They were also involved in organising meetings and distributing leaflets in villages. Children used to sing patriotic songs of freedom fighter-cum-poet Birakishore Das while moving around villages. Inspired by those songs, many youths joined the Banara Sena. These teen agers were offered Khadi clothes and towels by the freedom fighters then” (The New Indian Express, August 15, 2021). Banara Sena supported “Rama Devi and Malati Devi when they led the picketing of liquor shops and foreign shops at Cuttack. Even as they were beaten up with canes they never cried or retaliated. They rather preferred to shout Bande Mataram or sing patriotic songs of Bira Kishore Das”. Writing about the fearless courage, sufferings and dedication of Banara Sena in Odisha, Nilamani Pradhan wrote, “The young boys came as if they had been directed by some great and unseen power. They did wonderful work in Utkal as in other provinces their Satyagraha and suffering enlisted public sympathy as nothing did. They were absolutely fearless and their fearlessness was contagious .... Many boys got caning four to five times” (quoted in Pradhan, 2009: 6). In 1938, Baji Rout, a twelve-year-old poor ferry boy became an active member of the Banara Sena in Praja Mandal at Bhuban of Dhenkanal district, Odisha.

Nature of Feudatory State in Colonial Odisha 

Since the Mughal period, Odisha was divided into two administrative revenue units: Mughalbandi and Gadajata (feudatory states). Mughalbandi was comprised with the regions of coastal Odisha and Gadajata was consisted with hilly terrains. Gadajatas were headed by Odia chiefs who paid annual tributes to the emperors and “were recognised as the feudatories of Imperial Mughals”. The Maratha rulers (1751-1803) followed the same administrative structures made by the Mughals. In fact, the British colonial rulers somehow continued with the same old administrative arrangements from 1803-1947 and divided Odisha into two parts: British Odisha and Princely Odisha (Gadajata). The British Odisha was distributed among three Presidencies or the administrative divisions of British India. The coastal Odisha was placed under Bengal Presidency, Southern Odisha came under Madras Presidency and Western Odisha was administered by Central Province. In contrary, the Princely Odisha was “comprised with 26 feudatory states which was ruled by native rulers under British paramount power” (Patra, 1971). In medieval period, the princely states were ruled by Samanta Rajas (tributary chiefs) of the Gajapatis of Odisha. The colonial administration didn’t integrate Mughalbandi and Gadajatas regions for the purpose of administrative convenience and also decided not to intervene in the internal matter of the Gadajatas. The Kings of Gadajatas enjoyed absolute freedom in the internal administration of their respective Gadajata and were not bound by the General Regulation System of the Bengal Presidency. But the Kings were very loyal submission to the British authority and were bound to pay the annual tribute or Peshkas decided by the British administration. H.K. Mahtab rightly said that “The Odishan princes had no fear of external aggression or internal risings so long as they were loyal to the British Crown. The role of the princes was the cornerstone of the federation constitution projected by the Act of 1935” (Mahtab, 1957: 15). Regular payment of tribute in installments was the only administrative relationship of Gadajat Kings with the British Government (Mishra, 2008: 543).

The people in princely states were subject to various types of repression such as payment of forced contribution, free and unpaid labour for the construction of royal palaces and beating of the drums in the jungles when the rulers were going on hunting and were denied ordinary civil rights. The peasants enjoyed no security of the tenure and they had no full land rights. The tax system was also very unjust and oppressive. Land was heavily taxed without regard to the capacity of the peasants to pay (Pradhan, 1985: 337). The monopoly of tax collection over salt, kerosine, pan, coconut hits the life of common people very hard. The Gadajatas were “marred by illegal taxation, excessive land revenue and cruel feudal claims and practices of Bethi” (forced labour), “Beggary” (unpaid labour), “Rasad” (free ration), “Magan” (free contribution) and “Bheti” (tributes)” (Pradhan, 1986). The state of lawlessness, unprecedented feudal oppression and undemocratic rule of the native Odia princes were supported by the British administration. The autocratic misrule in Gadajatas were called as “Andhari Mulaka” or pocket of darkness.

Praja Mandal Movement and the Dhenkanal Feudatory State 

“The late thirties of 1900 witnessed an intensification of the Prajamandal Movement in most of the princely states in Odisha which was well supported and sympathized by Congress. After the formation of the Congress government in Odisha in 1937, they extended full support and encouragement to the movement” (Ministry of Culture, Government of India, 2022). Meanwhile, Praja Mandal was formed in various princely states in 1931 to peacefully organise Satyagraha against the Gadajata rulers (Mahtab, 1957: 16). In the same year Praja Mandal was formed in Dhenkanal by local Congress leaders. The students of Dhenkanal High School (1896) were in regular contact with the Odisha Congress leaders living in Cuttack and they formed Banara Sena. The Praja Mandal movement in Dhenkanal was carried out in the name of Gandhi’s principle of ahimsha.

In 1938, a popular nationalist movement gained momentum in Gadajatas against the “unprecedented feudal oppression and undemocratic rule of the native Odia princes”. The Haripura Congress session in February, 1938 extended support and sympathy to the movements of people in feudatory states and demanded responsible government and civil liberty. The Congress also advised every individual Congressman to render assistance to such movements in their personal capacity. Dr. Pattabhi Sitaramayya and Balwant Ray Mehta went to Cuttack to organise the Praja Mandal activities and addressed the gatherings. “Dhenkanal was one of the states which drew the maximum attention of the Congress workers because of the inhuman repression of king Shankar Pratap Singhdeo to the agitators. But the people instead of being bogged down came more and more to the street to protest against numerous taxes imposed by the king” (Ministry of Culture, Government of India, 2022). Gradually, the princely states of Odisha came under the influence of Gandhian nationalist movement.

Praja Mandal mobilised popular support for establishment of democratic government and civil liberties. It firmly stood against the oppressive feudal rule in princely Odisha. In Dhenkanal, agitators were arrested by the King Sankar Pratap Singhdeo. The King adopted brutal measures to suppress the Praja Mandal agitation. Consequently, discontent arouse against the Dhenkanal King Sankar Pratap. More than fifty thousand people gathered in Dhenkanal Garh and surrounded the royal palace on September 12, 1938. The Praja Mandal leaders convinced the agitating people and sent them back to their respective villages and advised them to be disciplined and peace loving. In the meantime, the King Sankar Pratap collected two hundred armed forces from neighbouring states -Bouda, Saraikala, Kalahandi, Patna, Keonjhar, Bastar, Khairagarh and Jashpur to suppress the movement. Looking at the growing popularity of the movement, Kings of other feudatory states offered their cooperation to the King of Dhenkanal. They sent their armed troops and reinforcement to Dhenkanal. The British administration also sent a platoon of armed soldiers from Calcutta Presidency to support the tyrannical King of Dhenkanal. On September 20, 1938, a contingent of 200 European soldiers from King’s Own Scottish Borders regiment arrived at Dhenkanal (Pradhan, 2011: 177).

Only in three months starting from September to November, 1938, more than sixty villages were raided by the armed police. During the raids, houses were raged to ground by elephants, food stock was scattered, property was looted, women were raped, and people were forced to sign declaration of loyalty at gun point. “When the tragic and ghostly story of this legalised barbarism narrated in person to the British Commissioner CF Andrew at Cuttack by two actually raped women rescued by the protesters, Mr. Andrew simply burst into tears and even could not utter a single word of consolation as he was much to overcome by emotion and agony” (Routray, 1954: 10). Mahatma Gandhi advised the feudatory rulers of Odisha to work with the ministers of Odisha Congress government to end the misrule in the Gadajata (Harijan, December 3, 1938).

Baji Rout and the Political Narrative 

Baji Rout was born on October 5, 1926 as the youngest son of Hari Rout and Rania Debi in Nilakanthapur village, Dhenkanal district (the then feudatory state), Odisha. He lost his father in his childhood and was brought up by his mother. “He had none to look after him except his poor old mother. His mother was earning a living by grinding and husking paddy at a quern in neighbourhood” and was unable to spend anything on his education (Routray, 1954:11). He had two elder brothers who also earned very little to support the family. In his poetic expression, Jnanpith awardee Sachi Routray writes, “Baji, the turbulent child of Nature whistled away the hours by playing upon a pipe while ferrying his little boat across the foaming river Brahmani under the blue sky” (Routray, 1954: 11). Baji was ferrying his boat on the Brahmani river for a living. He came to know about the colonial-feudal exploitation from his mother. While eating rice-water (pakhala), one day Baji asked his mother to give little bit of salt. His mother replied that she had not bought salt due to the heavy tax imposed over it by the King. Excessive taxes on essential commodities were levied and collected by the King which had also affected Baji’s mother and her earnings. The oppressive rule of the King induced poverty in Dhenkanal Gadajata. “Millions and millions of half-fed and half-clad people were living in the state of abject poverty and utter destitution whereas a few ruling Chiefs and their minions were at their expense leading lives of utmost luxury and plentitude” (Routray, 1954:7-8). During this time, the popular Praja Mandal movement arouse against the tyrannical King of Dhenkanal Shankar Pratap Singhdeo.

Baishnav Charan Patnaik was one of the local leaders of the Praja Mandal movement in Dhenkanal. He was popularly called as Veer Baishnav and was in charge of Nilakanthapur. Many villagers of Baji Rout had also joined the movement and were having regular meetings and discussions. Under the guidance of Baishnav Patnaik, Praja Mandal founded Banar Sena with the membership of young children in Bhuban and Nilakanthapur villages. Mr. Patnaik addressed the members of Banar Sena and emphasized over the misrule of the King. He also told them about the objective of Praja Mandal to establish a democratic government and to grant civil rights. Members of Banar Sena including Baji were inspired by the speeches of Baishnav Patnaik and voluntarily undertook the responsibility to work for the Praja Mandal movement. Baji Rout voluntarily joined the Banar Sena and undertook the responsibility of spying over British Police, to covey messages about the movement of British troops in his locality and also he promised to stop the ferry of British police over the Brahmani river to enter into his village. Baji Rout and his friends of Banar Sena used to sing the following song against the political agents of feudal-colonial rulers: “ebe mana dei suna thare dalal dala, bela aasilani chapi deba praja mandala” (hey, brokers gang of imperialists, now listen to us in rapt attention, your time has come to end, Praja Mandal will destroy you all).

 Baji Rout’s Heroic Sacrifice to India’s Freedom Struggle 

On September 22, 1938, “a surprise raid was planned where Hara Mohan Pattanayak and other leaders were arrested by police. Pattanayak was wilier than they thought, and he escaped”. During the raid, “Pattanaik had escaped by jumping into the Brahmani river to swim to safety to Nilakanthapur village on the other side and meeting other revolutionary there”. Village Bhuban was the epic center of the Praja Mandal movement. On October 10, 1938, late night, magistrate Binay Ghosh and a police sub-inspector with an armed force of forty men entered Bhuban village with warrant of arrest against eighteen persons. The police were specifically searching for the Praja Mandal leader Hara Mohan Pattanayak. Then the police arrested eighteen persons and shot two persons dead. When the police came out with the arrested men, villagers gathered in massive numbers, blocked their way and requested the police to stop firing and to release these innocent people. The police didn’t stop firing. It was raining and a pitch-dark night. Meanwhile, some policemen flashed their torch and fired indiscriminately over the villagers. Forty to fifty people were killed and several injured in the firing. The police left the village at a running pace, without caring to count the dead and the wounded, not to speak of rendering first aid (AICC file G 35, Part II, 1938, f 23; quoted in Pradhan, 2011: 180). With some other arrested persons, the policemen reached at the Nilakanthapur Ghat two miles away from Bhuban to ferry across the river Brahmani in the midnight (Rath, 1993: 184).

On this fateful night, October 10, 1938, “Incidentally, Baji Rout had been asked by senior Praja Mandal activists to keep an eye on the Ghat, to ensure that cops didn’t get ferried across the river. Baji Rout was sleeping at the time when these troops approached him to ferry them across the river”. They roused Baji and demanded his boat to be taken across. The state boats had been sunk earlier (Rath, 1993: 184). “The news of the brutality carried out by the British police had already reached Baji by this time”. Baji looked at the troops with drowsy eyes still moist with fleeting dreams. The troops pointed their guns at his chest and repeated their demand in a still coarser voice. “The winds were howling and thunder-clouds clapped across the distant sky. But the little hero stood undaunted and an inspired voice rang out- this boat of mine belongs to Praja Mandal. This cannot be hired out to you-the enemy of the people” (Routray, 1954: 12). With rage and ire, “one of the policemen shook his tiny body violently while another struck his head with the heavy butt of his gun. The pale body of the little hero collapsed like a young Sal struck down by a sharp gust of wind. His skull was fractured and blood was oozing profusely” (Routray, 1954: 12). However, he did not succumb immediately. He got up and jumped to the river bank from the boat tied ashore and called out to the workers of Praja Mandal in a loud and resonant voice. His voice was heard by the villagers who were asleep in their homes and like a siren it warned them of an approaching storm. Soon after, other workers of Praja Mandal appeared on the scene. “They fastened the rope of the boat tightly to their waists and stood on the bank like trees deeply rooted in the soil. The police cut the rope that fastened the boat and rowed away. After rowing away the boat a few yards the troops loaded their guns and fired a volley at the silent crowd standing on the bank” (Routray, 1954: 12-13). In the same night, seven persons were killed instantly in police firing including Baji Rout at Nilakanthapur village (AICC file G 35, Part II, 1938, f 23; quoted in Pradhan, 2011: 180) and many were wounded.

The dark lonely night of a still darker land witnessed the martyrdom of seven freedom fighters of our land. Baji Rout along with Hurushi Pradhan, Laxman Mullick, Raghu Nayak, Guri Nayak, Nata Mullick, and Fagu Sahu were killed and fell martyrs to imperialist bullets (Routray, 1954: 13). Seven dead bodies which were in a state of putrefaction were brought by boat to Jenapur and from there to Cuttack by rail and were placed in a separate bullock cart and were marched through the streets of Cuttack in a grand procession before post-mortem (Banerji, 1938: 12). Socialist leaders Sachi Routray, Ananta Patnaik, Rabi Ghosh, Motilal Tripathy, and Gobinda Tripathy cremated these seven martyrs at Khan Nagar, Cuttack near the Kathajodi river, on October 13, 1938. The funeral fire roused the poetic emotion of Sachi Routray who wrote his famous poem titled “Baji Rout” in 1938.

Sachi Routray, famously wrote,
“This is not a funeral flame, O’ friends!
When the country is in dark despair,
 It is the light of our liberty,
It is our freedom-fire” (Routray, 1942).

Conclusion: India’s freedom movement from Below 

Leaping flames of India’s freedom struggle deeply sucked the blood of millions. Indian Independence was possible with the popular participation of masses from every community- children, youth, old and also from poor to princes. From non-cooperation movement to quit India movement, “Banara Sena” (monkey brigade) of children groups played significant role to make India free from British imperialism. Baji Rout, the youngest freedom fighter and child martyr of India was inspired by Praja Mandal against the oppressive British rule and atrocities of the then King. He bravely responded to the clarion call of Praja Mandal leaders against the feudal-colonial misrule in Dhenkanal. Only twelve years old poor boat boy fearlessly stood up to face British imperialist bullets in his soft chest. “His soft skull was fractured with the heavy butt of British gun and head was severely bleeding. Baji collapsed but continued raising his voice, warning villagers regarding the presence of the troop”. His struggle at the Brahmani river Ghat stopped British police entering into his village and prevented in nabbing the revolutionaries of Praja Mandal. However, the cruelty of British police in the fateful night on October 10, 1938 not only shook up the conscience of the entire nation but provided fuel to the fire which was burning for freedom. It had also created ruckus in British Parliament at that time. The heartrending incident was strongly condemned and it had tarnished the image of British imperialism. Sachi Routray says, “Baji Rout life is an epic of sacrifice-saga of patriotism and a heroic struggle against all forms of exploitation of oppression of man by man” (Routray, 1954: 7).The heroic sacrifice, indomitable courage, devotion for the motherland and dedication to the freedom struggle at the tender age made him “brave heart revolutionary” of India (Roul 2021: 10). He has been the symbol of sacrifice and source of inspiration for patriotism.

References: 

  • AICC file G 35, Part II, 1938, f 23. New Delhi: NMML.
  • Baji Rout, Unsung Hero, Ministry of Culture, Government of India, 2022,
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  • Roul, Kamalakanta, “Mahatma Gandhi and Indian Vernacular Languages”, in the Souvenir titled “Langfest 2020”, edited by Kamalakanta Roul. New Delhi: The Intellects, 2020.
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  • Sambad, October 2, 2014.
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(Author: Dr. Kamalakanta Roul teaches political science at the University of Delhi. He can be contacted at kkroul.du[at]gmail.com)

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