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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 13, March 30, 2024

Resonance of Odisha”s Rich Legacy in Our Time as the State Celebrates its Foundation Day on 1st April | S N Sahu

Friday 29 March 2024, by S N Sahu


1st April is celebrated as the Odisha Day. It was on that day in 1936 the British province of Orissa (now Odisha) was created on the basis of Odia language by uniting together the Odia speaking areas some of which were part of other provinces such as Bengal, Madras, Bihar and Central Province. The birth of Odisha as a separate province on account of its linguistic identity was truly historic as it represented the vision of our leadership during freedom struggle to reorganise States on the basis of language.

Foundation of Odisha on the Basis of its Language Consolidated India’s Unity and Integrity

Retrospectively Odisha’s advent as a separate entity ten years before India’s independence teaches a valuable lesson that defining identity of the units, forming India, on the basis of language consolidated our unity and integrity on an enduring basis. After India attained freedom from British rule and suffered partition on the basis of religion our leadership took historic steps to fructify the challenging vision of reorganisation of States on the basis of language. In sharp contrast the leadership in Pakistan led by Mohammad Ali Jinha declared in the erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, that Urdu would be official language of the whole of that country. In East Pakistan people’s language was Bengali and not Urdu even as they shared Islamic religion with people of West Pakistan who in large numbers spoke Urdu. In imposing Urdu on Bengalis of East Pakitsan Jinha who remained stubborn in creating Pakistan by dividing India on the basis of religion was sowing the seeds of its partition on the basis of language. Eventually in 1971 East Pakistan became Bangladesh, a sovereign country, free from the clutches of Pakistan.

So the movement of people of Odisha during freedom struggle for creation of Odisha on the basis of Odia language was a huge step in the direction of safeguarding India’s unity and integrity which, among other factors, got strengthened during post-independence period by establishing States on the basis of their linguistic identities. The constitutional vision of India upholding linguistic pluralism and diversities of faiths affirm our multicultural ethos and deepens it. In this respect the creation of Odisha on the basis of Odia language constituted an illuminating and trend setting example of upholding the idea of India.

1866 Famine of Odisha and Idea of Swaraj

Odisha like rest of India suffered recurrent famines due to policies of the British rule in India.

It is instructive to note that the terrible famine devastating Odisha in 1866, known in the history of the State as Naanka Durbhikshya (ନଅଙ୍କ ଦୁଃର୍ଭିକ୍ଷ), deeply impacted Dadabhai Naoroji to conjure up the idea of swaraj for India in 1906. That famine moved Dadabhai to understand the magnitude of poverty in India which he attributed to British rule and the public policies of the colonial authorities. In his monumental book “Poverty and Un-British Rule in India” 5 published in London in 1901 he made several references to 1866 famine ruining economy and causing death and devastation of people of Odisha. He also quotes in the same book Lord Salisbury who said in British Parliament that “Report of the Orissa Famine, which will be presented in a few days, will be found to be another and far more terrible instance to be quoted against English rule.” In fact, the massive scale of the suffering and the resultant death and deprivation traced to that terrible famine constituted a key factor prompting Dadabhai to conceptualise the idea of Swaraj . This Odisha link to the idea of Swaraj developed by Dadabhai is very revealing and eye-opening.

Legacy of Keeping Religious Discourses Away from The Movement to Create Odisha

While the suffering of Odisha during 1866 famine sensitised the first economist of India, Dadabhai, to think of Swaraj for the whole of India, the creation of Odisha because of the arduous movement launched by Utkal Sammilani, (Utkal Conference) founded by Utkal Gaurab Madhusudan Das in 1903 offers invaluable lessons to defend the idea of India which is getting endangered by attempts to define it by one religion, one language and dividing people on the basis of faith and other identities.

It its first meeting the Utkal Sammilani set out its objectives and very thoughtfully declared that there would be no place for religious discourse in its forum. While flagging the point that people in Odisha followed diverse faiths such as Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Brahmo and there always remained differences of opinion among them on the basis religious creed, it, therefore, barred any discussion and discourse on religion. It did so primarily to ensure that the Utkal Sammilani would not get deviated from its strivings to establish Odisha as a separate unit on the basis of language.

The issue that the Utkal Sammilani took a decision in 1903 not to use its forum for religious discourse assumes greater significance for our time when polarisation in the name of faith is shaping politics and political discourse in our country and threatens to endanger the idea of India. Therefore, while celebrating Odisha Day on 1st April there should be attempts made to remain tuned to the legacy of the movement to celebrate religious pluralism and prevent Odisha to come under the sway of communal parties and forces which would devastate the secular legacy of Utkal Sammilani.

How Movement for Establishing Odisha was Associated With the Cause of Afforestation

In 1908 in one of its sessions of Utkal Sammilani its President, the princely ruler of Surangi(located in Ganjam district), very presciently said that forests should be preserved and also created while clearing forests for getting more land for undertaking mounting agricultural activities. That vision of a princely ruler of Odisha articulated in 1908 is of very critical significance when we are confronting the existential crisis arising out of massive scale of deforestation which is a hugely contributing factor behind global warming and climate change.

That extraordinary legacy of Utkal Sammilani is of contemporary significance for whole of India and indeed humanity which is trying hard to grapple with the crises of planetary proportions and survive the century. Among others, this is the larger meaning and significance of Odisha Day celebrations for Odisha, India and the larger humanity.

(Author: S N Sahu served as Officer on Special Duty to President of India K R Narayanan )

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