Through the 19th century, on either side of the great revolt of 1857, India’s rural heartland was scattered with live coals of discontent that frequently combusted in explosions of resistance against old inequities and new hardships. These uprisings, in many geographical theatres and historical contexts, coincided with the military expansion of the East India Company deep inside India, and forced significant disruptions in the existing social relations in peasant and tribal communities. Because they almost always coincided with traditional society coming into violent contact with European colonialists and missionaries, the uprisings are seen as the first expressions of resistance against colonial rule — witness the recent descriptions of the Paika rebellion in Khurda, Odisha, in 1817 as the ‘original’ first war of Indian Independence.
The rebellion of the Paikas — the descendants of 16 of whose leaders Prime Minister Narendra Modi felicitated over the weekend as part of the 200th year celebrations of the bidroh — was provoked by the resumption, with the advent of the British, of hereditary rent-free jagirs enjoyed by a class of military retainers employed by the ruler of Khurda. Before and after the revolt of the Paikas in Khurda came risings in Paralakhemundi (1799-1814), Ghumusar (1835-36) and Angul (1846-47), the rebellion of Kondhs in Kalahandi (1855), and the Sabara Rebellion of 1856-57, again in Paralakhemundi.
“Many of these [uprisings in Odisha] were led by propertied sections whose position was undermined by colonial interventions. Nevertheless, they mobilised large sections of peasants, tribals and outcastes against the British. These sections had been angered by the disruptions and dislocations caused by the colonial agrarian settlements which had seriously interfered with their lives and undermined their existence,” Biswamoy Pati, professor of history at the University of Delhi and an authority on peasant movements in Odisha, wrote in a June 2007 paper.
Colonialism formally entered Odisha in September 1803. Colonel Harcourt marched virtually unchallenged from Madras to Puri, and faced only feeble Maratha opposition onward to Cuttack. The following year, the British razed Khurda’s Barunei fort by cannon, arrested the king, Gajapati Mukund Dev II, and banished him to Puri. Over the next several years, as the British went about introducing new revenue settlements in Odisha, several of the original Odia proprietors faced ruin, and land was transferred to ruthless Bengali absentee landlords, often for a pittance.
The British changed the currency system, demanding revenue payments in rupees, which increased pressure on dispossessed, marginal tribals. These sections had to cope with greater demands from landlords who now had to pay taxes in silver. As silver became costlier during the closing years of the 18th century and the early years of the 19th century, the poorest sections of the tribals and untouchable castes struggled to pay more cowries and/or grain to match the higher price of the metal.
The British control over salt — which had pre-1803-4 origins, but was extended to coastal Orissa in 1814 — also meant increased hardship for the people in the hills. There is evidence of raids on boats of salt agents near Puri during this period.
The Paikas, literally ‘foot soldiers’, had been recruited since the 16th century by kings in Odisha from a variety of social groups to render martial services in return for rent-free land (nish-kar jagirs) and titles. The establishment of colonial rule and new land revenue settlements led to the Paikas losing their estates. In 1817, some 400 Kondhs descended from the Ghumusar area to rise in revolt against the British. Bakshi Jagabandhu Bidyadhar Mohapatra Bharamarbar Rai, the highest-ranking military general of Mukund Dev II, and erstwhile holder of the lucrative Rodanga estate, led an army of Paikas to join the uprising of the Kondhs.
The Paikas set fire to government buildings in Banapur, killed policemen and looted the treasury and the British salt agent’s ship docked on the Chilika. They then proceeded to Khurda and killed several British officials. Over the next few months, the Paikas fought bloody battles at several places, but the colonial army gradually crushed the revolt. Bakshi Jagabandhu escaped to the jungles, and stayed out of reach of the British until 1825, when he finally surrendered under negotiated terms.
In a paper presented at the ‘International Conference on Indian Cultural Heritage: Past, Present And Future’ in Bhubaneswar last month, Utkal University professor Ajit Kumar Sahoo proposed a link between the glorification of the Paika Rebellion and an attempt to build a narrative of Odia nationalism that harked back to the martial glory of ancient Odisha, alongwith an uncompromising resistance to colonial exploitation.
“The Paika tradition”, Prof Sahoo wrote, “was invoked… with the purpose of inculcating the idea of ‘freedom’ in the mind of Odia masses… during the period of national movement and to create an identity for the people of Odisha… The Paika tradition was incorporated along with the Odia movement as well as the national movement.”
In a telephone interview with The Indian Express, Prof Pati said, “The Kondhs and sections of the untouchable castes who were a distinct part of the Paika uprising were made to fade away. What is retained in popular memory is the legacy of the serious effort to glorify the masculinist component associated with Odias and their ‘fighting spirit’ — a phenomenon that has been reinforced in the mass culture of post-colonial India.”
The BJP’s attempt to tap into the sense of Odia pride appears to be part of its larger political project for the state which it sees as the next frontier in its victorious march across the country. By associating with the Paika tradition, it hopes to tap into subnationalist impulses in Odisha politics, where it is a relatively new entrant — and seeks to build for itself a local history and legacy. A reconciliation with Odia subnationalism may help provide the BJP’s nationalist agenda with an Odia flavour and increase its outreach as it prepares for battle against the regional titan, BJD.