Paika rebellion of Odisha was spectacular, but Prakash Javadekar dubbing it as 'India's first war of independence' is a stretch
It would be a stretch to call the Paika rebellion India’s first war of Independence. This is because the British witnessed a string of uprisings from the very inception of its rule, largely because traditional rights were extinguished or redefined and land rents were jacked up.
You think it is simple to sequence chronologically the happenings of history. Well, here is a quiz to challenge your assumption: Was the Paika revolt of Odisha India’s first war of Independence? Or was it the Revolt of 1857? Or the heroic rebellion of Dewan Velu Thampi of Travancore, who, from all accounts, tormented the British in 1805?
These are the questions which all of us will soon have to grapple, courtesy Union Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar. In Bhubaneshwar, Javadekar declared on 23 October that the "Paika Bidroha (rebellion or revolt)” will find a place in history textbooks as the first war of Independence from the academic session of 2018. Justifying his decision, Javadekar said, "The first phase of struggle against British rule, what from their point of view was Paika rebellion, is the first war of Independence for us."
It is one thing to focus the spotlight on the Paika rebellion that remains largely unknown outside Odisha. It is quite another to describe it as India’s first war of Independence, a descriptor popularly reserved for the revolt of 1857. It gained currency because of Hindutva ideologue Veer Savarkar's book, Indian War of Independence – 1857, a classic of its time.
Yet even, Savarkar’s nomenclature for the Revolt of 1857 has been questioned and largely dismissed, not least because it is debatable whether the rebels’ idea of India and its independence was as is commonly understood today. And the revolt was certainly not a war. Javadekar presumably thinks his decision is not ahistorical because he is merely adding the word first to Savarkar’s phrase, War of Independence.
But first, who were the Paikas? They were the landed militia of the kingdom of Khurda in Odisha, granted rent-free land in lieu of rendering military service and undertaking policing activities in peace-time.
The origin of the Paika revolt of 1817 dates to 1803-04, which was when the East India Company and the Marathas were locked in a conflict over Odisha. The British asked the then ruler of Khurda, Mukunda Deva II, to give passage to their troops through his territory, and sought the assistance of Paikas. In return, the British promised to pay Deva II Rs one lakh.
Though Jayee Rajguru, the dewan of Khurda, was opposed to the deal, Deva II agreed, hoping to regain control over Puri, which Khurda had been compelled to cede to the Marathas in the 18th century. Puri was vital for any ruler wishing to establish his supremacy over Odisha – it provided him spiritual legitimacy and material resources.
Once the British expelled the Marathas from Odisha, they reneged on the deal they had struck with Khurda. In November 1804, Jayee Rajguru rebelled; the Paika militia attacked the East India Company’s men. The retaliation was swift — the fort of Khurda was stormed. Deva II was deprived of his powers and privileges and pensioned to Puri, and Jayee was executed.
Thereafter the administrative change the East India Company brought about in Odisha was sweeping, writes Pritish Acharya, professor of history at the Regional Institute of Education, Bhubaneswar, in the Mainstream Weekly. "They also changed the relative rights, interests and privileges of various classes in the agriculture community, owning, occupying, managing or cultivating the land and sharing in its produce."
The transformation adversely affected the fortunes of Jagabandhu Bidyadhar Mahapatra, the traditional Buxi or military commander of Khurda, who is popularly remembered as Buxi Jagabandhu. His right to rent-free land — the Rodanga Garh estate — and his title of Buxi was extinguished. He was required to deposit rent in the court, for which purpose he hired a middleman. It is said the middleman appropriated the rent that the Buxi had given him for submitting to the court, and then had the estate auctioned in his own name.
It goaded Buxi Jagabandhu to rebel in March 1817. The Paikas attacked symbols of the Company, prompting the magistrate of Cuttack – the Company’s headquarters – to move to Khurda to crush the rebellion. He was compelled to return to Cuttack, such was fury of the Paikas.
The rebels then marched to Puri, and requested the pensioned king, Mukunda Deva II, to lead the revolt. He was ambivalent, neither leading the rebels nor distancing himself from them. But the priest of the Jagannath temple declared the restoration of the king’s rule, triggering a mass upsurge that the Company officials were unable to suppress. They, too, shifted to Cuttack.
By mid-April, however, the British regrouped and sent a contingent to Puri. It whisked Deva II to Cuttack, on the way, though, challenged by 2500 rebels who tried to free their king, writes Prof Acharya. Their traditional weapons of swords and bows and arrows were no match to the technologically superior arms of the British. By May-end, the rebellion had been suppressed, though sporadic skirmishes continued until 1818. Buxi Jagabandhu was persuaded to surrender in 1825 and confined to Cuttack on a monthly pension of Rs 150.
No doubt, the Paika rebellion was spectacular – imagine columns of armed peasants marching to Puri or waylaying the British troops to free Deva II. Think of the peasant-soldier, adept at farming and wielding weapons, rising in rebellion because their way of life had been disrupted by the advent of British rule. It is easy to fathom why the Paika rebellion stirs Odisha.
Yet, it would be a stretch to call the Paika rebellion India’s first war of Independence. This is because the British witnessed a string of uprisings from the very inception of its rule, largely because traditional rights were extinguished or redefined and land rents were jacked up. For instance, Bengal witnessed at least three rebellions of sanyasis in the 18th century, that is to say decades before the Paikas revolted.
In 1805, Dewan Velu Thampi of Travancore instigated attacks on the British. They were so outraged at Thampi’s audacity that they publicly hanged him even though he had died of wounds suffered during a battle. Then again, there were also the Chuar uprisings of Bengal and Bihar, the first of these dating to 1766. The Taluqdars of Aligarh rebelled in 1814, and Dayaram resisted the British siege of his fort in Hathras there, evacuating only when the defeat was imminent.
To think, these are just a few examples of revolts which dogged the British in the first century of their rule. The question to ask is: Why haven’t historians described any of the rebellions preceding 1857 as India’s first war of Independence? They haven’t because the rebels did not consciously fight the British to win freedom for India. Their idea of independence was local – they wanted the restoration of the reign of local rulers because their own privileges flowed from them.
Nevertheless, both in scale and impact, the Paika rebellion pales before the revolt of 1857. At its peak, the tremors of the 1857 revolt were experienced all over North India, as also in parts of Central and Western India. It was closest to being an all-India insurrection. The Paika revolt certainly wasn’t.
Historian Bipan Chandra’s India’s Struggle for Independence provides a sense of the wide swathe the revolt of 1857 cut. He writes, “Almost half the Company’s strength of 2,32,224 opted out of their loyalty to their regimental colours and overcame the ideology of the army… It had embraced almost every cantonment in the Bengal and a few in Bombay. Only the Madras army remained totally loyal.”
In most parts of the North Western Provinces and Oudh, apart from Saharanpur and Muzaffarnagar, civil rebellion followed the revolt of sepoys. It is said to have drawn almost all sections of the society, from landed elite to peasants to artisans, all of whom found British rule and its policies disruptive and economically impoverishing.
More significantly, the revolt of 1857 boasted a consciousness that transcended the local, though it lacked a coherent political programme for the future. In the consciousness of 1857 rebels, the future too implied a return to the past.
However, Savarkar in Indian war thought the spirit behind the revolt was the protection of religion and the country. He cites the proclamation issued by the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar (in reality issued by the council of 10 that was formed to assist him), which said, "Oh, you sons of Hindustan, if we make up our mind we can destroy the enemy in no time! We will destroy the enemy and will release from dead our religion and our country, dearer to us than life itself."
Quite ecstatically, Savarkar goes on to write, “The seed of the Revolution of 1857 is in this holy and inspiring idea, clear and explicit, propounded from the throne of Delhi, THE PROTECTION OF RELIGION AND COUNTRY.” Savarkar cites other proclamations the rebels issued from different parts of the country to bolster his theory. Regardless of Savarkar’s assertion, the revolt of 1857 did have a consciousness that transcended the local to imagine the idea of India, again, not necessarily as we understand today.
The revolt of 1857 also had a lasting impact – it led to the dissolution of the East India Company and its powers were transferred to the Crown. The governance of India became the British government’s responsibility. The British began to show a wee bit greater sensitivity in administering Indians than before.
All those who want the Paika revolt of 1817 to be called India’s first war of Independence should heed Professor Acharya’s wise words, "A more nuanced approach would be not to make any gradation or ranking of such revolts in hierarchical ‘greater’ or ‘lesser’ degree…. Locating the (revolt of) Buxi or the Paikas at a higher historical pedestal than the other anti-British rebels would be, probably, an injustice to the great and long tradition of struggle against the alien colonial rule in the country."
But who is to persuade Javadekar against the perils of turning history into a plaything. After all, Odisha will have its Assembly elections in 2019; by declaring the Paika revolt of 1817 as India’s first war of Independence, the BJP seeks to fan the pride the people of Odisha take in their martial traditions, of which the socially and educationally backward castes are principal repositories. This too ties up neatly with the BJP’s electoral strategy of wooing the Other Backward Castes.
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