By Jaideep Mazumdar
Few outside the state of Odisha know of the Paika rebellion – the first serious military challenge to British rule over Bharat.
Exactly 200 years ago, Odisha was the stage of a fierce revolt against the British that the white invaders put down with unparalleled brutality. But few outside the state know of the Paika rebellion – the first serious military challenge to British rule over Bharat. Historians who authored textbooks after Independence have chosen to ignore the rebellion, and successive regimes in New Delhi have, in their zeal to highlight the contributions of only a handful in Bharat’s freedom struggle, given short shrift to the insurrection which, had it succeeded, would have changed the history of this sub-continent.
The Paikas were the warriors of Odisha. They were given vast tracts of lands by the kings for their services. During peacetime, the Paikas performed the roles of policemen, and during war, became warriors for their kings. They were divided into three categories: praharis who were experts in using swords, banuas who were excellent marksmen using matchlocks and dhenkias who were archers and used to be at the battlefront. The Paikas find mention in many ancient texts for their bravery and battle skills.
The British, after taking over Odisha in 1803 from the Marathas, started putting in place a system of administration that angered King Mukunda Deva II of Khorda, which had become the capital of then Odisha kingdom. Khorda, where the present-day capital city of Bhubaneshwar is located, became the new power centre of the kingdom after Cuttack since 1592. Mukunda Deva II was the sixteenth in the line of kings of Khorda. He was planning a revolt against the British in collaboration with his Paikas, but the plot was discovered and he was deposed by the British. The British administrator of the deposed king’s estate also snatched away the lands of the Paikas.
This alienation from their hereditary rent-free lands, the extortion and oppression of the Paikas at the hands of East India Company officials, the introduction of a new currency system after the abolition of the prevalent cowrie currency (new British laws made it mandatory for revenue to be paid in silver, which was in very short supply and as a result, lands of defaulters were arbitrarily taken over by the British) and a ban on making salt from seawater gave rise to deep and widespread resentment against the British.
Bakshi Jagabandhu Bidyadhar Mahapatra Bhramavar Ray was the military chief of king Mukunda Deva II. Bakshi was the title given to military commanders of Odisha. He was also the jagirdar of Rodang estate that had been awarded to his forefathers by the king for their military service. Jagabandhu was tricked out of his estate by one K C Singha, the scheming and dishonest dewan of the collector of Puri. Singha, who hailed from Bengal, got possession of the entire Rodang estate through fraudulent means in 1814. This left Jagabandhu in penury, and the humiliation of their chief and the manner in which he was tricked out of his estate by a scheming East India Company’s native official acting in connivance with the British angered not only the Paikas but also the peasants and other subjects of Odisha.
In March 1817, a 400-strong party of Khonds (tribals) marched into Khorda from the neighbouring state of Ghumusar and declared their intention to free Ghumusar and Khorda from British rule. The Paikas of Khorda, led by Jagabandhu as well as Raja Mukunda Deva II, joined them. The rebels looted and torched a police station at Banpur and marched to Khurda town, from where the British fled. The rebels sacked the administrative offices and the treasury and killed some native officials of the East India Company. The rebellion enjoyed widespread support in the province with landlords, heads of small principalities, peasants supporting it. The rajas of Kanika, Kujang, Nayagarh and Ghumusar and the zamindars of Karipur, Mirchpur, Golra, Balarampur, Budnakera and Rupasa supported the rebels, and that is why the revolt spread quickly to many parts of the province, including Puri, Pipli and Cuttack. The rebellion was organised with Jagannath Deva of Puri as the symbol.
The British administrator at Cuttack, one E Impey, sent two platoons of (East India) Company soldiers under Lieutenant Prideaure to Khurda and Lieutenant Faris to Pipli on 1 April 1817. But the Paikas waylaid and firebombed both the parties, killing Lieutenant Faris. Impey himself marched towards Khurda town with 60 sepoys but was attacked and narrowly escaped. The British then sent another force under Captain Wellington to Puri. This British force defeated the ill-equipped Paikas. The British subsequently recaptured Khurda and declared martial law there. But the rebels, led by Jagabandhu, recaptured Puri, and the priests of Jagannath Deva of Puri proclaimed Mukunda Deva II as the rajah and conferred the title of ‘Gajapati’, or ruler of the ancient kingdom of Kalinga, on him.
But the victory of the rebels was short-lived. The British contingent under Captain Le Fevere that had recaptured Khurda then marched to Puri. Armed with canons and better guns, the British defeated the Paikas who had only swords and a few dozen matchlocks. They retook Puri and captured Mukunda Deva II while the latter fled the town. Smaller revolts in other parts of the province were also put down and by the end of May 1817, the British had managed to regain control of Odisha.
What followed in June 1817, exactly two centuries ago to the current month, finds little mention in history books. But old records, including East India Company despatches, at the National Library in Kolkata and accounts by some chroniclers in Puri and Cuttack of those times detail the brutality with which the British suppressed the rebellion. After recapturing Puri, the British put 50 priests of the Shree Jagannath Deva Mandir to death in public. The bodies of the priests were left rotting in the summer heat for a week. Some prominent Paikas who the British captured were beheaded or shot dead and their bodies strung on posts for people to see. Even infant sons of the Paikas were put to death and their families banished from Odisha. Many of the Paikas and their families were sent away as slaves to work in British plantations elsewhere in Bharat and even shipped to British colonies abroad. June 1817 was a traumatic month for the people of Odisha and it is said that not a single family remained unaffected by the widespread retributory killings and imprisonments carried out by the British. Almost all families lost at least one male member to British brutality and vengeance.
But the Paikas, unable to match the superior strength of the British, resorted to guerilla tactics and kept up their fight against the white invaders. In 1818, the British raised a special force to track down and exterminate all Paikas. This force carried out raids all over the province and killed many Paikas and their families. Jagabandhu was captured by the British in 1825 and died in captivity in Cuttack in 1829. Jagabandhu’s capture severely demoralised the remaining Paikas and they were finally subdued in 1826.
A telling insight into the attitude of the British towards the Paikas is provided by Walter Ewer, a senior officer of the British East India Company who was on a commission set up to investigate the causes of the rebellion. Ewer wrote that the Paikas were dangerous and would have to be dealt with accordingly. “Still now where the Paikas are living, they have retained their previous aggressive nature. In order to break their poisonous teeth the British Police must be highly alert to keep the Paikas under their control for a pretty long period, and unless the Paika community is ruined completely the British rule cannot run smoothly,” read Ewer’s recommendation.
Surprisingly, the Paika rebellion has not been remembered even once over the past seventy years since the country’s independence. It was only this year that the National Democratic Alliance government decided to observe the bicentenary of the revolt. Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan wrote to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley last year requesting for a budgetary allocation to observe the bicentenary of the Paika rebellion this year. Jaitley obliged, bringing cheer to Odisha.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi honoured the descendants of the brave Paika rebels when he was in Bhubaneshwar on 16 April this year to attend the Bharatiya Janata Party national executive meeting there. He met the descendants of Bakshi Jagabandhu Bidyadhar Mahapatra and a few other Paikas at the Raj Bhavan that day. And Modi alluded to the long neglect of the rebellion in his short address: “Today, the (Paika rebellion) history was recalled with pride. It is my honour to see the descendants of martyrs. Unfortunately, the long years of freedom movement was confined in few persons and a specific period. We should recall the events and contribution of everyone who participated in the freedom struggle”.
A number of other programmes have also been lined up to commemorate the revolt which, say historians, could have altered the course of history in this sub-continent had it succeeded.
Jaideep is a journalist with many years of experience in The Times Of India, Open, The Outlook, The Hindustan Times, The Pioneer and some other news organizations.