By Dr Pritish Acharya*
Madhusudan Das is beyond doubt one of the greatest pioneers of modern Orissa.
If one goes by popular perception, he is still revered as the greatest leader that the state has ever produced.
Variously known as ‘Madhubabu’, ‘Mr. Das’, ‘Utkal Gaurav’ (Pride of Utkal), Desaprana (The Patriot) and ‘Kulabruddha’ (The Grand Old man) the legendary leader has inspired generations of Oriyas and symbolised the self-pride of the Oriya race. The appellations used to describe this great son of the soil only indicate the level of his vast popularity in the state.
Madhusudan Das was born at Satyabhamapur near Salepur in Cuttack district of Orissa on 28 April 1848. His father’s name was Raghunath and mother’s name Parvati Devi.
Raghunath was the village Zamindar and that explains why unlike many other early nationalists of the period, Madhusudan never suffered from any kind of financial hardship in his childhood.
His schooling began in the village. In his incomplete autobiography, he has given a graphic picture of the system of traditional learning of his time. More than the content, it was the intense and intimate relationship between the teacher and the taught that seems to have had a great impact on him.
Madhusudan passed his entrance examination from Cuttack in 1864 and taught at the Balasore Zilla School for two years. His short stay at Balasore is very significant, for it is here that he had the company of Fakir Mohan Senapati (1843-1918) and Raghunath Ray (1848-1908) and dreamt of a resurgent Orissa and Odia race.
Together they formed a small group of newly educated Odias, who shared common concerns over the contemporary social and political issues. This was a crucial period in Orissa’s history which saw the great Na Anka famine of 1865-66. The massive loss of human lives in the face of gross administrative apathy provoked them to look for remedies.
It was during this period that Madhusudan and his famous Odia friends in Balasore took a vow to fight for the interests of their motherland and its people.
In 1866 Madhusudan went to Calcutta for higher studies, much against the wishes of his parents. His relationship with his parents and family soured even further when he embraced Christianity in 1869 and married a Christian girl Saudamini Devi in 1873 who died prematurely in 1878.
After losing the support of his family he took to teaching, private tuition and the job of a translator in the Calcutta High court for a living.
It was this period of struggle that steeled his resolve to become self-reliant and independent in both thought and action and take up the fight to secure justice and instill a sense of self-respect among fellow Odias.
He earned the degree of B.A., Law, M.A. He developed a grasp of the social and political moorings in Bengal and earned the goodwill of the Christian missionaries, for he was a good speaker and a devout Christian. The Christian community life became a safe place of refuge for him both socially as well as intellectually.
In 1881, during his brief stint as a legal practitioner at the Khidderpur bar in Calcutta, he founded various social organizations such as the Orissa Young Men’s association, (1881), Utkal Sabha, (1882), Utkal union conference or UUC (1903), Utkal Prajapratinidhi Sabha (1911) and the Utkal Sahitya Samaj (1903). He also patronized theatre, art and music and many other activities which in a way heralded the beginning of the modern society and politics in Orissa. One of the prime objectives of all these organizations was to demand the welfare of and a better deal for Orissa.
Madhusudan served as a member of the Bengal Legislative Council between 1896 and 1911. After the formation of the province of Bihar and Orissa he remained a non-official member of its Legislative Council between 1912 and 1926. As a legislator he took up various local and national issues such as the industrialization of administration, separation of executive from judiciary, salt laws, defence of India, women education, promotion of local industries, extension of agriculture, funds for local self government and lowering funds of excise duty on Indian goods and hiking of tariff duty on the imports for protecting the swadeshi industries.
He was very clear about the role he played as a legislator. While defining the role of non-official legislators he said in the Bengal Council in 1902:
… I have always considered myself here as a humble interpreter of the Government and the people I represent. That is the right view of the position of a non-official member…. As an interpreter his duties are to communicate to the Government the wishes and want of the people, and to see that the intensions of the Government are not misunderstood by the people.
(Proceedings of the Council of Lt. Governor of Bengal, 4 April 1902, in N.K. Sahu and P.K. Mishra, ed., Madhusudan Das : The Legislator, Rourkela, 1980, p.32)
Like other early nationalists of the period, Madhusudan strongly believed that the British would develop India the way they had developed their own country. Even when the nationalists became overtly critical of the Government and started the non-cooperation agitation during the Gandhian phase in 1920-22, he did not change his opinion. In 1921 he even became the Minister of Local-self Government in the Bihar and Orissa Government and earned the wrath of the Congress people.
Madhusudan’s range of activities was not confined to the Councils, meetings and discussions alone. As a champion of women education he established a girl’s school at Cuttack in 1908. Earlier he had sent his adopted daughter Shoilabala Das to England for training so that the school developed in an ‘ideal’ manner.
In 1897 he set up an workshop called The Orissa Artwares and Art school for the training and employment of local artisans. Nearly 150 artisans worked there. As a great advocate of swadeshi and modern industries, he started a leather factory in 1904 . Known as the Utkal Tannery this factory produced good quality shoes and other leather products which were also exported to Europe. For him, if the leather-workers, who were in the lowest rung of the social hierarchy, lead a respectable life through their work, the society would realize the worth of dignity of labor.
Madhusudan’s love and passion for Orissa was beyond any doubt. But, this in no way made him narrow and sectarian in his approach or attitude. He believed that Orissa was an inseparable part of India. However, she lagged behind other provinces, especially her close neighbour Bengal. His view was, such backwardness and underdevelopment of one state would adversely affect the growth of India as a nation.
In 1904 he wrote :
Mother Utkal is neither a rival nor an enemy of mother India. Mother India has a number of children. Each one of them needs care of varied nature. When one child may be breastfed while sitting on the mother’s lap, another child may be reprimanded for his evil doings. Further, from the third one the mother may solicit counseling and suggestions. This means the mother changes her attitude and approach as per the child’s needs. Mother Utkal is that soft form of the mother (India) which tenderly breastfeeds her child. This is only an incarnation of mother India. This is only one of the forms of India.
(Utkal Sammilani, Utkalshree, Balasore, 2005, p.3)
Madhusudan felt aggrieved that his understanding of national and regional development was not shared and appreciated by the nationalists, especially by the Bengal leaders. Instead he was accused promoting narrow provincialism in Orissa.
Madhusudan was a nationalist of first order.
In his scheme of things nationalism and Christianity were not in conflict with one another. As a Christian he believed that the duty of an Indian Christian was to see himself as a part of the nation. While addressing the All India Christian Conference in 1915, he said,
“Do not expect any credit for what you have done for the nation. Be prepared to do all you can, but do not expect any credit. Be merged in the nation, be lost in the nation. You have no independent individual life without the nation; your life must belong to the nation.”
(The lecture is appended in Debendra Kumar Das, ed., Madhusudan Das : The man and His missions, Rourkela, 1998, p.212)
In the beginning of 1920’s the country witnessed great changes in all spheres of its political life. Mass politics had begun; the anti-people nature of the British rule had become quite apparent; and people had started to challenge the authorities rather fearlessly.
However, Madhusudan did not change his liberal attitude to the British and gradually lost the control over the national movement in Orissa. He breathed his last on 4 February 1934, just two years before the formation of the separate Orissa province on linguistic and cultural basis.
It would probably be a travesty of facts, if such a great humanist is drubbed as parochial or a narrow nationalist or a blind ally of British imperialism in India. Madhusudan worked for the people as per his own worldview and understanding. It is his commitment to the people and the society, which should place him as a great leader of our country. Instead of seeing the uniqueness of his thought and actions, if any one tries to compare him with just any other leader, smaller or a bigger, it would be nothing less than a negation of his significance in history of the state and India.
Madhusudan had worked against many odds. When he converted to Christianity his family and parents severed ties with him. Only after five years of marriage, he lost his wife and remained a loner throughout. Throughout his life he suffered from abdominal ulcer.
He was so highly educated and brilliant that he could have become a top ranking leader in Bengal too. However, he preferred to maintain his Oriya identity despite the threat of facing humiliation at the hands of the dominant Bengali leadership of the time.
Madhusudan was feared by his friends and juniors for his short temper, outspoken and harsh comments. All these aspects cannot be overlooked, when we try to make an analysis of his thought and actions.
* Well-known columnist and writer Dr Pritish Acharya is a Reader in History at National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and is presently posted at Regional Institute of Education, Bhubaneswar, a constituent of NCERT. He has edited a National Book Trust publication ‘Selected Writings of Madhusudan Das’ in English. Dr Acharya has a number of publications in Odia to his credit.