The other day, this writer was interacting with a group of engineering students in Bhubaneswar about important dates in October. While many instantly remembered October 2 as Gandhi Jayanti, when asked to specify the birthday of one of the greatest sons of Odisha, Pandit Gopabandhu Das, nobody could correctly remember.
We may not read much into this stray incident; but the painful fact remains that many of us do not even remember that Gopabandhu, one of the noblest sons of this soil, was born on October 9, 1877. Quite unfortunately, Odisha Government’s official website erroneously notes his year of birth as 1876, instead of 1877.
Given here is a snapshot of the government’s website (here)to drive home the point.
Today, the Information & Public Relations Department of the state government organised a routine state-level function at Jayadev Bhavan, Bhubaneswar. Statues of the Utkalamani at various street corners, parks and educational institutions across the state are being garlanded. Surely, the speakers on the dais and the audience will feel emotional while remembering the selfless service of this immortal soul and may even shed tears while reciting his immortal lines:
“Let my body mingle with the earth of this country
Let the people walk on my back,
Let the pits on the road to Swarajya
Be filled up with my flesh and bones…”
(From ‘Autobiography of a Prisoner’)
But come October the 10th, Gopabandhu would be history again. Even the students, who grabbed prizes recounting his contributions or reciting his lines, would choose to remember 9th October as World Post Day, World Egg Day or even as the birthday of ‘BO’ (Barack Obama’s favourite pet dog, the First Dog of America, born on 9th October 2008)!
We are a hopelessly forgetful nation with a very poor sense of history. Or else, we would not have forgotten the contributions of this great man whom, Gandhiji, the Father of the Nation, revered as “one of the greatest souls he ever met” and for whom, he forsook all his rigid views regarding erection of statues of political leaders and himself unveiled the Utkalamani’s statue near Lion’s Gate in Puri in 1934.
Gandhiji came to Odisha for the first time in March 1921 primarily on Gopabandhu’s invitation and insistence. The grand reception he received in Cuttack and the huge gathering at the meeting on the banks of river Kathajodi was clearly etched in his memory. Gopabandhu was translating his speech into Odia and the applause that he received after every statement, that Gopabandhu translated, was reverberating in his ears. Gandhiji knew it was not merely for his words, but because of the huge popularity of the leader who was translating it. Gandhiji always wanted to salute this individual, who carried forward activities of the Congress in Odisha with utmost sincerity. The courage and conviction with which he persuaded the leaders of Utkal Sammilani to pass the Chakradharpur Resolution on 30th December 1920, accepting the aims and objectives of the Indian National Congress as those of the Sammilani in addition to their own objectives, was something that reflected his commitment to Congress ideals.
There, perhaps, could not have been another person who embodied Gandhian ideals of selfless service to the nation better than Gopabandhu Das. Though younger to Gandhi by eight years, Gopabandhu left for his heavenly abode on 17th June 1928, the day of Naba Joubana Darshan of Lord Jagannath, at the young age of 51. Gandhiji deeply mourned his death and when a statue was erected in the latter’s honour, he readily agreed to unveil it before embarking on his historic Harijan Padayatra from Puri. He did not enter the Jagannath temple as a matter of principle to register his protest against the discriminatory practices of not allowing people of all religions and castes into the temple. But he bowed before Gopabandhu and paid respects to this great son of the soil for his compassionate and selfless services for the cause of Odisha.
During the last Nabakalebara in July 2015, in a strange twist of destiny, the said statue of Gopabandhu, the only one to ever have been unveiled by the Father of the Nation on the soil of Odisha, was dislodged from its original position. As expected, there were protests from all around. Even today, though the government claims that the statue has been ‘relocated’ with due honour and was done primarily to ease the traffic; there are only a few takers of this explanation, as the said statue had stood on the same spot for the last 80 years, serenely witnessing not less than five Nabakalebaras in a row.
Moreover, citizens are complaining today about the government not keeping its promise of providing a permanent shade, proper lighting and a pedestal for the statue, so that it can be visible to those seeking ‘darshan’ from the road. The complaints are many, but the fact that the government is callous and ignorant of the sentiment of the people of Odisha is quite evident.
It is not about disrespecting this statue alone. Misreporting of Gopabandhu’s year of birth on the state government’s own portal is unpardonable. For a Chief Minister with no sense of history, who has been ruling the state in the name of his father, the history of Odisha starts and ends with Biju Patnaik. Understandably, there is no room either for a Gandhi, Gopabandhu or as witnessed during the Nabakalebara fiasco, even God.
*Views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Odisha Sun Times’ editorial policy.