People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 25

June 24, 2007

The 1857 Rebellion In Orissa: Looking For The ‘Echoes’?


Biswamoy Pati


CONVENTIONAL historiography hardly says anything about the 1857 rebellion in Orissa. This is but a logical corollary in a context where selectivity – shared both by colonialist and nationalist historiography – have blurred vital aspects of the past. What we are normally told about is Surendra Sahai’s – a member of the ruling family of Sambalpur – attempt to restore his ‘lost’ power, or of ‘patriots’ like Chandan Hajuri. However, if seen along with the conditions among the adivasis, outcastes and the marginal sections not only in the coastal tracts, but also in western Orissa, or even the following of Sahai, one can indeed get a strikingly different picture.


It would be impossible to focus on the phase of turbulence associated with the 1857 rebellion in Orissa without keeping in mind the colonisation of the region and the way it impacted on the common people. It was not new for the tribals and outcastes of the region to be driven systematically into the hilly and forested interior, but the conquest of Orissa and the formal entry of colonialism (post 1803) intensified this pressure considerably. The process of consolidating the power of the landed sections was reinforced through the agrarian settlements, the efforts to stabilise colonial rule in the region and the efforts to tap its resources.


The initial dislocations, shifts and changes saw a host of rebellions. These included the risings in Parliakhemedi (1799-1814), Khurda (Paika – feudal military retainers – Rebellion, 1817), Ghumsar (1835-36) Angul (1846-47), the Kandha Rebellion (Kalahandi, 1855) and the Sabara Rebellion (Parliakhemedi, 1856-57). Many of these were led by the propertied sections whose position was undermined by the colonial interventions. Nevertheless, they mobilised large sections of the peasants, tribals and the 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.


Historians normally forget to mention the colonial terror strikes faced by the tribals and outcastes in the western interior tracts of Orissa right upto the 1850s. The ‘burden of civilising’ the tribes, for example, led to the stereotyping of the Kandhas as ‘violent’ and ‘barbaric’ people, who carried out human sacrifice. Although the power of colonialist historiography has haunted generations of historians to accept this position unquestioningly, present-day social anthropologists question the very existence of any such practice. Nevertheless, this rationalised the terror campaigns carried out in the hills of Orissa that led to desertions of the people and were accompanied by the plundering and burning of grain. These drove the tribals and outcastes into the hilly interior. The amount of dislocation these caused is not easy to assess or quantify. Nevertheless, references to ‘deserted villages’, ‘ruined tanks’ ‘abandoned agricultural lands’ and the ‘burning of grain’ of the tribal folk bear testimony to the price that had to be paid by the marginal sections to get ‘civilised’.


It was this context that made the common people create their weapons to fight their adversaries. We hear of the legendary Chakara Bisoi who seems to have been ‘everywhere’ – including in the colonial records – ‘creating trouble’. If mapped, his area of operation included a huge tract of western Orissa. In fact, his name came to symbolise the diverse rebellions from the 1830s – right upto almost 1856 – after which he seems to have disappeared.




Seen in the context of this background, the 1857 Rebellion appears to be the culmination point of a set of processes that can be traced to the colonisation of the region. Coming more specifically to Orissa, the movement of Surendra Sahai is rather well known. However, some features that are generally ignored need to be highlighted. Sambalpur was taken over by the British from the Marathas in 1817. This implied interference and when the raja Maharaj Sahai died in 1827 the widowed rani was allowed to succeed. Surendra Sahai, who claimed chiefship as the descendant of the fourth chief of Sambalpur, Madhukar Sahai, was deprived from succeeding to the throne. This context witnessed some discontent.


What is normally not mentioned is that Surendra Sahai had the backing of the Gond and the Binjhal tribals, including their zamindars, who were unhappy since they were loosing their lands to Hindu settlers. This process had pre-colonial origins, but was reinforced considerably with the colonisation of the region and was encouraged by the rani. This led to a spell of rebellions carried out in the form of guerrilla warfare in the hill tracts. The British intervened through captain Wilkinson by hanging some of the leaders and deposing the rani and replacing her with Narayan Singh. The Gonds rebelled again, basing themselves in the Barapahar hills and Surendra Sahai continued to claim the throne for himself. In 1840 Sahai, his brother Udwant Sahai and uncle Balaram Singh murdered the son and father of Darayo Singh, zamindar of Rampur. They were arrested and were sent off to Hazaribagh jail as life prisoners.


Narayan Singh’s death in 1849 saw the direct involvement of the Company in Sambalpur. Since he had no male successor, Sambalpur was taken over under the provisions of Dalhousie’s ‘doctrine of lapse’. Systematic increases in the land revenue demands through two settlements (in 1849 and 1854), along with the resumption of privileged tenures created a lot of dissatisfaction and anger that exploded during 1857.


We are told about the news of the ‘mutiny’ at Dinapore reaching Hazaribagh towards the end of July 1857. Very soon after, the treasury was plundered, the jail broken open and the prisoners released. Among these prisoners were Surendra Sahai and his brother Udwant Sahai. They led a contingent of ‘mutineers’ and advanced towards Sambalpur, amidst rumours of ‘insurrectionary’ movements. When the Sahai brothers entered the district of Sambalpur they were joined by a large number of supporters. In fact, they entered the town of Sambalpur in the middle of September with a force of about 1,400 to 1,600 men and camped close to the old fort. Interestingly, according to colonial sources, Sahai met the Assistant Commissioner and assured him that he had no intention of taking over the raj. His only request was to cancel the remaining prison sentences of both him and his brother. The Assistant Commissioner seems to have wanted to buy time, since the colonial administration at Cuttack had decided to send in reinforcements from Madras. Sahai was told that his request would be communicated to the government.




On October 31, 1857 Surendra Sahai left Sambalpur and joined Udwant at Khinda, where about 1,400 men had gathered. Most probably the news of reinforcements being moved to the area reached the rebels. What one witnesses after this was large scale guerrilla warfare. It involved the tribal folk who fought against the colonial forces rather effectively. As described in November 1857: ‘At present the insurgent seem to be a rabble easily dispersed, but who as easily re-assemble’. In fact, the initial fears of this movement attracting rebels from distant parts to join in did prove to be correct. The rebels obstructed the dak road to Bombay and burnt down two dak stations to cripple the communication links of the enemy. We are told about several armed encounters with the rebels, who were protected by the forests and the hills. Sahai, was always accompanied by 100 people and this included women and forty ‘sepoy mutineers…supposed to be’ of the ‘Ramghur Battalion’.The colonial forces faced several reverses and lost many men, including captain Woodbridge. The anxiety caused by the rebels is indicated by the terror struck through the destruction of villages and the hanging of people suspected to be sympathetic to the rebels. We get references to ‘sorties’ organised to fight the rebel forces.


The 1857 rebellion continued almost unabated till Sahai was arrested in 1864. The desperate efforts to ‘hunt…down’ Sahai for four years and send troops in all directions for the purpose proved to be ineffective. The efforts to counter the rebellion also included ensuring that the rebels did not get any supplies and help, and rewarding the rajas of Bamra, Baud, Kalahandi, Keonjhar, Mayurbhanj, Rairakhol, Sareikalla, Sonepur, propertied sections (viz. the zamindars of Sambalpur and of Borasambar) and upper castes like Brahmins. A three-pronged attack on the rebels was carried out by the colonial forces at Kulunda ghat in December 1859 which failed to capture Sahai. The colonial government declared a reward of Rs 1,000 for capturing Sahai.


These features illustrate both the popularity of the rebellion as well as its class character. Interestingly, as late as 1863, after Sambalpur had been transferred to the central provinces, the old demand of ‘restoring native rule’ was revived. A petition submitted by ‘landholders, Brahmins and influential people of Sambalpur’ maintained that if ‘Surendra Sahai was made the Raja, all would be well and the government, in place of losing by the country, might demand a heavy tribute’. What seems particularly striking is the way Chakara Bisoi faded away by the time the 1857 rebellion touched Orissa, symbolising perhaps how he ‘merged’ with popular aspirations that were involved with the anti-imperialist struggle in this phase.




This phase also saw discontent among some tribals who had been ousted from the Bamanaghati tract of Mayurbhanj. Alongside, the Santals also caused some amount of anxiety and the colonial administration at Balasore seemed to have ‘saved’ the situation by arresting the ‘instigator’ and awarding him a life sentence.


Another feature was the way the 1857 rebellion seems to have links with the pilgrim traffic associated with Puri. References to ‘pilgrim-catchers’ and their all-India network is something that is known to historians. Nevertheless, what seems less known relates to Chakhi Khuntia, whose original name was Chandan Hajuri, a panda of Puri. Like many other ‘pilgrim catchers’, he travelled extensively all over India in search of devotees. These ‘pilgrim catchers’ took advances from those who wanted to travel to Puri, with the understanding that they would be taken around and looked after when they visited Puri on pilgrimage. During the 1857 rebellion Chandan was suspected as a ‘rebel’ as he had good relations with sepoys of northern India and since he was probably in some north Indian military station. His long absence from Puri seems to have created suspicion in the minds of the British authorities. It was also rumoured that he was directly involved in the revolt and that he had established contact with Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi. His property was confiscated and he was arrested at Gaya, but was released soon after the Queen of England’s Proclamation in 1858. The panic of the colonial establishment is also visible in the way it took serious measures to keep a close watch over about 167 sepoys who visited Puri between August and November 1857.


In conclusion, it can be said that the 1857 rebellion had a broad base and was much beyond a ‘restorative’ movement, involving Surendra Sahai. This is demonstrated by the active participation of the marginal people. Alongside, the involvement of the sepoy component contributed to the widespread, armed guerrilla warfare, perhaps for the first time in colonial Orissa. Historians focus on the anti-imperialist aspect of 1857. Nevertheless, given the problems faced by the tribals and outcastes over the 1804-1857, the 1857 rebellion polarised class and caste, considerably, at least in western Orissa. This is visible in the way which had seen a struggle with the internal exploiters ranging from the rajas and big landlords to the Hindu upper castes. At the same time, the rebellion united a section of the upper classes/castes along with the common people, thereby demonstrating the emergence of a common enemy in the form of British imperialism.