The Unsung Heroes: The Paika Rebellion of Odisha
In our lives, we get introduced to the history of our world or the idea of learning about the elaborate past of mankind through our history books; and so more often than not, we tend to believe everything printed on them. However, history is a vast topic with numerous events, both major and minor, which have helped in shaping the world that we thrive in today. What is left behind are unsung moments in history that are often looked over, uncelebrated, or simply unknown. This article will be focussing on one such event particularly falling under Indian history or the history of Indian independence. With much more on this, here is Perspectoverse’s Aahi Guha Thakurta.
Upon revisiting or reading up on the topic of Indian independence, we see that the first major event that allegedly set off the freedom struggle is the Revolt of 1857. The event mainly revolves around the Sepoy Mutiny and how ignorant as well as deliberately cruel laws established by the British led to the first united, armed rebellion. The Revolt is mainly given its importance due to the Hindu-Muslim unity that led it, a highly improbable alliance during the times. However, what a stark majority is blatantly unaware of is that the Revolt was, in fact, not the first ever rebellion against the British. While it most definitely deserves the importance, can it be considered the first ever war of independence?
To delve into the topic at hand, that is the Paika rebellion, it is important to know who the Paikas actually were. The Paikas were a group of advanced military soldiers who were recruited by the kings of Odisha, a modern Indian state, from the 16th century to provide martial services to their kingdom in return for rent-free lands and titles.
Their dissatisfaction towards British rule mainly began due to the new revenue measures introduced by the empire- the measures were sudden, extremely strict and involved the Paikas losing their estates in spite of toiling hard in the military. There were many more justified reasons for them to revolt, starting with the fact that they had a terrible experience with colonialism- Odisha was originally made a colony under Colonel Harcourt in the September of 1803, who remained unchallenged until the British eventually uprooted him.
The British then went about introducing new forms of revenue collection and settlement allocation which led the original proprietors to ruins- land was transferred to ruthless Bengali lords causing further pressure on the peasants or tribals working on the settlements. The British also completely changed the currency system, demanding revenue in rupees which increased pressure upon the marginal tribes.
They also had to struggle with meeting the rapidly increasing demands of the landlords who had to pay their taxes in silver. To elaborate, upon the rise in the value of silver during the 18th through the 19th century, the poorer tribes and the ‘untouchable’ caste struggled to produce enough grain to pay for the expensive metal. The British empire’s eminent control over salt proved to be another disadvantage. Due to these reasons, there were quite a few uprisings all across Odisha.
The Paikas managed to unite and mobilize large troops consisting of peasants, tribals and general outcastes to rebel against the British- they were all highly discontented and angered by the sudden disruptions caused by the colonial settlements which had seriously interfered with their livelihoods and undermined their humanitarian rights along with their employment status.
Therefore, in 1817 (40 years prior to the Revolt of 1857), some 400 Kondhs from the Ghumusar area rose in revolt against the British. Bakshi Jagabandhu Bidyadhar Mohapatra Bharamarbar Rai, the highest-ranking military general of Mukund Dev II, and also the holder of the Rodanga estate, led an army of Paikas to join this uprising. The entire rebellion was quite a bloody and dangerous one- the Paikas started by setting fire to the government buildings in Banapur, killing policemen and looting the treasury along with the British ship docked in Chilika containing their salt. They then marched to Khurda and killed quite a few British officials.
They dedicated the next few months to fighting bloody, ruthless battles against the powerful British until the colonial army gradually crushed the revolt and decided upon levying death sentences on most of the Paikas. Although the war is not particularly popular, it did lead to impactful changes which makes this short-lasting revolt quite commendable. For example, Odias were given more significant or important positions in the government which enabled them to lead better lives. Changes were made to the judicial system as well wherein judges were ordered to personally sort out the grievances of the Odias by preventing language barriers and visiting their interior villages.
Evidently, the Paika revolt is not as well remembered or largely influential as the Revolt of 1857. Nonetheless, it is safe to admit that it was an exceptionally valorous attempt on the part of Indians. It birthed and started the concept of rebellion against what is wrong or standing up for one’s beliefs in India during the 19th century.
However, is it deserving of being called the first ever act of large-impact revolution in British India? Shall it have the honourable title of the first ever act of aggression against the British Raj? That, dear readers, is a question for another time…
Written by Aahi Guha Thakurta
Illustrated by Anushka Doshi