Tribals of Phulbani and Malati Chaudhury

Dhobendri Mohapatra

Govt. Of Orissa Activities Report 2004-05

Belghar is a remote area in the Baliguda subdivision of Phulbani district. Its natural surrounding being forests and mountains is extremely scenic and beautiful. Herein live for ages tribals belonging to the Kutia Kondh tribe. They are simple and innocent people but exploited and neglected. Malati Devi came to this region in the year 1959-60. No individual or agency had ever entered this region prior to her arrival with purpose to work among the tribals.

    She came into this region when she was reported that leprosy had become widespread amongst the people of the region and no medical fecility was available from the government. She in fact came with her husband Nabakrusna Chaudhury and was moved by the sufferings of the leprosy patients. To ensure attendance to them, she sent for the workers of the Utkal Nabajeevan Mandal who were trained under Dr. Isaac Santra of Sambalpur to attend the leprosy patients. Under her guidance the work continued for six to seven years till the government decided to open medical centres to attend to the leprosy patients of the region.

    Being successful in her work in alleviating the sufferings of the leprosy patients of the region, she shifted her attention to the problems of poverty, illiteracy, exploitation and repression dogging the Kuti Kondhs. She set up two service centres at Burlubaru and Dupi where she deployed well-trained activists of the Utkal Nabajeevan Mandal.

    The workers of those centres organised the tribals to form in each village Gramsabha (village committee), peace force, youth forum, Save independence and prohibition committee, Kasturba Nari Sangha etc. Then after began fight against injustice and exploitation. As a result the lands, cattles, gold etc. mortgaged to the moneylenders could be recovered back whereas the police could be forced to return the money they had taken from the tribals. The exploitation by the government officials could be exposed and the government could be persuaded to punish the guilty officials. Naturally due to such activities of the workers, the local administration became vindictive and to harass them began filing false cases against them. The police even did not hesitate to break into the hut where Radhamani Apa (she is no more) was staying, at the dead of the night, to arrest her. This incident aroused indignation amongst the local tribals. Malati Devi organised a protest meeting, which was attended by about three thousand tribals. The gathering had frightened the local administration. Radhamani Apa was released unconditionally. Numa (Malati Devi is addressed so affectionately) had instilled in the people of the region fearlessness.

    It was in the year 1974, a report reached the Sarvodaya Mandal of Phulbani district that the traders of Kumuti community and Dombs (a scheduled caste community) of Shraliguda, Keshraguda, Judabali villages of Kotagada block were taking possession of the lands the tribals were forced to mortgage to them, even for trivial purchases like goat, pig or blade besides cereals. Sarbi Pradhan, Pitabas Kanhar and Mukteswar Pradhan were sent to ascertain truth of the report. But before they could reach these villages and begin their investigation, they were arrested on the way. Numa on getting this news arrived immediately and released these workers from the clutches of the police. She lived in Kotgada for two three days and organised protest meetings against such practices by the money -lenders, traders and dombs. This resulted in the return of the lands to the tribals. The police officers that arrested these workers were also punished.

    Besides organising such protest meetings, Numa had made many useful suggestions to the government to solve the land-related problems of the tribals. She had suggested that the boundary of the reserve forest should be shifted by a mile from the tribal villages and the cultivable land should be distributed amongst the landless and marginal tribals. She had felt that this would disengage the tribals from shifting cultivation. This suggestion by Numa had overwhelming support of the tribals but the government never implemented it.

    Numa’s greatest contribution was the creation of consciousness amongst the exploited and neglected tribals to identify their legitimate rights and then to fight for it without break. It is for such contribution that Malati Chaudhury would be remembered not only in Phulbani but she would be remembered across the length and breadth of Orissa.

Source : Numa, compiled by the Utkal Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, Bakharabad, Cuttack; published by Malati Devi Nabakrushna Chaudhury Trust, Bhubaneswar, 1998)

Translation : Birendra Nayak

Photographs :   Kasturi Mruga Sama by Manmohan Chaudhury; Numa- A compilation; Smaranika, published by Utkal Navajeevan Mandal; Shradhanjali, published by Bastia Memorial Trust; Adwitiya, published by Nabakrushna Chaudhury Centenary Committee; Ajnanku Abhinandan, published by Banabasi seva Samiti, Baliguda; Ajna by Subhas Chandra Mishra

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