Bhuiyan Uprising

Dr. Lalatendu Das Mohapatra

    Among all the major tribal uprisings in the nineteenth century Orissa, the Bhuiyan uprising of Keonjhar in 1867 and 1891 were perhaps the biggest and deserve to be drawn special attention among the historians. The only event of its kind was the Munda uprising of Chhotnagpur division under the leadership of Birsa Munda which took place in 1899.

    Amongst the large body of semi-Hinduised tribal population in the feudatory States of Orissa, the Bhuiyans were the fourth largest, constituting 91,581,according to the Census of 1901.They were scattered mainly in the northern states of Orissa such as Keonjhar, Mayurbhanj, Gangpur, Bonai,Bamra and Pal Lahara besides a sizeable among them in Singhbhum district of then Chhotnagpur Division.But their original homeland is thought to have been in the wild highlands of the inaccessible hill ranges of Bonai, Pal Lahara and Keonjhar states though subsequently with the increase of population they migrated to the neighbouring states. In Keonjhar they always held dominant position in the politics of the state where they called themselves the children of the soil or Bhuin from which the word Bhuiyan has been derived. Their tradition says that they were the founder of the Bhanja dynasty of the state. Previously Keonjhar was united with Mayurbhanj which was ruled by the Bhanja kings. The Bhuiyans stole a boy from the royal family and made him their king. They offered him the right to rule and punish them if any one committed any wrong. But at the same time they also believed to have reserved the right to dethrone their king if he became oppressive. In the coronation ceremony of the king they played a vital role without whom coronation was not considered complete.

    The rebellion of 1867 was an outcome of strong resentment of the Bhuyans against the British policy of interference of their age-long practice of crowning or rejecting the king of their choice. In their long standing custom there was no place for clause twenty-five of the code governing the administration of the feudatory states. But the British government, after the death of king Gadadhar Bhanja in 1861, by refusing the claim of Brundaban Bhanja, the adopted son of Bishnupriya Dei, his first wife and the first lady of the state, chose to crown Dhanurjay Narayan Bhanja, the son of his concubine. The Bhuyans however resented this decision of the government and refused to recognise the son of a concubine as their king. They under the leadership of Ratna Nayak protested this decision of the government, which very soon took to a violent turn resulting a terrible fight with the government police. The rebellion was well supported by the queen Bishnupriya who was highly revered by the Bhuyans and her brother, the king of Mayurbhanj.

    Though the uprising was intended against Dhanurjay Narayan Bhanja, the minor son of Gadadhar Bhanja,it was actually provoked by bebarta Chandrasekhar Dhal Mahapatra, to whom the Bhuiyans despised most for a number of reasons. Earlier in a land settlement he used a padika(rod) of 7 feet 5 inches much to the disadvantages of the Bhuiyans. His increasing influence in the court was the main reason of the annoyance of the Bhuiyans, to whom they considered as indifferent to their interest. The bebarta secretly supported the cause of Dhanurjay Narayan which made the Buiyans apprehenship that the latter would be a protégé in the hands of the bebarta who would increase his influence in the court to the disadvantages of the Buiyans. But the Bhuiyans did not rise into rebellion so long as Dhanurjay was a minor and the state was under court of wards. But once he attained the age, Ravenshaw, the Commissioner of Orissa declared him the legitimate ruler of the state in 1867 as per the provisions of Twenty-five Questions relating to the succession to the throne. To ensure that the coronation ceremony takes place safely and without any trouble he himself accompanied Dhanurjay to Keonjhar with police force from Cuttack, without expecting much resistance from the people. But to his surprise on the way in Anandpur he faced violent protest from the Bhuiyans who showed their disgusting to Dhanurjay Narayan and refused to accept him as their ruler. Their resistence was well encouraged by Bishnupriya Devi, the widow and chief Queen of late Gadadhar Bhanja who was a mother figure of the Bhuiyans,and the King of Maurbhanj from whose family Brundaban, the adopted son of Bishnupriya descended.

    Sensing deepening of the crisis Ravenshaw now resorted to pressure tactics to make Bishnupriya yield to him.After reaching Keonjhar where he faced more violent protests, his troops arrested some Bhuiyan leaders and producing them before her,he asked if she wished to bring all her so called children into a similar predicament. This tactics brought the desired result and the queen agreed to accept Dhanurjay Narayan as the ruler of Keonjhar. The Bhuiyan leaders were released on condition of renouncing opposition and hostility. Therafter both bhuiyans and Bishnupriya appeared to have reconciled to the new chief who co-operated with the government in carrying out the coronation ceremony of the prince in February, 1868.Only Ratna Nayak, the chief leader of the rebels was not reconciled with the ruler.

    Though the situation in Keonjhar appears to have been normalised, a sudden eruption of violence on 28 April 1868 stuck the entire state. The Bhuiyans led by Ratna Nayak and Nanada Nayak besieged the palace, plundered the bazaars and set fire some houses. Though the immediate provocation behind this violence is obscure, the Commissioner of Chhotnagpur attributed it to some treacherous and impolitic action of the bebarta while Ravenshaw suspected the Rani and the Raja of Mayurbhanj for secretly fomenting the disaffection. Thereafter Ratna Nayak and his fellow tribesmen held the bebarta as hostage and spread violence to rest of the state. The Raja became alarmed of his own safety and applied to government for additional force as he could not trust his own paiks.

    The insurgency soon spread to other tribal belt of the state. They plundered the villages which did not join them. Now the government entrusted the job of quelling the rebellion to Dr Hayes, the Deputy Commissioner of Singhbhum, who was acquainted with the people and held some influence over them. He came to Keonjhar with force and tried for reconciliation with the Bhuiyans. But he found that though his appeal for inviting the Bhuiyans to the negotiating table was favourably reciprocated by the Bhuiyans the hard-liners amongest them totally ignored him. They refused to release the bebarta and fifty adherents of the Raja until the acceptance of the claim of Brundaban Bhanj, the adopted son of the Rani Bishnupriya. Hence finding no other way of reconciliation he requested for three hundred more government force to start action against them.

    In the meanwhile, on 19 May 1868, Ravenshaw issued a proclamation declaring Dhanurjay Narayan Bhanja as the rightful claimant of the crown of Keonjhar whose succession was endorsed by the court of law. In such circumstances if any one sided with the rebels he would be dealt with severely. Thereafter Brundaban Bhanja, by an order of the Bengal government was detained in Balasore which had the desired result. The Raja of Mayurbhanj who rendered all possible assistance to the rebels was also scared after the proclamation of Ravenshaw and refrained from providing any assistance to them.

    Meanwhile about 2000 rebels closed communication with Cuttack, Chainbasha and Balasore, plundered the daks and made a series of attacks on the camp of British troops though without much success. The government also strengthened their position by reinforcing their troops with equal number of policemen. They also made a series of counter attacks on their villages but were not successful in nabbing the main Bhuiyan leaders. At the same time messages were also sent to them to surrender on promise of clemency. But this did not yield any desired result. Now the police directed their attacks on the innocent people. The villages which sided with the rebels were set on fire. It was at this juncture that the rebels were provoked to execute the bebarta. Thereafter, the government troops intensified the repression. The military officers were empower to use cane against the people as per the Act of 1860.Rewards were also declared to capture the rebel leaders.

    When the government troops were beating the bush without much success it was at this juncture that the neighbouring Rajas extended their help to the government troops. The Raja of Mayurbhanj after the notification of Ravenshaw not only withdrew his support for the rebels but also decided now to strengthen the hands of government by sending police force against the Bhuiyans. The Rajas of Bonai, Pal Lahara and Dhenkanal also furnished contingents. But it was the assistance of Raja Bindheswari Prasad Singhdeo of Udaipur which was the most crucial factor in repressing the rebellion. As they were familiar with the condition and the topography of garhjat they had no difficulty in penetrating the rebels’ stronghold which the government troops failed. The chief leader Ratna Nayak who was hiding in Pal Lahara was captured by the troops of their Raja. Similarly, two other leaders, Nanda Pradhan and Rameya Kol were captured by the Dewan of Bonai. By the end of August 1868 most of the leaders were captured as a result of which the insurgency was totally suppressed.

    The captured leaders were meted out with severe punishment. Ten of them including Ratna Nayak and Rameya Kol were sentenced to death on the charge of assassination of the bebarta. Twenty-seven were transported for life and the rest of them were sentenced to between seven and ten years imprisonment. Apart from the deliberate murder of the bebarta, the general charge against the convicts were waging war against queen, plunder,

robbery and kidnapping of officials. On the other hand all the garhjat rajas, petty chieftains and their officers who had come out voluntarily to extend helping hand to the British government were rewarded handsomely.

    The failure of 1867-68 uprising is largely attributable to the joining hands with the British government by the petty Rajas and the zemindars who in expectation of some favour joined English troops in suppressing the revolt. When the well-trained government troops were struggling to save themselves from indifferent weather and sickness, the garhjat troops penetrated the bhuiyan strongholds and captured them with ease. Without their help perhaps it would not have been possible for the government troops to capture the rebel leaders and the insurgency would have been prolonged. Thus after the insurgency of 1857, the general policy of the British government to strengthened the hands of the native Rajas and zemindars who were to act as their most suitable collaborators in strengthening their regime in India was also applied to a petty state Keonjhar to suppress the revolt. Otherwise the failure of 2,000 well –trained British police and infantry was a living demonstration of the alienation of its people from the British government and a feudal chief who was imposed on them against their will. The tribal population of the state refused to accept a ruler to whom they considered an illegitimate claimant of the throne of their state. They also considered it as an infringement of their long-standing custom and right of enthroning a Chief of their choice, by an outside agency, which provoked an otherwise peace-loving tribal community to rise in arms. The selfless fight and sacrifice of Ratna Nayak, who till his last breath was sworn by the cause of his ‘mother’ Bishnupriya Pattamahadevi, also deserves special tribute in the pages of history. His example was perhaps only second to that of Jayi Rajguru, who was hanged by the British government in the first half of the nineteenth century for his selfless fight against the British government to save the honour of the king of Orissa.

(To be concluded)