The Prajamandal Movement

During British rule, Odisha’s princely or indigenous states possessed sovereign power. The kings of these areas gradually became repressive. Exploitation and repression became a hallmark of all indigenous states. The populace was exploited through a variety of taxation methods, including ‘Rasad’, ‘Magan’, ‘Bethi’, and ‘Begari’. Finally, when the people’s exploitation became intolerable, they were seized by a burning desire to revolt. Their accumulated rage and hostility toward the ruling princes manifested themselves in the Prajamandal movement.

The emergence of native states

Since the Mughal era, the hereditary feudatory kings ruling in Odisha’s hilly tracts had enjoyed internal sovereignty of power. However, the Mughal administrative system was in operation in the areas occupied by the Mughals, referred to as the Mughalbandi kingdom. The kings of these mountainous states, known collectively as the ‘Garajat’ states, paid taxes and homage to the Mughals. When the Maratthas conquered Odisha, the kings of these Garajat areas paid tribute to the Maratthas in exchange for the ability to retain their internal sovereignty. When the British captured Odisha, the system was perpetuated, with the Garajat princes paying taxes to the British while retaining their sovereign internal power. In 1936, a new Odisha province was established, and the Eastern States Agency was divided into three sections the same year. In the Odisha State Agency, 23 of the 26 Garajat regions included in the Odisha division were retained in Odisha; the remaining three, Mayurbhanj and Kalahandi, were retained in the Bengal Agency, while Patna and Kalahandi remained in the Chattisgarh Agency. They were divided into A, Band C sections in 1937, based on their significance.

Dhenkanal, Keonjhar, Mayurbhanj, Bamanda, Boudh, Gangapur, Patna, Kalahandi, Sonepur, Sareikala, and Nayagarh were included in the ‘A’ category, totaling 11 states. Athagarh, Baramba, Narsinghpur, Athamallik, Hmdol, Daspalla, Khandapara, Kharasuan, Rairakhol, Talcher, Bolangir, and Nilgiri were included in the ‘B’ category, totaling 12 states. Pallahara, Ranpur, and Tigiria were included in the ‘C’ category, totaling three states. Prior to the Prajamandal movement, all of these Garajat states were British subjects who paid taxes and were loyal to the British. In exchange, the British granted them internal sovereignty.

Causes of the Prajamandal Rebellion

The following factors contributed to the rebellion in Odisha’s Garjat states:

  1. Economic exploitation of the Garajat rulers: The kings of these Garajat states lived lavishly and pompously. As a result, a sizable sum of money was required to meet their needs. The king’s officers extracted the entire sum from the populace. The people’s situation gradually deteriorated. When their economic foundations were shattered and they could no longer bear such atrocities, the populace rose up in revolt.
  2. The Kings’ Oppression: In addition to regular taxes, the kings extracted money and services from the populace through a variety of dubious methods. Bethi, Begari, Magana, Rasad, Bheti, and Karasamagri were among these taxes. ‘Bethi’ was used to construct palaces and beautify gardens without paying any wages to the workers. To transport royal officers’ personal effects and household goods for free was referred to as ‘Begari’. When there was a royal wedding or death, or even when the king purchased a new car, the people were required to pay either in cash or in kind, a practise known as ‘Magana.’ When the king’s officers toured village areas and established camps in various locations, their food and lodgings were to be provided by the ‘Praja’ or the populace, which was referred to as ‘Rasad’. ‘Bheti’ was the gift that the people were obligated to offer the king when he granted them audience. The king was to be supplied with rice, pulses, cereals, and ghee at a price that was half that of the market, a practise known as Karasamagri. The populace was forced to endure the king’s tyrannical whims. However, in the future, they became a means of inciting people to revolt, paving the way for the Prajamandal movement.
  3. Frequent tax increases: The movement was also influenced by frequent tax increases. Even after various forms of exploitation, the kings did not abstain from frequent tax increases. People’s lives became burdensome, and they were compelled to revolt against feudatory chiefs.

The Prajamandal Movement’s Initial Phase

Between 1908 and 1928, Bamanda witnessed five peasant rebellions. They were enraged by the unjust tax hike. When a few of the rebellion’s leaders were imprisoned, the rebellion died down. In 1922, a people’s rebellion led by Maheswar Subahu Singh, Purna Chandra Mohapatra, and Benudhar Panda erupted in Dhenkanal. In 1928, Nilgiri witnessed popular movements; in 1930, Boudh witnessed them; and in 1932, Talcher witnessed them. All rebellions were brutally put down.

Conference of the People of Odisha’s Garajat States

To provide direction for the Prajamandal movement, the first meeting of the ‘Orissa Garajat state people’s Association’ was held in Cuttack on 20 June 1931. Bhubanananda Das presided over its inaugural session. The conference urged the subject people to rebel in order to reclaim their rights. Following this, on 23-24 June 1937, a senior Congress leader, Pattabhi Sitararnmayya, presided over the conference’s second session. The conference voted to abolish Begari, Magana, Rasad, and Bheti. Following that, an inquiry committee chaired by Satish Chandra Bose, Balwantrai Mehta, Braja Sunder Das, and Sarangadhar Das was established. The committee was sympathetic to the ‘Prajas’ cause and backed their demands. This re-energized the Prajamandal movement.

Prajamandal Movement in various locations throughout Odisha

Odisha has witnessed a number of Prajamandal movements, which are listed below.

Nilgiri’s Prajamandal movement

The 1938 Prajamandal movement in Nilgiri is a watershed moment in Odisha’s history. A ‘Prajamandal’ was formed at Gariamal on the initiative of Harakrushna Mahtab and Sarangdhar Das. Kailash Chandra Mohanty was its president, and Banamali Das was its secretary. They addressed a large gathering on 11 July 1938, the day of the Rath Yatra (car festival), and made pointed references to the king’s misrule. Among their demands were the formulation of a new agricultural policy, the cessation of unjustified taxes, and the evolution of the welfare administrative system. However, the populace was advised to pursue their objectives peacefully. The king ordered the arrest of 120 people, 50 of whom were fined Rs. 50 each and the remainder were imprisoned. When Banarnali Das marched toward Machhuapatna with 5000 people in order to initiate a peaceful satyagraha, the king sought assistance from the Odisha police. Finally, the rebellion was put down thanks to the intervention of Political Agent Major Bezelgate, Harekrushna Mahatab, and Balasore magistrate Sulaiman. The king granted a great deal of the people’s demands.

Dhenkanal Prajamandal movement

The ‘Praja of Dhenkanal instigated a rebellion against Bethi, Magana, Rasad, and Sunia Bheti’s payment. The Prajamandal’s objectives were printed on pamphlets and distributed to the populace. On 13 September 1938, despite police warnings, while Harekrushna Mahatab, Naba Krushna Chowdhury, and Sarangdhar Das addressed a mammoth rally of over 50,000 men, the state police and British police used lathi charges against the crowd. The Congress leadership, however, urged people not to be intimidated by such atrocities and to continue the movement peacefully. Harmohan Patnaik was arrested and sent to Cuttack jail, and many Prajamandal leaders’ homes were set on fire. Baji Rout, 12, was killed in police firing, but the movement continued in the hope of obtaining justice. The 29th of October 1938 was designated as ‘Garajat Day.’ Finally, in 1939, the British government withdrew all powers from the king of Dhenkanal, according to a report by the Central Police Bureau. The king’s authority was now vested in Khan Bahadur A. K. Khan. The term ‘Bethi’ was repealed, the land tax was reduced to two annas, and all arrested leaders were released.

Talcher’s Prajamandal movement

In Talcher, the Prajamandal movement grew to dangerous proportions. The Talcher royal authorities meted out extremely hateful and inhuman treatment, including severe caning, spitting, and urinating in people’s mouths. In 1939, under the leadership of Talcher Prajamandal President Pabitra Mohan Pradhan, the people presented the king with a petition demanding an end to such barbaric punishments and the abolition of Magana, Rasad, and other repressive measures. Krutibas Rath, Maguni Pradhan, Dasarathi Pani, and others led the movement in Talcher. The ‘Prajas,’ or people, fled Talcher for the British-ruled Anugul region. Numerous Congress leaders arrived in Anugul in 1939, and the political agent Mr. Hessene and Harekrushna Mahatab signed a pact. This is referred to as the Hessene-Mahatab Accord. Gandhiji expressed happiness with the agreement. The King was required to accept the majority of the agreement’s clauses. Finally, peace was restored, and those who had fled Talcher returned.

Gangapur’s Prajamandal Movement

The Gangapur Prajamandal movement, too, took on a fearful tone. Following the king’s demise, the queen assumed control of the administration. The majority of Gangapur’s ‘Praja’ belonged to the Munda tribe, led by Nirmal Munda. He attempted to protest the tax increase, but his efforts were fruitless. As a result, he incited the populace to resist paying taxes. The queen directed Lt. Megar, the assistant political agent, to arrest him. While conversing with the public, the police misinterpreted the public’s language and signs. It resulted in the British firing unprovokedly on innocent civilians, killing and injuring many. Many condemned the British for committing such barbaric acts. However, even then, the Queen of Gangapur demonstrated no pity for the populace.

At Ranpur, the Prajamandal Movement

The Ranpur Praarnandai movement reflected the discontent of the entire Odisha people, or ‘Praja,’ with their rulers. On 27 December 1939, the populace demanded an end to misrule and tyranny and the establishment of a new era of benevolent administration. The king imprisoned the rebels, but there was an outpouring of support for their release. The king became frightened and sought refuge beneath the political agent Major Bezelgate. On 5 January 1939, a massive crowd gathered in front of the palace. Bezelgate, too, made his way towards the palace with the police. He was surrounded by crowds, but he requested that they disperse and clear the path leading to the palace. However, the populace ignored his warning. Bezelgate opened fire, killing one ‘praja’. Suddenly, the populace erupted in violence, and Bezelgate was mercilessly beaten. Bezelgate fled helplessly towards the house of a ‘praja,’ hiding beneath a bullock cart. However, he was dragged out and severely beaten by Raghunath Monanty and Dibakar Parida. Bezelgate died as a result of his injuries. Following this, the British police launched a ruthless crackdown, effectively putting an end to the Ranpur Prajamandal movement. 26 individuals were tried. Raghunath Mohanty was hanged, and Dibakar Parida was deported to Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Following that, Harakrushna Mahatab and Professor N. G. Ranga succeeded in putting an end to the Prajamandal movements. Odias’ memories of the martyrs Raghu-Dibakar are still vivid.

In Nayagarh, the Prajamandal Movement

In June 1938, Prajamandala was founded in Nayagarh under the leadership of Narayan Nanda. The ruling chief was presented with a charter of demands. It included demands for civil liberties, the abolition of feudal dues, and the inclusion of the populace in a responsible government. The Prajamandals resolved to initiate an agitation and to continue it until their demands were met. Raja apprehended the leaders. On December 30, 1938, the populace gathered in front of the palace, demanding the release of their leaders. They had to be released by the Raja. He also promised to abide by their demands. Meanwhile, he had sought the assistance of Major Bazelgette, the Political Agent. The Agent came to his aid, but he was forced to flee Nayagarh for Ranapur, where the situation was more serious.

Bonai Prajamandal Movement

The Prajamandal was founded in 1938 at Bonaigarh. The praja spoke out against Bethi and other obnoxious taxes. They presented the king with a representation. After considering these demands, the king withdrew Bethi. However, he levied small taxes on the populace to fund the construction of roads and government buildings. The populace, on the other hand, convened a meeting and resolved to disobey the king’s orders.

Sonepur Prajamandal Movement

In December 1938, the Sonepur State Prajamandal was formed under the presidency of Bhimsen Bhoi. Its demands were nearly identical to those of other States, including the abolition of feudal dues, responsible government, and agrarian legislation. While presenting the charter of demands, the State Government arrested two leaders, Loknath Satpathy and Mohan Mishra. Bhimsen Bhoi and a few others were arrested during a Satyagraha for the two leaders’ release. Prajamandal was prohibited. Dolamani Das was kicked out of the state and his property was seized. Sri Mohan Mishra, Laxman Satpathy, and Pitambar Bhoi desired to meet the Resident who was visiting Sonepur in March 1939. They were apprehended en route. There were widespread demonstrations against the arrest. Numerous people were detained, trials were held, and sentences of imprisonment and fines were imposed. During World War 11, the Prajamandal’s activities slowed significantly. However, Rama Chandra Satpathy, Laxman Satpathy, Mohan Mishra, Chaturbhuja Mishra, Satyananda Hota, Dhanabanta Mallik, Nandalal Sethi, Damodar Rath, and Dasrathi Rath, among others, were detained for more than two years during the Quit India Movement. A prominent feature of the era was the involvement of students in Prajamandala’s activities. Narasingha Prasad Nanda, a Ravenshaw College student, and Sonepur High School students Duryodhan Satpathy, Suresh Mishra, and Satyanarayan Mishra, among others, formed a Students’ Congress and convened a meeting under the presidency of Sri Laxman Satpathy. In May 1946, a three-day meeting of Prajamandal was held in Bagchhera village under Sarangadhar Das. Around 40,000 people attended the meetings.

Mayurbhanj’s Prajamandal Movement

The Prajamandal was founded in Mayurbhanj in 1940. It was presided over by Sarat Chandra Das. To discredit the Prajamandal in the eyes of the populace, the king established a parallel government organisation called the Prajamangal and began assisting the populace. However, the Prajamandal pursued the movement in a non-violent manner. It presented a charter of demands to Maharaja Pratap Chandra Bhanjadeo on 16 September 1947. The charter made it clear that administration reforms were required. As a result, the king was compelled to form a three-man cabinet, among whom was Sarat Chandra Das. He became a constitutional monarch tasked with the responsibility of ensuring the general welfare of the populace. Though it came much too late, the Mayurbhanj Prajamandal was a resounding success.

Other locations

Other parts of Odisha were also affected by the Prajamandal movement. Among them were the cities of Khandapara, Patna, and Kalahandi. The populace had developed a strong sense of self-awareness regarding their rights. They were successful in presenting their point of view to their respective kings through the Prajamandal. Numerous congress leaders addressed the ‘prajas’ and aided them significantly in activating their movement. It contributed significantly to the success of the Prajamandal movement in Odisha.

The Prajamandal movement’s consequences

The Prajamandal movement in Odisha had far-reaching consequences.

  1. It was successful in putting the people’s demands forward in a very forceful manner. The assassination of Bezelgate made this fact abundantly clear. As a result, kings developed a measure of tolerance for the populace.
  2. In 1939, the Odisha government established a State Enquiry Committee to ascertain the motivations for the movement. It was obvious that the movement was sparked by the kings’ excessive oppression.
  3. The people recognised that nonviolence was their most effective weapon and were adamant that their demands could be met only through it. Finally, the Prajamandal movement accelerated the process of fusion of the ‘garajat,’ or indigenous princely states.
  4. The Prajamandal movement ushered in a new era in Odisha’s history. After generations of tyranny at the hands of the kings, the people finally raised their voices against the institution of monarchy as a whole and were successful in achieving their goals to a large extent.
  5. Congress, too, aided the populace in this democratic campaign. The Prajamandal movement effectively ended monarchy in Odisha.