VEER SURENDRA SAI: THE IMMORTAL LION OF ORISSA
Subhas Chandra Pattanayak
Happy information has reached Orissa that the Central Government has agreed to install a statue of Veer Surendra Sai in the precincts of the Parliament House.
We Oriyas do always boast of him as our man who spent life in Jail for more years than any in the world on political ground. He was incarcerated by the British authorities for forty-one years simply because they were afraid of him.
The world gives credit to Nelson Mandela for maximum years of incarceration. But it is Surendra Sai whose imprisonment is a world record unsurpassed till date.
Born in 1809, Surendra Sai was a direct descendant from Madhukar Sai and therefore was legally entitled to be crowned as king of Sambalpur after demise of king Maharaja Sai in 1827. But he was not acceptable to the British power. He was strong, sharp and popular. Though very well mannered, he was a spirited swordsman and too proud to be subjugated. British authorities were afraid of “Oriya temperament” for which they had broken down Orissa by four parts and merged each part in the adjoining province. In fact, while rejecting Frazer’s recommendations for amalgamation of the four divided parts of Orissa, that did not click immediately because of the British fear for this “temperament” of the Oriyas. Surendra Sai personified this “Oriya Temperament”. Hence the British authorities did not heed to his claim for the throne. The authorities, S.C.De informs in the ‘Guide to Orissan Records’, “wanted just a puppet who would dance to the tune of their wishes. Surendra Sai could not fulfill their condition and hence he was considered ineligible by the authorities”.
Debarring Surendra Sai from occupying the throne the British authorities recognized the widow of Maharaja Sai, Rani Mohan Kumari as the new ruler and using her as an umbrella, started looting the subjects. Soon the people of Sambalpur rose in revolt and British suspected Surendra Sai to have instigated the uprising. A British troop under Captain Wilkinson was dispatched from Hazaribagh to suppress the revolt, which he did. But in order to hoodwink the public, the Rani was declared responsible for exploitation of the people and hence she was deposed in 1833. People demanded that Surendra Sai be crowned as the king. That was not heeded to.
One Narayan Singh was installed as the new King. In the words of Major Kittoe, this Narayan Singh was “an obscured, aged fellow who was a perfect imbecile”. Surendra Sai was again debarred from occupying his legitimate position because the British authorities were afraid of (as noted by De) his strong personality and extreme popularity.
There was unrest again within a short span of time. People attacked Durjaya Singh, Zamindar of Rampur because he was a supporter of Narayan Singh and when he escaped, killed his father and son. This was a spontaneous revolt and Surendra Sai had no role in it. But the British, hand-in-glove with Narayan Singh, implicated Surendra Sai in this case and a highly motivated Sessions Judge Major Ousley sentenced him to death. Later, as is seen from the Sambalpur Gazetter at pp.30-31, this death sentence was commuted to imprisonment for life and accordingly he was sent to the Central Jail at Hazaribagh in 1840. There he spent as many as 17 years till the Mutineers broke open the Jail to set him free in July 1857.
From Hazaribagh, braving many hazards, he reached Sambalpur in September 1857. By that time people of Sambalpur had been aware of his escape from the Jail and the area had become a land of spontaneous support for Surendra.
Apprehensive of a Mutiny in Sambalpur itself, Senior Assistant Commissioner of Sambalpur, Capt. Leigh had made advance arrangements to face the supporters of Surendra. He had made requisitions for armed reinforcement, which the Commissioner of Cuttack, Mr.Cockburn had readily complied with. Troops from Madras Native Infantry under Capt.Hawkins were expected at Sambalpur, when Surendra Sai arrived and went straight to Capt. Leigh to stake his claim for the throne. The British Captain posed to have immediately forwarded Sai’s representation to Govt. of India, and requested him to stay at Sambalpur instead of going to his village Khinda, in order to know what happens to his case. This was a ploy to buy time so that on arrival of Capt. Hawkins and his troop, Leigh would arrest him. Surendra got the hint and escaped from Sambalpur on 31st Oct.1857. Capt. Leigh made many attempts to capture him but could not succeed.
A highly intelligent person, Major H.B.Impey, who had later rose to rank of a Secretary, took over Office of Deputy Commissioner of Sambalpur in April 1861 and started conciliation with Surendra Sai. His motive being felt bonafide, Surendra Sai accepted the conciliation and coming in company of 40 of his core supporters to Impey’s office, assured the British that from his side there shall be no breach of peace. Like the British had done in the case of Buxi Jagabandhu Bidyadhar, Sai was offered a pension of Rs.1200 per annum. But the people of Sambalpur were adamant to see their beloved leader Surendra Sai in the Throne of Sambalpur. They were led by a local noble Kamal Singh whom the British could not subdue. They decided to get rid of Surendra Sai so that their control over the land could be absolute.
A crabby man like Capt. A.B.Cumberlege was installed in Sambalpur as the head of administration in January 1864 and in a surprise attack on Surendra Sai’s house, took him and six others as prisoners on 23rd January 1864. Two days later, on 26th January, they were forwarded to Raipur under Military escort to face Sessions trial. And, the Sessions Judge sentenced Sai and his close associates to transportation for life.
That this order was illegal was clear from the judgment of the Judicial Commissioner, Central Provinces, who, on appeal, had acquitted them of all the charges, while censoring the sessions Judge for the blatantly illegal order he had passed against Sai. (History of Orissa in the 19th century by P.Mukherjee, p.300) The Chief Commissioner of Central Provinces had communicated the order of the judicial commissioner to the Secretary of Government of India in January 1865. He had admitted in this communication that there was no evidence of any crime committed by Surendra Sai to justify an order of deportation for life. Over and above this, Sai’s attorney M.J.Pearson had made an appeal to the Governor General seeking his release in view of the determination of the Judicial Commission and the letter of the Chief Commissioner. But the British Government did not budge.
Surendra Sai was kept in solitary confinement in the Fort of Asirgarh till he breathed his last on the 28th day of February 1888 at the age of 79. Thus, he spent 41 years in jail in two phases; the first being 17 years from 1840 to 1857 and the second being 24 years from 1864 to 1888, just to ensure that British authority remains unchallenged in Orissa.
He was a Lion whom the British Empire could neither dare to kill nor to see moving freely on his soil.
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