When one looks at the history of the freedom struggle in Odisha, one name that would stand out would be that of Veer Surender Sai, who led a tribal revolt in Sambalpur that nearly rattled the British. A born rebel, Surendra, hailed from the small village of Khinda, and was a Rajput belonging to the Chauhan clan of Khinda-Rajpur. His father Dharam Singh, was a descendant of Aniruddha Sai, the fourth Chauhan ruler of Sambalpur. When Maharaja Sai passed away in 1827 AD, Surendra Sai presented his legitimate claim to the throne of Sambalpur, as the Maharaja had no male heir.
The British however found Surendra too much of an independent thinker for their own good. Predictably they were looking for some one more pliable, and their first choice was the Maharaja’s widow Mohana Kumari. The British had already occupied Sambalpur in 1804 AD after their victory in the 3rd Anglo Maratha War, when Odisha was one of the territories ceded by the Marathas. The British allowed Mohana Kumari to rule over the State, the decision however led to a lot of resentment between her and other claimants to the throne. With Mohana Kumari proving herself to be incapable, the people themselves revolted against her.
The British put down the rebellion, deposed Mohana Kumari, and sent her to Cuttack in 1833 AD, where she lived as a pensioner. The British then placed another puppet ruler Narayan Singh, one of the offspring on the throne. However Narayan, by then was already too old, not capable of handling the responsibilities of the state, and soon there was an outright challenge from other members of the Rajpur-Khinda Chauhan clan. Surender was backed by his uncle Balaram Singh( brother of his father), on the grounds that being the direct descendants, they had a legitimate claim over the throne. The Gond tribals in Sambalpur too revolted against Narayan Singh, who died in September 1849 with no male heir.
Under the Doctrine of Lapse, Lord Dalhousie annexed Sambalpur, and Surendra Sai, revolted against the British. Surendra felt he had a legitimate claim to the throne, however the British were wary of his popularity and strong personality. Aware that he would not be the puppet ruler they wanted him to be, the British did their best to keep him away from the throne. And thus began an intense and epic struggle against the British, that in fact had it’s genesis much earlier in 1827 AD.
Since 1827, Surendra backed by his uncle Balram, had repeatedly laid claim to the “Gadi” of Sambalpur as the legal heir apparent. However with the British ignoring his claim, Surendra decided to go down the path of total revolt. His 6 brothers Udyanta, Ujjala, Chabila, Jajjala and Medini too supported him, as did all the local Zamindars and Gauntias. When Narayan Singh’s men killed the Gond Zamindar of Lakhanpur, Balabhadra Deo, the furious Gonds too supported Surendra in his revolt. Some of them murdered the unpopular Zamindar of Rampur, Durjaya Singh, a camp follower of Narayan Singh. Though Surendra had no role in it, the British neverthless implicated him in the case, and he was arrested along with his uncle Balaram and his brother Udyanta Sai. Sent to Hazaribagh jail in 1840 AD, Surendra spent as many as 17 years in prison, till the 1857 Revolt, when the mutineers, broke down the prison. His uncle who was his guiding force and mentor, however died in prison itself.
In the meantime, the Zamindars of Sambalpur, as well as the ordinary people, were fed up with some of the oppressive measures taken by the British, after they annexed the state. The British indiscriminately raised the revenue to be paid by the Tribal Zamindars as well as the Gauntias. When the 1857 revolt broke out and Surendra Sai was liberated from prison, the tribal masses in Sambalpur, gathered under him. And this marked the second phase in his long struggle with the British.
1857 Revolt and Later
When the 1857 Revolt broke out and Surendra was released from prison by the rebels, he was declared a fugitive by the British. The authorities put a bounty of Rs 250 for his arrest as well as that of his brother Udyanta. Surendra however had become a hero for the common people, and returned to a rousing reception in Sambalpur. Surendra made a petition to Capt R.T.Leigh, the Senior Asst Comissioner of Sambalpur to recognize him as the Raja of Sambalpur and remit his life imprisonment. However the Odisha Comissioner, G.F.Cockburn, strongly opposed any kind of amnesty to Surendra Sai, and recommended his deportation. The British bought in more troops and put Surendra under house arrest in Sambalpur. He however managed to give them the slip and escaped to Khinda village where his brother Udyant was located.
31st October 1857, Surendra began his rebellion against the British, and soon many of the ordinary people, the tribal Zamindars, Gauntias all joined hands with him. It was primarily a tribal revolt, with the Zamindars of Kolabira, Laidia, Loisinga, Lakhanpur etc, sacrificing all their comforts, and joining Veer Surendra Sai in his guerilla war against the British. Fighting in the thick jungles of Sambalpur, some of them lost their lives, while some had their estates confiscated, and some were arrested and hanged. The selfless spirit of sacrifice and heroism shown by the tribals, was Veer Surendra Sai’s greatest source of strength and support.
Surendra organized the rebels into different groups, and soon they began to cut off all the routes of communication used by the British to Hazaribagh, Ranchi, Cuttack. The dawk road to Bombay was blockaded, and the British by now had completely lost control over Sambalpur. Veer Surendra Sai, regularly harassed the British with his guerilla attacks, and it became difficult for them to venture in to the thick forests. The soldiers were regularly ambushed, and when Capt Leigh undertook the operations, the rebels struck back hard, killing and wounding several of his 50 strong contingent.
Cockburn despatched more forces to Sambalpur, and the Government transferred Sambalpur from the Chota Nagpur division to Orissa division for more effective handling. With the Chota Nagpur division Comissioner having his hands full, and the difficulties in controlling Sambalpur from the North, it was felt that having it in Orissa, would be better. And by Dec 19, 1857, it became a part of the Cuttack division. Capt Wood arrived in the meantime from Nagpur with a large cavalry and made a surprise attack on the rebels at Kudopali on Dec 30, 1857. Though Surendra Sai, managed to escape, he lost one of his brother Chabila Sai, as also about fifty rebels in the skirmish.
Major Bates arrived in Sambalpur on January 7, 1858 to take charge of the situation, and occupied the Jharghati pass connecting Ranchi, that was blocked by Udyant Sai. Bates destroyed the village of Kolabira, it’s gauntia was arrested and hanged. Captain Woodbridge and Wood then launched another attack on the hill stronghold of the rebels Paharsgira on February 12, 1858. However the rebels managed to counter the British, and Woodbridge was killed, his headless body was later found in the forests.
With the situation in Sambalpur, slipping out of control, the British sent Col Forster in March 1858, and gave him wide ranging military and civil power. Forster cracked down hard, blocking the food stocks of the rebels. He convened a meeting of all the neighboring Rajas and Zamindars, and demanded their cooperation in suppresing the revolt of Veer Surendra Sai. Ujjal Sai, another brother of Surendra Sai, was captured and hanged without a trial at Bolangir. The Zamindars of Kharsal and Ghens who were sympathetic to Veer Surendar Sai, were also captured and hanged. In spite of all the repressive measures and crackdown, though Forster still could not capture Veer Surender Sai.
Major Impey was appointed as Dy. Comissioner of Sambalpur in April 1861, and believed a carrot and stick approach was better suited to end the revolt. He announced a policy of amnesty for all rebels who surrendered in September 1861, except Surendra Sai, his brother Udyant and son Mitrabhanu. He issued another proclamation in October 1861, promising free pardon to all the rebels who surrendered. Weary of the long conflict, and seeking a normal, peaceful life, many of the rebels surrendered to the British leaving the jungles. Impey’s conciliatory approach worked, with many rebels now surrendering, and the local people too more or less reconciled to the inevitability. The Zamindar of Kolabira, one of Veer Surendra Sai’s strongest supporters, received generous treatment after his surrender and this made many rebels trust the Government’s intentions. Mitrabhanu surrendered on on January 7th, 1862 and 2 days later his two brother Udyanta and Dhruva Sai too surrendered.
Surendra Sai once again negotiated with the British authorities for his claim to the throne of Sambalpur. They however rejected it, and and Impey assured him a liberal pension in lieu of that. He then demanded payment of arrears to his soldiers, to which Impey agreed, and soon Surendra surrendered on May 16th, 1862, bringing the long revolt to an end. It was however not the end of the story, some of the British officers were not satisfied with the conciliatory moves towards the rebels and Veer Surendra Sai.
British officers like Berial, the Superintendent of Police, felt that Surendra Sai should have been charged with dacoity and murder. Pressure was put on the Dy. Comissioner for the arrest of Surendra Sai, and when Major Impey passed away in December 1863, they saw it as a golden opportunity. Capt Cumberledge joined as Dy. Comissioner, Sambalpur on January 19, 1864 and soon Surendra Sai, his son and some close followers were arrested on January 23, at their native village of Khinda. His brothers Udayant and Medini too were arrested, and all of them were sent to Raipur for trial. After what was clearly a farcical and hasty trial, the Comissioner announced Veer Surendra Sai and others guilty, and sentenced them to deportation for life.
Even though the then Judicial Comissioner John Scarlett Campbell, called the trial a farce and the charges as baseless, Surendra along with 6 others was detained at Nagpur. Fearing his presence in Sambalpur would provoke another mass uprising, the British kept him at Nagpur till April, 1866 and and thereafter to the Fort of Asirgarh. Medini passed away at Asirgarh, Dhruva and Mitrabhanu were released on January 1876. Surendra however had to spend the rest of his life in prison, and it’s believed he passed away there at an unknown date. One of the great revolutionaries, a man who was a terror to the British in Sambalpur, passed away in anonymity in a remote prison.
Veer Surendra Sai was a true valiant warrior against British imperialism, who fought against them till 1862. An inspiring leader of the tribals in Western Odisha, spent 37 years in prison. His aim was to drive the British out of his native Sambalpur, and though he could not succeed in his goal, he inspired a generation of freedom fighters in Odisha, and Jharkhand later on. A man who gave up the comforts, suffered untold miseries for the cause of his people, Veer Surendra Sai, was a true hero, worthy of emulation. When the history of Odisha is written, the resistance led by Surendra Sai, would forever be in letters of gold.