Thursday 15 August 2019

At 12, this Odisha boat boy faced British bullets to become India’s youngest martyr

The 12-year old Baji Rout hailed from Odisha, where he stood up against the British and lost his life.

The year was 1926. In a small village in Dhenkanal, Odisha, was born Baji Raut. The boy would soon lose his father and would be brought up by his mother, who was earning a living through rice-husking in the neighbourhood.

At the time, the King of Dhenkanal was Shankar Pratap Singhdeo, infamous for fleecing poor villagers of their earnings. Even Baji’s mother was a victim.

Odisha was reeling under pressure, and the time was ripe for a revolt. It began due to the efforts of Baishnav Charan Pattanayak of Dhenkanal town. Veer Baishnav, as he was fondly known, raised a banner of revolt against the King, and founded Prajamandal, which had a Banar Sena wing composed of young children, which Baji joined, despite being of tender age, according to OrissaMatters.

Pattanayak had a good plan up his sleeve. He took up employment as a painter in the Indian Railways. His main motive was to move from place to place, using the Railway Pass. Through this plan, he was able to meet as many people as possible, instigating them against the King, and establishing contacts with leaders of the National Congress in Cuttack, drawing their attention to the sorry state of the oppressed people of Dhenkanal.

Pattanayak began educating himself in Marxist revolutionary theory and practices, and together with local intellectual Hara Mohan Pattanayak, founded the Prajamandala Andolan, which translates into the ‘Party of the People’.

The movement grew slowly but steadily, and seeing this, many other kings offered their cooperation to the King of Dhenkanal to suppress the people’s movement. Many rulers from adjoining provinces sent armed troops and reinforcements to Dhenkanal, to further oppress the people. Even the British contributed, sending a platoon of soldiers from Calcutta. The English sent 250 gunmen, and with all the bolstered support, the tyrannical King of Dhenkanal unleashed a reign of terror to quell the mass movement.

How better to further suppress the people than economic sanctions? Shankar Pratap placed a ‘Rajabhakta Tax’ or Loyalty Tax, and those who didn’t pay, had their houses razed to the ground by royal elephants, and all their property confiscated. This just incensed the Odisha people further, and the movement gained strength.

Fed up, the king decided to end this once and for all. Pressing his entire force against the leaders of the movement, he targetted Veer Baishnav directly and confiscated his ancestral properties.

On September 22nd, 1938, a surprise raid was planned where Hara Mohan Pattanayak and other leaders were arrested. Pattanayak was wilier than they thought, and he escaped.

The angry authorities kept searching for Pattanayak and stumbled upon news that he was in the Bhuban village, camping. The king and armed forces attacked the village on October 10th, 1938, for the third time, destroying houses and torturing people for information. But, no information on Pattanayak was forthcoming.

Stories started doing the rounds during the raid, including one which claimed that Pattanayak had escaped by jumping into the Brahmani river to swim to safety to villages on the other side. The troops immediately started a pursuit and were met by blockade of simple villagers, who refused to give up their local hero.

The authorities then opened indiscriminate fire, killing two people, Raghu Naik and Quri Naik on the spot, according to Odisha Sun Times. The crowd parted, and the troops ran to the nearest ferry, at Nilkanthapur on the Brahmani river.

A young Baji Rout, on guard at the Ghat at the time, was approached by these troops to ferry them across the river. It was the fateful night of October 11th, 1938. He was in charge of a country boat at the ghat and was sleeping when the troops approached him.

Baji Rout of Odisha fearlessly stood up to the British, at just 12 years of age. Image Credit: Uttam Sahu
Despite being just 12 years old, he refused. Incidentally, the boy had been asked by senior activists to keep an eye on the ghat, to ensure that cops didn’t get ferried across the river.

The angry Britishers ordered Baji to carry them across the river on his boat, and Baji remained stubborn. According to Orissa Matters, a soldier hit Baji on the head with the butt of his gun, fracturing the boy’s soft skull. Baji collapsed but continued raising his voice, warning villagers of the presence of the troop.

Another soldier pierced Baji’s skull with his bayonet, while a third shot him. Witnessing this cruelty, someone ran back and told the villagers, who were angered beyond measure.

The villagers rushed to the spot, and the British cops saw them and panicked. Instead of running after their original target Pattanayak, they got into Baji’s boat and tried to flee from the village. Even while fleeing they opened fire on their pursuers, killing four more, as well as young Baji.

Basihnav Pattanayak was the one to collect the corpses, bringing them to Cuttack by train. People rushed to receive them along with revolutionary slogans of Lal Salaam to the martyrs. Post-mortem tests on the martyr’s bodies were conducted in Cuttack. Eminent freedom movement leaders discussed with Pattanayak, and it was decided that the last journey of the boy Baji Rout and his co-martyrs to the crematorium would be through the lanes of Cuttack so that everyone could get a glimpse of the immortal sons of Odisha.

Thousands of people joined what was to be the largest funeral procession ever witnessed in the state. Baji Rout was carried to the crematorium ground with much fanfare, and the obituary procession was truly one of a kind.

It is only apt that famous poet Sachidananda Routray, Jnanpith Award Winner, wrote a poem about Baji Rout, which opens with the sentence

“It is not a pyre, O Friends! When the country is in dark despair, it is the light of our liberty. It is our freedom-fire.”

Thus, Baji Rout was laid to rest at the crematorium at the age of 12, as a Banar Sena member, giving up his life in the struggle for our freedom.

(Source: TBI)

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