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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 42, New Delhi, October 10, 2015

Utkalmani Gopabandhu Das: A Compassionate Rebel and a Modern Man

Saturday 10 October 2015

by S.N. Sahu

Utkalmani Gopabandhu Das was one of the extraordinary personalities of modern India. He was born in Odisha on October 9, 1877 seven years after the birth of Mahatma Gandhi and breathed his last in 1928, twenty years before the assassination of the Father of our Nation. He lived only for fiftyone years. But his inspiring legacy of service and sacrifice and modern approach to social change and nation-building endures. What he did in the context of India in general, and Odisha in particular, has signifi-cance for the world as whole and remains relevant beyond time and space.

Unlike Mahatma Gandhi and many other national leaders of that time, he was not educated abroad and never got any opportunity to go overseas. There was no separate State of Odisha during his time. Parts of the present-day Odisha were amalgamated with Bihar, Bengal and Madras provinces. His area of work was therefore limited to Odisha and some parts of those British provinces. He was conferred with the title of Utkalmani primarily for his exceptional record of selfless work for the people immersed in poverty and hunger, illiteracy and ill health and ravaged by repeated occurrences of famine and flood.

Generations to come will revere Gopabandhu for his outstanding contributions as a freedom fighter, poet, legislator, journalist, founder of the leading Odiaa daily, the Samaja, and, above all, as a man who tirelessly served the suffering humanity. Leaving behind his ailing son he went to the flood-affected areas and extended relief to the victims there. By the time he came back he found his only son dead. A celebrated poet, he wrote moving and heart-touching poems which constitute masterpieces in Odia literature conveying the pain and pathos of life and at the same time spreading the ever lasting message of freedom, social reform and the ideals of our pluralistic heritage and civilisation.

Mahatma Gandhi wanted hundred Gopabandhus to free India from British rule in 1921 itself 

He was one of the rarest of the rare freedom fighters who subjected himself to exacting standards of suffering for the cause of our independence. After the non-cooperation move-ment he along with his dedicated colleagues decided to survive only on rice and dal. None less than Mahatma Gandhi was stunned beyond belief to see Gopabandhu taking such food which would hardly give him enough nutrition to lead a healthy life. When he asked him “...whether this poor diet would not affect his health”, Gopabandhu said: “Should we not submit to this privation for the sake of Swaraj?” Mahatma Gandhi, in his article “My Orissa Tour” written in the Navjivan on April 10, 1921, reacted to Gopabandhu’s observations and wrote: “I was silenced.” It is worth noting that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who attained the exalted status of Mahatma for his service and sacrifice and for identifying himself with the humblest of human beings, was never silenced by a mere answer from any national leader of that time.

Gopabandhu was so self-effacing that Mahatma Gandhi called him a saintly person. When he saw for himself Gopabandhu’s remar-kable zeal for serving the nation without any consideration for himself and his family, he commented that if our country had a hundred people like Gopabandhu Das we could get Swaraj within one year. Gandhiji had not given such comments even as he interacted with such stalwarts as Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Gopal Krishna Gokhle after he came to India from South Africa in 1915. In fact in 1917 when Tilak, the author of the rallying slogan of our freedom movement ‘Swaraj is my Birth Right’, came to a function late Gandhiji told that such late arrivals would correspondingly delay our Swaraj. The comments of the Mahatma on Gopabandhu and Tilak are contrasting as well as revealing. They underlined the extent to which Gandhi was inspired and influenced by Gopabandhu to liberate India from the fetters of foreign rule within a year.

Numerous other writings of Mahatma Gandhi on Gopabandhu Das and a plethora of literature celebrating his exemplary life and work underline only his extraordinary selfless-ness and his high-minded ideals. They hardly throw light on his vibrant personality and analytical mind. It is our national responsi-bility to reassess and rediscover Gopabandhu Das as a refreshingly modern man who had the vision to reconstruct the society and nation along progressive lines and at the same time rejuvenate our spiritual ethos. While bowing our head to Gopabandhu for setting the high standard of service and sacrifice through his practical action let us understand him as a powerful intellectual and a forward looking man.

Gopabandhu, a Staunch Critic of Caste System 

As a modern man Gopabandhu was a staunch critic of the caste system causing graded social inequality. Modernisation means expansion of the mind. Modernisation does not mean wearing trendy clothes and using latest gadgets. It means broadening the outlook and attitude to overcome the barriers imposed by caste or any other social, economic and political factor. Throughout her long history India was repeatedly subjected to foreign rule not because we were poor and economically backward but because we failed to cohere together as a nation overcoming the rigid barriers imposed by caste. In fact caste divisions in society repeatedly fragmented the unity of India. Appropriation of education by a particular caste deprived others of this precious asset and came on the way of building adequate human resources for the development of our country.

In spite of the millennia-old tradition of worshipping Saraswati and Ganesh, our literacy rate was abysmally low. Many social factors were responsible for such an unfortunate situation. Gopabandhu Das was conscious of this historical reason for the downfall of India. He wanted to address the problem by spreading education among people of all castes and faiths. He therefore was anguished to see that caste associations were engaged to promote education among their respective caste people. In a speech delivered in the Puri District Educational Conference in 1912, he stated that the BrahminSamiti,Kayastha Samiti and Kshatriya Samiti were established to educate students of respective caste groups and described such approach to impart education as communal and searchingly asked as to who would educate the children of farmers. He said: “Howsoever noble the objectives of such associations might have been in transmitting education, those were sectarian and not universal.” On another occasion in a poem composed in memory of Pandit Harihara Das Sharma he clearly indicated that only when Brahmins do away with superstition and blind belief would the conditions of other castes improve and the onward march of society would take place. Those statements of Gopabandhu Das indicting caste associations and asking Brahmins to reject superstition for the upliftment of other castes were of revolutionary significance and are of immense relevance for our own time. Without any exaggeration one would say that he was anticipating Dr B.R. Ambedkar. From all those we get an outline of his unmistakable modern vision and his credibility as a modern man not restricted by the narrow confines of caste.

Gopabandhu reflected on Japan Code of Education of 1872 in 1912

It is fascinating to note that he wanted to address the problems of society primarily by universalising education. We all know that when Japan defeated Russia in a war in the early part of the twentieth century, it became the first Asian country to militarily trounce an European nation. The world was stunned and Japan received unprecedented recognition for its newly acquired military might. Mahatma Gandhi has also referred to this historic event in his writings. However, Gopabandhu understood the might of Japan in terms of the spread of education among its people.

In fact very few people know that Japan’s progress and development as a modern nation began with the promulgation of the Education Code in that country in 1872. It is because of that Code that Japan established schools in all its villages, provided education to all sections of society and attained a 90 per cent literacy rate by 1905, that is, 37 years after the Code came into operation. In the twentyfirst century a prominent scholar like Prof Amartya Sen refers to that Code of Japan and stresses on making education accessible to all for fighting against an exclusivist approach which fosters narrowness. In his book Identity and Violence, published in 2005, he explained about the Japan Code of Education and drove home the point that by educating people we could enable them to understand their multiple identities and thereby widen their outlook and understanding.

It is indeed more instructive to note that Gopabandhu Das was not only aware of the Education Code of Japan but also understood its significance in making it an advanced and prosperous country in the world. He referred to it in 1912 and put forth a demand before the British Government to formulate and implement such a code for our country. Had his vision been fructified, the development index of Odisha and India would have been equal to that of Japan. Gopabandhu’s understanding of the Japan Code in the second decade of the twentieth century educates us about his modern vision in compre-hending the real cause behind the accelerated progress of that country. Prof Imtiaz Ahmed, a world renowned authority on political sociology who taught in Chicago University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, noted Gopa-bandhu’s awareness of the Japan Code of Education as early as 1912 and described it as remarkable and creditable.

His establishment of the Satyabadi Vana Vidyalaya near Puri in 1909, 37 years after the introduction of Education Code in Japan, was a step in the direction of making education available to all sections of society. It was a model school which stressed on both book-learning and vocational education. Mahatma Gandhi appreciated the efforts of Gopabandhu in establishing such an educational institution. A celebrated educationist of the time, Sir Ashutosh Mookerjee, understood its significance for the nation when he wrote: “The promoters of this school have set a laudable example for the country...one cannot but wish that every village in Bengal should possess a genuine place of instruction like the Satyabadi School.”

 Gopabandhu and Universalisation of Education

Apart from establishing the Satyabadi School Gopabandhu Das emphasised on a campaign and movement for educating the people of our country. He did so in 1912, that is, several decades before the total literacy movement and Sarva Siksha Abhiyan were launched. It testified to his farsighted approach to change society and take our nation forward by educating the people. He made it a point that any campaign for education of the people must include all castes and communities. Besides, he argued for a system of education which would train the labouring class so that they could attain some skill. He was also in favour of industrial education.

Combining primary and secondary education with university education he set a blueprint for the all-round modernisation of society and nation. He rejected the argument that by serving the cause of higher education we could cut down resources for primary education. He was in favour of imparting education at the primary, secondary and university levels without neglecting any one of them.

Gopabandhu demanded University Status for Ravenshaw College in 1919

In 2006 the country celebrated the 150th anniversary of the introduction of modern university education when universities were established in Madras, Calcutta and Bombay. Gopabandhu remained in the forefront of a movement in 1919 for the establishment of a University in Odisha. When the concerned authorities did not support his argument for a University on the ground that there was only one college in Cuttack, he conclusively proved that in many European countries and in many other parts of our country one university was established for one college. He therefore demanded that Ravenshaw College in Cuttack should be converted to a University. His vision has been materialised almost after eightyfive years. Last year the Government of Odisha has decided to confer the status of a Unitary University on the Ravenshaw College.

Along with university education, Gopa-bandhu demanded science, engineering and technological education for the State. The Cuttack Engineering School was established entirely due to his efforts.

Emphasis on Education Fund to send Students Abroad for Higher Education

In the twentyfirst century the English language has assumed enormous importance at both the national and international levels. In the early part of the twentieth century Gopabandhu wanted students of Odisha to get modern education in the field of science, medicine, law and other streams through the medium of English. He also wanted that bright Odia students should be sent abroad for acquiring advanced education.. It was a bold suggestion in the face of overwhelming poverty and backwardness of the people.

He proposed to establish an Education Fund to facilitate students to visit foreign countries in pursuit of advanced education. He referred to the existence of such a Fund in the Ganjam district of Odisha and wanted that to be replicated in other parts. His desire to overcome all barriers, including financial, to promote higher education represented the triumph of his undying spirit over material deficiencies.

Gopabandhu as a Feminist and his Emphasis on Education of Women

Promotion of education without educating women is like educating half the brain and leaving the other half paralysed. Gopabandhu, in an article on Nari Siksha written in 1919, commented that “if girls are not educated there would not be any improvement of the education of the country”. The fact that Gopabandhu Das was taking up women’s education at a time when he was fighting both for India’s indepen-dence and a separate State for Odisha on the basis of language made his contributions more noteworthy. A cursory glance of that article makes us understand the sociologist in Gopabandhu Das explaining the sociological roots of the educational backwardness of women. He outlined the social factors that prevented women to pursue education and condemned them to the depths of ignorance and illiteracy. He asked the question “How would education among women improve?” “Stri Siksha Brudhi Paiba Kipari? He said that our social tradition did not encourage women to go to school. He then asked as to how a family would take interest in the education of the girl child when it knows that she would leave the family on attaining adulthood. He then explained that the social tradition enjoining women to exclusively take up the responsibility of the household work came on the way of their educational advance-ment. Gopabandhu deserves to be hailed as a feminist for his perceptive analysis of the root cause of illiteracy among women. Attack on such social traditions constituted important steps for the emancipation of women. After all, modernisation of society could be best promoted only when women are given equal opportunities in the field of education.

Today we clamour for gender equality and make empowerment of women the central plank for progress and development. At the core of such efforts remain equal treatment of women and application of the same standards for them as is being done for men. One is reminded of the question of Gopabandhu to his well-wishers when they repeatedly urged him to get married again after his wife’s unfortunate and untimely death. Gopabandhu sharply asked: “Would you have asked my wife for remarriage if I had breathed my last?” Gopabandhu’s question silenced them. But his profound question contained in it the more revolutionary issue of equal treatment of women for creating a good society. He extended that notion from his personal life and applied it in the larger context of society for promotion of education of women.

Gopabandhu and Protection of Environment

It is instructive to note that Utkalmani Gopba-ndhu wrote a piece on environment in the Samaja, the Odia daily, on May 6, 1928, two months before his sad demise. The title of that article was Prakrutira Patha Loda (Path of Nature is Necessary). In that thought-provoking and illuminating piece he prophetically stated that science must come to the aid of human beings to charter a course which would be in harmony with nature. His articulations in 1928 that science should be used by humanity to harmonise development with nature assumes enormous significance for the twentyfirst century world grappling with the spectre of global warming and climate change which threaten the very existence of our planet.

Gopabandhu and Equal Respect for All Faiths

An ardent champion of plurality and social diversity of India, Utkalmani Gopabandhu advocated coexistence of all faiths and exten-sively wrote about the culture of India which accepted and celebrated all creeds. His classic poem, Bandira Atma-Katha (Self-story of a Prisoner), is a poetic manifesto of multi-culturalism. In that poem he invokes Jesus, Akbar, and Yudhistira and urges Indians to pay equal respect to both the Koran and Vedas. His moving line ‘Veda Koran ku kara sama gyana’ (Treat equally both the Vedas and Koran) is of global signifi-cance to counter the pernicious tendency to promote hatred and terrorism in the name of religion.

 By attacking the caste-based approach to promote education, by taking up the cause of universaliastion of primary education and promotion of secondary and higher education, by outlining the importance of learning English and the other streams of modern knowledge and instruction imparted through the English language, by according importance to educate women and liberate them from the oppressive social traditions and by espousing the cause of environment and equal respect for all faiths, Utkalmanai Gopabandhu Das became the harbinger of the social modernisation in Odisha and India in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

The author was the OSD and Press Secretary to the President K.R. Narayanan and served as Director in the Prime Minister’s Office. He is currently a Joint Secretary in the Rajya Sabha Secretariat. The views expressed are personal and not that of the Rajya Sabha Secretariat.