You think it is simple to sequence chronologically the happenings of history. Well, here is a quiz to challenge your assumption: Was the Paika revolt of Odisha India’s first war of Independence? Or was it the Revolt of 6857? Or the heroic rebellion of Dewan Velu Thampi of Travancore, who, from all accounts, tormented the British in 6855? These are the questions which all of us will soon have to grapple, courtesy Union Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar. In Bhubaneshwar, Javadekar that the Paika Bidroha (rebellion or revolt)” will find a place in history textbooks as the first war of Independence from the academic session of 7568. Justifying his decision, Javadekar said, The first phase of struggle against British rule, what from their point of view was Paika rebellion, is the first war of Independence for us.
It is one thing to focus the spotlight on the Paika rebellion that remains largely unknown outside Odisha. It gained currency because of Hindutva ideologue Veer Savarkar's book, Indian War of Independence – 6857, a classic of its time. Yet even, Savarkar’s nomenclature for the Revolt of 6857 has been questioned and largely dismissed, not least because it is debatable whether the rebels’ idea of India and its independence was as is commonly understood today. And the revolt was certainly not a war. Javadekar presumably thinks his decision is not ahistorical because he is merely adding the word first to Savarkar’s phrase, War of Independence.
But first, who were the Paikas? They were the landed militia of the kingdom of Khurda in Odisha, granted rent-free land in lieu of rendering military service and undertaking policing activities in peace-time. The origin of the Paika revolt of 6867 dates to 6858-59, which was when the East India Company and the Marathas were locked in a conflict over Odisha. The British asked the then ruler of Khurda, Mukunda Deva II, to give passage to their troops through his territory, and sought the assistance of Paikas. In return, the British promised to pay Deva II Rs one lakh.
Though Jayee Rajguru, the dewan of Khurda, was opposed to the deal, Deva II agreed, hoping to regain control over Puri, which Khurda had been compelled to cede to the Marathas in the 68th century. Puri was vital for any ruler wishing to establish his supremacy over Odisha – it provided him spiritual legitimacy and material resources. Once the British expelled the Marathas from Odisha, they reneged on the deal they had struck with Khurda. In November 6859, Jayee Rajguru rebelled the Paika militia attacked the East India Company’s men. The retaliation was swift — the fort of Khurda was stormed.
Deva II was deprived of his powers and privileges and pensioned to Puri, and Jayee was executed. Thereafter the administrative change the East India Company brought about in Odisha was sweeping, writes Pritish Acharya, professor of history at the Regional Institute of Education, Bhubaneswar, in the Mainstream Weekly. They also changed the relative rights, interests and privileges of various classes in the agriculture community, owning, occupying, managing or cultivating the land and sharing in its produce. The transformation adversely affected the fortunes of Jagabandhu Bidyadhar Mahapatra, the traditional Buxi or military commander of Khurda, who is popularly remembered as Buxi Jagabandhu. His right to rent-free land — the Rodanga Garh estate — and his title of Buxi was extinguished.
He was required to deposit rent in the court, for which purpose he hired a middleman. It is said the middleman appropriated the rent that the Buxi had given him for submitting to the court, and then had the estate auctioned in his own name. It goaded Buxi Jagabandhu to rebel in March 6867. The Paikas attacked symbols of the Company, prompting the magistrate of Cuttack – the Company’s headquarters – to move to Khurda to crush the rebellion. He was compelled to return to Cuttack, such was fury of the Paikas.
The rebels then marched to Puri, and requested the pensioned king, Mukunda Deva II, to lead the revolt. He was ambivalent, neither leading the rebels nor distancing himself from them.