Madhusudan Das. I Image Courtesy: Wikipedia
Today is the 171st birth anniversary of Utkal Gourab Madhusudan Das from Odisha. Affectionately hailed as Madhubabu, he was born in 1848 on April 28 and embraced Christianity in 1868. His role in unifying Odisha and building India are part of his many splendoured accomplishments. He had three main visions - industrialisation of Odisha and providing alternate employment opportunities to people dependent on agriculture, empowerment of dalits and women, and skill development of people. In his quest for industrialisation, he had the grand vision to be equal with European countries and achieve better trade and commercial benefits for Odisha and India from them.
His Struggle Against Epidemics
When COVID-19 pandemic is causing havoc across the world it is imperative to recall Madhubabu's role and worldview which countered epidemics repeatedly occurring in pre-independent India.
Madhubabu played a historic role and set an example of a role model of a legislator in fighting against health disasters and epidemics like cholera and plague and educating people that those were caused by bacteria or viruses and not by the curse of spiritual powers. He raised the issue of alarming spread of cholera in Odisha in the Central Legislative Assembly on February 21, 1923, and sharply asked the British Government as to why no sufficient budgetary provisions were made for improving public health and sanitation in rural areas of Odisha. The remarks he made 13 years before the creation of Odisha are worth recalling now. He said, "The question is how much of money spent and the manner in which it is proposed to be spent, already reaches the masses who are in sore need of medical relief and improvement of public health." These words assume significance in the context of the global pandemic and the inadequacy of medical facilities even in highly developed countries to face the havoc wrought by COVID-19.
He also raised the vital point that details of medical research demonstrating scientific causes behind epidemics remained confined to the metropolises of India and people in large swathes of rural areas were condemned to be victims of superstition associated with the origin and spread of recurring scourges which claimed millions of lives and wiped out population of several villages. He said that he "...found many amount of literature dealing with bacteriological researches, with literature telling us how cholera is produced, what is the nature of the bacillus, how it can be killed, how it travels from village to village, and how it may go round the whole province in almost a few days before you know where it has gone or how it has worked out its havoc or to what extent it has levied its toll on humanity." But he regretted by saying that, "This was all in the metropolis.....There was the whole panoply of literature, armoury, everything, but then if you go to the village there was the poor man dying in his death bed attacked with cholera. He did not know anything of this bacillus....The poor man in the village did not know the existence of bacillus because the bacillus could not be seen with the naked eye. He was equally ignorant of the benevolent temperament of the civil surgeon in the district town because the civil surgeon never visited the village."
Madhubabu wanted a Caring Government to Deal with Epidemic
He also charged the British Government and the concerned Minister that there was no man "....who had cooperated with the people in the villages and of whom the villagers could say- here is the man who has been cooperating with us in order to give us relief against disease and epidemic".
Then he said, "The first thing that struck me was to bring the people in touch with the Government to make the people feel that there is a Government which feels for them, which provides for their relief, which is anxious to see that they are cured, that they are protected against the spread of cholera.”
Today when the whole world is paralysed by the spread of COVID-19, the legacy of Madhubabu in bringing the government closer to people so that they can feel that the government is taking measures to save them from this unprecedented health disaster assumes critical significance.
He also informed the Central Legislative Assembly that he went to the people infected by plague and sat on the bed of man who was on his death bad. He did so in spite of the chances of getting infected and in response to the call of duty as a representative of the people who was being paid by the tax payers’ money. He said, "...If I am being paid from the taxes paid by these dying men it was my sacred duty to him and to my God and sacred obligation to my office that I should take any amount of risk and at least convince the people that there is a Government that thinks for them, and is prepared to risk any risk for them".
He also took steps to bring the Kavirajs, the traditional doctors, to the places, where microscopes were available, to show them the bacillus which caused cholera and send them back to the villages to educate people to save themselves from the epidemic.
The role played by Madhubabu in fighting for the establishment of Odisha and launching a response against epidemics is instructive and educative for the 21st century world confronting the global pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2 or the novel coronavirus.
Utkal Sammilani founded by Madhubabu was secular and Unified Odisha
It was he who established the Utkal Sammilani in 1903, which spearheaded the movement for establishment of the separate state of Odisha and eventually his vision materialised when Odisha was founded on the basis of language on April 1, 1936. He once said that none should bring in issues concerning religion to the forum of Utkal Sammilani and in that way he made it a secular outfit. He was a Member of Bihar and Odisha Assembly in 1917 and his secular credentials were amply demonstrated on the floor of the House when he opposed the request of a Muslim member for a prayer hall in the Assembly itself and famously said that India had so many isms like Hindusim, Christianism and Mohamedanism and requested the Member concerned not to introduce another ism which he sarcastically called "Schism" by demanding an exclusive prayer hall for Muslims in the premises of Assembly.
Madhubabu stressed on skill development in 1896
Right from 1896, he had stressed on skill development and emphasised on that point till the very end of his life for ensuring livelihood of people dependent on agriculture. His second vision was to fight against untouchability and to empower dalits. He established the Utkal Tannery and one of the objectives of establishing it was to develop the skills of dalits to use leather more productively and efficiently and earn their livelihood. His third and one of most important vision was to empower women and promote a culture of gender equality in Odisha and India. The manner in which he spoke, wrote and acted to promote education among women made him one of the foremost champions of female education in India in the 19th and 20th century. The genesis of Shaliabala Women's College in 1913 can be traced to his historic measures to educate women by establishing the first girls' school in Odisha. In fact Shailabala Women’s College preceded SNDT Women's University in Mumbai which was established in 1916. It is because of Madhubabu that women law graduates could enter thr legal profession in India in 1923.
Mahatma Gandhi drew parallels between Leo Tolstoy and Madhubabu
Mahatma Gandhi wrote that Madhu Sudan Das had opened his eyes in understanding economic drain of India because of the practice of untouchability. He also placed Madhu babu and Leo Tolstoy in the same footing when he said that Madhubabu preceded Leo Tolstoy in emphasising on dignity of labour. He established his reputation as an outstanding jurist. His enduring legacy is rooted in his many roles as a protagonist of skill development, champion of women’s empowerment and fighter for emancipation of dalits.
Madhubabu had a vision to compete with Europeans
He took the help of a leather expert from Germany by reaching out to him and bringing him to Odisha to develop the Utkal Tannery. In doing so, Madhubabu set an excellent example of an entrepreneur whose sole objective was to empower people with skills so that they could go beyond agriculture and earn their livelihood. It was indeed a bold and forward looking vision to uplift people from poverty as also economic and caste degradation and boost their self-esteem. The entire gamut of work done by Madhubabu concerning Utkal Tannery was eloquently appreciated by Mahatma Gandhi who described it as an “educational tannery” and urged Indians to learn lessons from it.
Dr. B R Ambedkar was impacted by Madhubabu's ideas on Dalit Empowerment
Madhubabu was one of the leaders of India whose championing of the cause of dalits also influenced Dr Ambedkar. In fact Dr. Ambedkar read his speech delivered in March 1916 in the Central Legislative Assembly on the issue of establishment of a Committee to understand the economic and material advancement of depressed classes in India and used some of his ideas in his historic document “Pax Britannica and Untouchables" which he submitted to the Round Table Conference in 1930. While Dr. Ambedkar said that caste system did not represent division of labour in his essay on Hinduism in 1940, Madhusudan Das said so in 1913 in his speech in the Orissa Bihar Legislative Assembly.
Much before Dr. Ambedkar, it was Madhusudan Das who deeply analysed caste system and said that due to caste system, India could not develop division of labour in the pattern of division of labour of Europe. This, he said, was the reason why India’s economy could not develop as in Europe.
Professor F G Belly paid tribute to Madhubabu
Professor F G Bailey of Oxford University in one of his articles "The Oriya Movement" written in 1959 paid rich compliments to Madhusudan Das and admired him for adopting lawful and constitutional method to achieve his objectives. It is instructive that Dr. Ambedkar stressed on adoption of constitutional methods in his last speech in the Constituent Assembly. I pay my humble tribute to him. Let us all dedicate ourselves to deepen and enrich his legacy and take it forward.
The writer served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to Former President of India, late K R Narayanan. The views are personal.