VEER SURENDRA SAI – The Brave Son of Odisha, who served the MAXIMUM JAIL TERM ever

Veer Surendra Sai was a brave son of Odisha who gave the British a really tough time when they
tried to capture Sambalpur. He spent a total of 37 years in jail out of the 75 years that he lived.

Sambalpur Empire had eighteen states as tributaries under it. The Empire comprised areas in modern-day West Odisha and Chhattisgarh.

The King of Sambalpur, Maharaj Sai had no son. So he decided to adopt one of his relations Surendra. However, before the adoption could take place Maharaj Sai died in 1827. Mohan Kumari, the widow of Queen of Maharaj was not allowed to adopt Surendra.

Instead the British declared her the ruler of Sambalpur. The British had consolidated themselves at Sambalpur since 1817. Mohan Kumari became the ornamental ruler but the British dictated all terms and rules. They hiked the revenue amount and compelled people to pay the hiked amount.

Balaram Singh, uncle of Surendra became dissatisfied and gave up the post of Dewan. He encouraged his nephew Surendra to revolt and thus the revolution started in the same year; 1827. Note that Surendra Sai was born in 1809, in a small town Khinda about 35 kms from Sambalpur. His revolution against the British started in 1827 when he was only eighteen years.

The British dethroned Mohan Kumari and placed Narayan Singh on the throne. But the situation continued to be tense because of the revolution. Balram Singh, his nephews Surendra and Udanta were captured in 1840 and sent to Hazaribagh jail to serve life imprisonment on a murder charge. Balaram died in jail and king Narayan Singh died in 1849.

Thereafter, Sambalpur was annexed to the British Empire by virtue of the famous Doctrine of Lapses.

During the Sepoy Mutiny, Surendra and Udanta became free as the mutineers broke the gate of the Hazaribagh jail on July 31 1857. Even after spending seventeen years in jail their morale was high.

As soon as they reached and pitched a tent outside Sambalpur they were joined by several Zamindars and Gountias (headman of village) along with their men and weapons.

On October 7 1857 fourteen hundred men, under the leadership of Surendra Sai, marched into Sambalpur and captured the old palace. R. T. Liegh, the Deputy Commissioner could do nothing with the few soldiers stationed at Sambalpur. He wrote to Kolkata, Cuttack, Raipur, and Nagpur for help.

As reinforcements came in there were soldiers all over forcing Surendra to go into hiding on the night of October 31. Surendra had built several hill forts, made of stone and mud, on hilltops. He now started the attack and sneak-away tactics.

When the Company soldiers attacked the hill forts, the mutineers rolled big round-shaped stones from the hilltop. After a few moments of cross-firing, they escaped through a cave they had built. This cave helped them reach another fort through a deep forest route. Thus, the mutineers established themselves in the forest through a chain of hill forts, cave ways, and jungle tracks.

They controlled the three roads that connected Sambalpur with Ranchi, Raipur, and Cuttack.

More and more soldiers were brought in with commanders like Ensign Napin, E G Wood, Shakespear, Henry Mack Nippon, Dayar, Windham Nokker, Velance and several others. Several wars were fought. Fifty three mutineers including Chabila Sai, a brother of Surendra, died in a war that took place at Kudopli on December 30 1857.

In another war fought at Singhoda on January 19 1858 eleven mutineers were killed. Twenty fighters including the Zamindar of Bheden got killed in the war which took place on September 17 1858. Many leaders including Ujjwal Sai, another brother of Surendra were caught and hanged.

Nothing could not demoralize the mutineers.

Rather many European soldiers died in war and illness. Captain Arthur Perry Woodbridge and others were killed in the war of Pahadsirgida. Dr. Thomas Moore was killed whilst coming to Sambalpur to join as Army Doctor.

Frustration levels ran high when rebels took full control of the three roads and paralyzed transportation of posts between Bombay (now Mumbai) and Calcutta (now Kolkata).

The services of Colonel Henry Forster of Sekhawati Brigade were sought since he had crushed the revolution in Chotanagpur easily. He used a combination of an iron hand and terror but Surendra could not be apprehended.

In 1861 Hastings Broughton Impey, the grandson of Sir Elijah Impey, the first Chief Justice of Kolkata Supreme Court joined as Deputy Commissioner of Sambalpur. He reviewed the whole situation and realized that it was not possible to apprehend Surendra because of the geography, his war tactics, recruitment of soldiers, support of local people and ability to collect funds.

Hastings ‘had no hesitation to declare that Surendra Sai was never defeated and would never be defeated. This remark of the Deputy Commissioner of Sambalpur shows the strength and greatness of Surendra Sai.

In fact, his glorious struggle after the suppression of the Indian Revolution of 1857-58 against a vastly superior power for long four years is a unique achievement. The British not only seized the entire food stock of the rebels but also stopped all resources of the supply of food and other necessities of life for them. But that could not damp the fighting spirit of Surendra Sai.”

Hastings convinced the higher authorities about the futility of fighting Surendra and got government approval for a Peace Accord. After all the Mutiny was crushed all over India within a short period but in Sambalpur, it seems to be a never-ending story. So it became necessary to negotiate with the rebels and bring peace.

Surendra Sai, a warrior who was never defeated, surrendered with full faith in the British Government.

Hastings acted in a phased manner. He released all rebels who were in jail and returned their seized properties. Further, he pardoned their crimes, invited them for discussions, and tried to make them understand that the goal of establishing local rule once again will never happen.

Finally, there was peace in 1862. So rebels returned to their respective houses and started to live normally. Unfortunately, when things became ok Impey and his wife fell ill and died.

The next Deputy Commissioner A B Cumberledge was a man of a different kind who had lost his sister Margaret in the Jhansi massacre. He did not have to face the chaotic condition that prevailed so long at Sambalpur. Somehow he could not tolerate that rebels were getting pensions and wished for punishment for them.

So he roped in the Police S.P, Inspector, and hatched a conspiracy. He arranged fake witnesses, prepared fake letters, and on the basis of falsehood successfully convinced the high authorities that Surendra and his men were preparing themselves to attack and capture Sambalpur.

The authorities panicked and directed Cumberledge to take immediate steps to prevent any such attack. All ex- mutineers were arrested in a single night operation, as they were not aware of the conspiracy, whilst they slept in their respective houses.

The court awarded life imprisonment. But the High Court took note of the falsehood and released all the charges leveled against the seven principal accused. But Surendra and six others were detained under section 3 of the 1818 Detention Act and sent to Asirgarh fort jail.

Surendra was blind when he died in captivity on 28th February of 1884. He remained in jail for a total period of 37 years i.e. from 1840 to 1857 and 1864 to 1884.

The saga of Sambalpur Mutiny is a story of supreme heroism and sacrifice. A large number of people sacrificed their life for the motherland. Few families along with Father, Son, and Grandson ruined their life by giving away their luxurious life. They roamed around the forest, stayed in the hills, and ultimately died in war or were hanged or served jail terms.

They did this because they had taken Surendra as the symbol of their hope for driving out the outsiders from their homeland.


Deepak panda

The author is a Sambalpur-based journalist, the News Editor of the Agnishikha Daily. He is also known for his History Research and has written many popular history books. He is also the author of ‘Veer Surendra Sai’ i.e. published in Odia, Hindi, and English.

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