Baji Rout: Youngest Freedom Fighter Martyred at 12 Years; He Refused to Ferry British Police
He was a boat boy from Odisha. A patriot to the core. He was witness to oppression by British and hated them. When British police asked him to ferry them to the other side of the Brahmani River, he flatly refused. British police asked him again to obey their orders. He refused again. They manhandled him and threatened him with death. Yet he remained adamant. Better die for the motherland than give in to the commands and demands of the British! And the British hit him hard on his head and fractured his skull. He attained martyrdom on the Brahmani River bank. He was only 12 years old then. We are delving about Baji Rout, India’s youngest freedom fighter and martyr. It is unfortunate that we haven’t read about him in our History textbooks. Except in Odisha, the name of Baji Rout hardly finds a place in books and media.
Baji Rout was born on 5th October 1926 at Nilakanthapur village in Dhenkanal, Odisha. His father was a boatman, who died when he was an infant. After his father’s death, the financial condition of his family became worse. His weak and sick mother started earning in meager amounts by grinding and husking paddy in well-to-do homes in her village. Baji Rout received no formal education. From a young age, he started ferrying people in the Brahmani River, following his father’s occupation.
During the 1920s, the British entrusted local feudatory rulers, especially zamindars and landlords in many a princely state to collect taxes and perform other duties on their behalf in Odisha. Civil rights of the people deteriorated with chances of their growth and development being crippled completely. They were deprived from the freedom of association and expression. They could neither meet in groups nor voice their opinion freely. The poor became poorer and the feudatory rulers and people under them grew richer. Lands of many civilians were grabbed by these feudatory rulers. Anyone raising their voice was punished and British troops handled the situation using military force. Oppression by the British reached new heights.
Bihar, Jharkhand, and parts of Odisha were all parts of the Bengal Presidency of the British Raj. Bengal Presidency was then the biggest province of British India. The British created the province of Odisha in 1936 based on language spoken by the inhabitants. The British further reinforced the powers of the feudatory rulers, which in turn further worsened the condition of the peasants. The system of forced labor and compulsory extraction of money became rampant. Few areas remained under direct control of the British.
The natives, comprising of the oppressed, set up Praja Mandals (People’s Front) at various places in Odisha in 1938 to raise voice against the feudatory rulers and the British and fight against oppression and plunder. The Nilgiri chapter of Praja Mandal saw peasants demanding fairer laws. This was dealt with an iron hand with the natives subjected to even harsher and brutal measures in response.
Baji Rout and many natives joined the Dhenkanal Praja Mandal group. This group submitted a petition demanding freedom of speech and association among other things. But their petition was rejected. Stern measures were taken against the natives. Many were put behind bars. A series of repressive measures were forced upon the people. Public meetings were banned.
But Dhenkanal Praja Mandal group did not pay heed to the ban. They continued meeting and discussing at public places. British police opened fire at the defenseless natives, killing many. Besides, many were wounded. Womenfolk were raped by the British police. They burnt down the houses of the villagers, who supported or were part of the Praja Mandal group. Baji Rout was witness to all of this. His blood boiled the more against the feudatory chiefs and the British.
Baji Rout earned a living by ferrying people in the Brahmani River. During the period of tension when the British police started atrocities against the natives, Baji Rout and other boatmen of the region became alert. Praja Mandal members advised the boatmen and boat boys to keep guard at the banks of the river to keep check of the people who sided with the feudatory rulers and the British police and prevent them from crossing the river. Their crossing the river would only mean plunder of the villages on the other side of the river by these enemies. For the last three nights, Baji Rout kept guard on the river bank, resting on his boat, despite incessant rains.
On the 10th of October 1938, Baji Rout was asleep on his small ferry boat fastened to a tree. His boat had a thatched shed. In the darkness of the night, in the wee hours of 11th October, British police arrived at the place where Baji’s boat was parked. They had opened fire on a group of villagers in Bhuvan, two kilometers away from there. Just a night ago, they had killed two villagers. They woke up Baji Rout and ordered him to ferry them across the river to the other side.
British police pointed their guns at Baji and ordered him to ferry them fast. Baji Raot said,
“This boat of mine belongs to the Praja Mandal. It cannot be hired out to you – the enemy of the people.”
The British police were taken aback listening to what the fearless boy said. They never expected such a reply. A British policeman caught hold of him and shook his body violently while another hit him hard on his head with the heavy butt of his gun. And they continued ordering him to ferry them to the other side.
Baji Rout collapsed on the ground. The impact of the blow of the butt of the gun on his head was so fierce that his skull had a fracture and blood started oozing out profusely. But soon after Baji Rout got up, jumped to the river bank and called out loud at the top of his voice, asking the villagers to come to the river bank. He thought if he lay collapsed, the British police would be successful in crossing the river with none to stop them. He hardly bothered about the pain and the oozing blood. His loud voice, despite the rains, echoed across his village and the sleeping villagers awoke to his call. Soon, Praja Mandal members reached the spot.
By this time, the British police had unfastened the boat and were ready to ferry themselves on their own to the other side. Few of the Praja Mandal members who came with ropes fastened themselves to the boat by their waists and stood firm on the river bank like trees deeply rooted in the soil. British police cut the ropes and rowed away.
From a little distance, the British police fired shots at the Praja Mandal members standing on the river bank. Few attained martyrdom on the spot while few were fatally wounded. Baji Rout breathed his last at the river bank. Among the other martyrs were Hurushi Pradhan, Lakshman Mullick, Raghu Nayak, Guri Nayak, Nata Mullick, and Fagu Sahu.
Sachidananda Routray has well paid a tribute to Baji Rout with these opening lines of his poem The Boatman Boy:
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.”
Salute to Baji Rout and all the martyrs! Jai Hind!
Featured image courtesy: Wikipedia and alchetron.com
Key Ref: The Boatman Boy and Forty Poems by Sachidananda Routray, Translated by Harindranath Chattopadhyay.