Revisiting Utkalgaurab Madhusudan Das on epidemics, secularism and women's empowerment
Today is the 171st birth anniversary of legendary Utkalgaurab Madhusudan Das from Odisha. Affectionately hailed as ‘Madhubabu’, he was born on April 28, 1848 and embraced Christianity in 1868. His role in unifying Odisha and building India constituted shining aspects of his many 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.
Utkal Gaurab Madhusudan Das and His Struggle Against Epidemics
When Covid 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 Gods or Goddesses. He raised the issue of alarming spread of cholera in Odisha in the Central Legislative Assembly on 21st February 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.
He made certain remarks 13 years before the creation of Odisha and those are worth recalling. 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." Those words assume significance in the context of global pandemic caused by the alarming spread of coronavirus and inadequacy of medical facilities even in highly developed countries.
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 acknowledged it by saying that he "...found `any 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 also said, "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 deathbed 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 Epidemics
He 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 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 a man who was on his deathbed. 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 taxpayers’ 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 Madhubabau in fighting for the establishment of Odisha and waging war against epidemics is instructive and educative for the world of the twenty first century confronting the global pandemic caused by coronavirus.
Utkal Sammilani founded by Madhubabu was secular and Unified Odisha
It was he who established Utkal Sammilani in 1903 and that organisation spearheaded the movement for establishment of the separate State of Odisha and eventually his vision materialised when Odisha State was founded on the basis of language on 1st April 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 and -ities like Hindusim, Mohamedanism and Christianity and requested the member concerned not to introduce another ism which sarcastically called "Schism" by demanding a exclusive prayer hall for Muslims in the premises of Assembly.
Madhubabu stressed on skill development in 1896
Right from 1896 he stressed on skill development and emphasized 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 Utkal Tannery and one of the objectives of establishing it was to develop skills of dalits to use leather more productively and efficiently. He took the help of a leather expert from Germany by reaching out to him and bringing him to Odisha to develop 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 from it.
His third and 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 women’s education in India in the 19th and 20th century. The genesis of Shailabala 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 legal profession in India in 1923.
Mahatma Gandhi drew parallels between Leo Tolstoy and Madhubabu
Mahatma Gandhi wrote that Madhusudan Das opened his eyes in understanding the economic drain of India because of the practice of untouchability. He also placed Madhubabu and Leo Tolstoy on 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 splendoured 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
Even though Madhusudan Das was an ardent supporter of British rule he blamed it for causing economic ruination of India. In 1922, while speaking in the Bihar and Orissa Assembly he said that British system education trained the brain and neglected the hand. He also criticised the caste system for coming in the way of division of labour which became the organising principle of industry in Europe. Madhubabu said that the culture of entrepreneurship in India was centred around an individual and family and in Europe it was entered around division of labour, which, he said, gave birth to machines and a wider customer base . According to him , machine goods could be produced in large numbers and sold at a cheap price. In India, because of British rule and caste system, such a culture of business could not develop. Therefore he wanted India to surge ahead by employing revolutionary methods to catch up with Europeans.
Interestingly he said that Indian industry suffered from the disease of "sleeping sickness" because it remained dormant and dead due to policies of British administration. To remove that sleeping sickness he wanted protection for Indian industry from British rule. It is interesting to note that he wanted establishment of joint stock companies for both industry and agriculture. Indeed it is amazing that he recommended joint stock companies in 1913 and 1922 and wanted to broaden the base to increase the share holding.
In 1910 he wanted development of fisheries and introduction of industry centered around agriculture. It is instructive to know that he stressed on encouraging private industry by giving subsidies.
Besides he wanted roads, ports and railways for promotion of business. He demanded a port in Damara and Chandvali and a railway line between Cuttack and Sambalpur.
He frequently used the term skill development and wanted industrial education for that purpose. In many of the speeches delivered in Utkal Sammilani, he demanded protection of industrial activities of Odisha. It is revealing to note that he wanted Odias and all Indians to compete with Europeans and develop a commercial and competitive spirit to foster a culture of quality consciousness across industry. Let us celebrate the vision of Madhubabu.
Dr. B R Ambedkar was impacted by Madhubabu's ideas on Dalit Empowerment
Madhubabu was one of the leaders of India who championed the cause of Dalits much before Dr Ambedkar did. 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 the 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 the caste system and said that due to the caste system, India could not develop division of labour in the pattern of division of labour of Europe and, therefore, her economy could not develop.
Professor F G Bailey 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 methods to achieve his objectives. It is instructive that Dr. Ambedkar stressed on adoption of constitutional methods in his last speech in the Constituent Assembly. Madhubabu's legacy assumes greater significance for 21st Century India and the world. I pay my humble tribute to him. Let us all dedicate ourselves to deepen and enrich his legacy and take it forward.