Chapter 24 : This Brave son of Odisha served longest jail term of 37 years for taking part in revolution against British!

In 2018, the Union Cabinet renamed Jharsuguda Airport in Odisha as “Veer Surendra Sai Airport, Jharsuguda”. The renaming of airport was a long-pending demand of Odisha Government. Who was this Surendra Sai?! Let us know his story.

Veer Surendra Sai- a name Odisha utters with pride and respect. Around 21 km away from Sambalpur, this ‘veer’ (warrior) was born on January 23rd 1809.

Veer Surendra Sai 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 of areas in modern day West Odisha and Chhattisgarh.

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

Instead the British declared her as the ruler of Sambalpur. Mohan Kumari became namesake ruler, British dictated all terms and rules. They hiked the revenue amount and compelled people to pay the hiked taxes.

This triggered Balaram Singh, uncle of Surendra to give up the post of Dewan. He encouraged his nephew Surendra to revolt and thus the revolution started in the year,1827. Surendra Sai revolted against the British when he was just eighteen years old.

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 the jail and the king Narayan Singh died in 1849. Thereafter, Sambalpur was annexed to the British Empire by virtue of the infamous Doctrine of Lapses.

During the First war of Indian independence 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 Sambalpur they were joined by several Zamindars and Gountias (head of the 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.

  1. 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 go into hiding on the night of October 31. Surendra had built several hill forts, made of stone and mud, on hill tops. He now started attack and sneak away tactics.

When the Company soldiers attacked the hill forts, the mutineers rolled big round shaped stones from the hill top. 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.

But Nothing could not demoralise these warriors.

Many European soldiers died in war and illness. Frustration levels ran high when rebels took full control of the three roads and paralysed transportation of post between Bombay and Calcutta.

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, 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.

The British not only seized the entire food-stock of the rebels but also stopped all resources of the supply of food and other necessaries of life for them.

Hastings convinced the higher authorities about the futility of fighting Surendra and got government approval for a Peace Accord.

All the Mutiny was crushed all over India within a short period but in Sambalpur it seems to be a never ending story.

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

Finally there was peace between the British and the rebels in 1862. So rebels returned to their respective houses and started to live normally. Unfortunately Hastings and his wife died of illness.

The next Deputy Commissioner A B Cumberledge was a cunning man. Somehow he could not tolerate that rebels were getting pension and wished punishment for them.

So he roped in the Police S.P, Inspector and hatched a conspiracy. He arranged fake witness, 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.

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 falsehood and released all from the charges levelled against the seven principal accused. But Surendra and six others were detained.

Surendra had become blind when he died in captivity on 28th February of 1884. He remained in jail for a total period of 37 years.

The saga of Sambalpur Mutiny is a story of supreme heroism and sacrifice. Hastings who brought peace by his real intent of good will 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.

Dr Sindhu Prashanth


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