Gopabandhu Das was a Freedom-fighter, Social worker and Poet of Odisha

  • By Prof S N Tripathy
  • January 25, 2022
  • Know about the life, struggles, commitment and sukarmas of this Gem of Odisha, Gopabandhu Das.

Misu Mora Deha E Desha Matire, Desa Basi Chali Jaantu Pithire. Desa Ra Swarajya Pathe Jete Gada, Puru Tahin Padi Mora Mansa Hada

“Let my body blend in this county’s track,

Let my countrymen walk on my back.

On the path of self-rule lies potholes,

Let it get filled with my flesh, bones.” Gopabandhu Das


A great devotee of Lord Jagannath, great patriot, lawyer, reformer, scholar, educationist, visionary, journalist, legislator, humanitarian and idealist- Gopabandhu had many achievements to his credit. He was a worshipper of truth, love and peace, and dedicated his life for the service of the country. A frontline worker of Utkal Sammilani (a premier social and cultural outfit of Odisha) and a champion of the cause of statehood of Odisha, he was also a member of the Servants of the People Society founded by Lala Lajpat Rai. 


First published in Journal of Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan.


Gopabandhu Das (1877-1928) belonged to that genre of freedom fighters, social workers and educationists who are so idealistic that they seem far from real. He was born in Suando, a little village on the banks of the river Bhargabhi in Puri district to Swarnamayee Devi and Daitari Dash, pious middle-class Brahmins. He did his Bachelor’s Degree in Arts from Ravenshaw College, Cuttack, and completed his Bachelor of Law degree from Ripon College, Kolkata. He worked as a teacher and as a lawyer for a brief period.


At the time, common people in India were oppressed by Britishers and zamindars, and they were also suffering due to poverty, ignorance, illiteracy and blind faith. In addition to this, some states like Odisha had to face disasters (both natural and manmade) such as floods, cyclones and famines.


In the second half of the 19th century, the political consciousness of Indians was awakened due to many factors like the rise of the intellectual middleclass, the propagation of progressive ideas through papers, journals, periodicals, etc., communication through postal service and the road and railway network that connected different parts of the country. Odisha, like other regions in the country, was influenced by this political awakening.


Odisha then was not a province in itself; the region was divided between Bengal, Bihar and Madras Presidency. People in Odisha agitated for a separate province of Odia-speaking people and an organisation named Utkal Sammilani was formed. The great leaders of Odisha put in their best effort to get this demand fulfilled and when the first meeting of Utkal Sammilani was held in 1903, Gopabandhu joined as a volunteer and became a great pillar of the movement. On April 19, 1919, he delivered the Presidential address of the Sammilani held in Cuttack. Odisha was declared as a separate state in April 1936. Unfortunately, Gopabandhu did not live to see this political achievement.


Long before he met Gandhiji, Gopabandhu was fighting to eradicate untouchability and illiteracy. He had great sympathy for and helped the Dalits, the poor and destitute people. He took up the cause of women’s education in Odisha and attacked social traditions that prevented women from pursuing their studies. He was a foremost leader of Odisha in the country’s freedom movement and he played a major role in bringing Odisha into the mainstream of the freedom struggle. He attended the Indian National Congress for a few years prior to joining the Congress in 1920.


Gopabandhu brought the National Congress to Odisha. He was the first president of the provincial Congress committee. He was highly impressed by Gandhiji’s principle of non-violence. When Mahatma Gandhi came to Odisha for the first time on March 23, 1921, a mammoth public meeting was held on the riverbed of Kathajodi in Cuttack where about 50,000 people attended. Gopabandhu not only welcomed Gandhiji to Odisha, he also delivered the introductory speech. He was always with Gandhiji, looking after him and his associates. His devoted leadership in the Non-Cooperation Movement impressed Gandhiji so much that the latter paid a heartfelt tribute on Gopabandhu’s demise on June 17, 1928.


In his weekly journal Young India, he wrote, ‘Today I lost a very close sahayogi (associate).’ While delivering a lecture on the banks of the Mahanadi river in Sambalpur, Gandh paid another memorable tribute to Gopabandhu.   


Gopabandhu understood the value of education from the very beginning and established a residential school which was open to students of every caste, creed, religion and status. Four of his highly educated friends-Nilakantha Das, Acharya Harihar, Krupasindhu Mishra and Godavarish Mishra-joined the school, leaving their highly lucrative jobs behind. The five of them together were known as ‘Pancha Sakha of Satyabadi’ (Five Comrades of Satyabadi). All of them were great freedom fighters, writers, teachers and samaj sanskarak (social workers). When Gandhiji visited the Satyabadi Bana Vidyalaya (as the school was called), he was deeply impressed. The service to the sick and the poor by the students touched his heart. The school was not just a place where children were educated, but a space where good human beings were moulded.


Gopabandhu was aware of the importance of print media. He knew that through this tool, he could make people understand the strengths and weaknesses of their society and make them aware of current political events affecting the nation. Initially, he started a monthly magazine, Satyabadi. Then in 1919, he started a weekly paper, Samaj, which later became a daily. It was one of the better known dailies of India and Gopabandhu was its editor till he breathed his last. 


He was a social worker since his school days, serving the poor, the sick and the needy. When he was a student in Puri, Gopabandhu used to organise a group of his schoolmates to serve the sick pilgrims who used to come to Puri during the chariot festival of Lord Jagannath.


Once when his young son was very ill, Gopabandhu went to serve the flood-affected people in the interior villages, carrying the bare necessities. His relatives implored him not to leave the child. “You all are here, including the doctor, to look after the child. If I do not go, who will look after the thousands of destitutes?” Saying so, he went and served them. Sadly, his son died before his return home.  


Some of our greatest freedom fighters were literary stalwarts and Gopabandhu was no exception. His prose and poetry marked a new era in the history of Odia literature. Some of his best books are Dharmapada, Kara Kabita and Bandir Atmakatha (The Autobiography of a prisoner).


Gopabandhu was named ‘Utkal Mani’ (Gem of Odisha) by the great scientist Prafulla Chandra Roy. However, Gopabandhu was the gem of not just Odisha but also of India. He believed that when every part of India develops then only will she progress as a whole. As a leader and as a freedom fighter of the nation, he made many sacrifices. He was arrested and imprisoned for two years as he had led the Non- Cooperation Movement. 


In Suando, his house, Sathighar, is like any other rural middle-class house, built on a high platform. The place of his birth is very well preserved by his dedicated descendants. All his possessions are kept as before. On the exact spot of his birth, a golden-coloured statue of Gopabandhu in sitting posture has been installed. His place of worship is intact even after 144 years. 


The 17th century poet and saint Tukaram, in one of his dohe (couplets), described a godly man in the following manner: ‘The one who helps oppressed and downtrodden in society, redresses their grievances and stands by them in their time of difficulties is no less than any saint or so, he is no different from God.’


Gopabandhu was such a man. He may have lived for 51 years only, but he left an undeniable impression through his multifarious activities.


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal, December 15, 2021 issue. This article is courtesy and copyright Bhavan’s Journal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai-400007. eSamskriti has obtained permission from Bhavan’s Journal to share. Do subscribe to the Bhavan’s Journal – it is very good.

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