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Bhanj Bir Sunaram Soren: The Man Determined To Lead The Tribal People Of Mayurbhanj

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The winter had almost gone; spring was touching the earth. In such a juncture of time, Champai Soren and Durgi Soren of Hesela village in Jamda block were blessed with a son on 4 February, 1918. According to the social custom of the santal community, the boy was named after his grandfather Sunaram Soren.

Sunaram was the eldest among seven sons and four daughters of his parents. A few days after the birth, as it is said, Sunaram used to be carried to the agriculture field while his parents were at work and he was found sleeping on a small cot under an umbrella.

One day a miracle happened and he was found sleeping under the hood of a king cobra and when his parents noticed it, the cobra left and baby Sunaram was found unhurt. Santals, since earlier days, believe in spirits and the supernatural. It was said to be the Almighty’s grace and blessings.

Sunaram’s father was a writer in the police department under British India. As the father of Sunaram was literate and formally educated, he got some sense of responsibility. He did everything possible to educate his son. Sunaram got his primary, middle and high school education in Lawjora, Bahalda and Baripada, respectively.

He completed his Intermediate and Degree studies in Arts from Revenshaw College of Cuttack and then studied Bachelor of Law in Madhusudan Law College at Cuttack. He was a meritorious student and despite poverty and difficulties, he had completed his education and obtained a Degree in Arts and Law.

Sunaram Soren
Sunaram Soren.

Sunaram began his career as a lawyer and started a legal business at the District Court of Baripada. Within a few days, he established himself as an eminent lawyer because of his perseverance and diligence and was always found engaged by clients from Santal and other Tribal Communities. He took the very least amount as his fee from Tribal clients.

In many cases, particularly in the case of poor Tribal clients, he fought prosecutions free of cost, as poverty and difficulties of Tribal people were obvious to him. Ignoring his profession, he always emphasised social service towards the neglected, underdeveloped, illiterate and downtrodden people. Gradually, Sunaram’s name, fame and popularity spread throughout the land of Mayurbhanj.

Earlier, during his high school studies at Baripada, he too came in contact with Pt Raghunath Murmu, the creator of Santali script OL CHIKI, who at that time was trying his best to disseminate the script among Santals at the initial stage.

Sunaram, along with one of his close associate Bhim Charan Tudu of village Jaydaposi, located at a small distance from his native village Hesla, dedicated himself to disseminating the script.

In the course of his holidays and at his leisure, he moved in weekly markets and fairs, which the people of the Santal community thickly attended. He found it difficult as most people were illiterate and very few acquired their primary education through Odia. But subsequently, because of his eloquence, he succeeded in his attempts.

Fascinated, the common people of the Santal community at once began to assemble when Sunaram started his speech at markets and fairs. In 1946, Sunaram, in association with Guru Gomkey Pt Raghunath Murmu and Sauna Murmu, met the Maharaja of Mayurbhanj at Baripada palace regarding the introduction of Ol Chiki script among Santals and other tribal people.

Santali and other tribal languages were unexpressed in written form in other scripts like Odia because of its myriad of difficulties in pronunciations. Deeply impressed, Maharaja of Mayurbhanj permitted to introduce Ol Chiki script among Santals and others. No doubt, this indeed laid the base for the spread of the Ol Chiki script and development for the future.

Later, in 1964, with the intent to propagate and spread Ol Chiki, Guru Gomkey Pt Raghunath Murmu formed the Adiwasi Socio-Educational and Cultural Association (ASECA) with its headquarter at Rairangpur.

After the attainment of Independence in 1947, a mid-term Government was formed in India headed by Jawaharlal Nehru as Prime Minister and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel became the Home Minister of India. After that, efforts were made to merge all the princely states with the Indian Union.

Almost all princely states were annexed accordingly, but Mayurbhanj continued as an independent state and as a joint venture of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Hare Krishna Mahatab, the effort to annex Mayurbhanj was accelerated, which was vehemently protested by Adibasi Mahasabha, led by Sunaram.

It was urged that Mayurbhanj be kept as a separate state, or it would be merged with the state of Bihar. In protest against the merger of Mayurbhanj, people from the Santal community and others raised their voices under the leadership of Sunaram and a massive rebellion broke out in the land of Mayurbhanj.

On 6 February, 1949, a massive rally was organised in village Gunduria, located at a distance of about 10 km south of Rairangpur. The common people from the Santal community assembled with their traditional musical instruments like Drum, Mridung and weapons like Bow, Arrow and Poleaxe.

When other leading Santal leaders addressed the meeting in the absence of Sunaram, who the Government of Odisha arrested to quell the rebellion, suddenly, Amar Singh Sardar, who was deployed as SDO, Rairangpur, arrived with a large police force and started firing at the assembly.

Within a moment, the people dispersed hither and thither and within a blink, about 2,000 Santals were killed and many sustained severe injuries. It is looked upon as a Black Day in the history of Indian Santals, which is so far known as the Gunduria Massacre.

Though it happened within a few days after the formation of the UNO and in violation of humanity and humankind, it did not attract much attention from political thinkers, historians or philanthropists with National or International importance.

Santal Tribe Odisha
Representative Image.

On 1 January, 1949, Mayurbhanj, once a princely state and then an Independent state inside the Indian Union merged with the Odisha province, which was formed in 1936, the first-ever state of the Indian Union formed based on language. And a few days after the amalgamation of Mayurbhanj with Odisha, Sunaram, who was arrested earlier as an act of repressive stride by the Government, was released.

He jumped into active politics taking his earlier name fame and popularity as an asset. In 1952, he was elected to the Odisha Assembly as a candidate of Utkal Adibasi Congress from Bahalda Assembly Constituency. He became a Cabinet Minister in Naba Krushna Choudhury Ministry with portfolios of Tribal and Rural Welfare, Transport and Commerce and he continued till 1957.

Indeed, it provided him to establish as an able minister and his long-cherished visions and dreams for all-round development of the Tribal people of Odisha did get materialised. Significantly, it is to be said that setting up residential schools with food and boarding facilities for SC/ST students in Odisha is his ever remembered contribution. Indeed, in the history of Tribal education in Odisha, it is considered as a hallmark hitherto.

During his tenure as Minister, socioeconomic development intended for the Tribal people of Odisha was accelerated and eventually, they could see the light of progress and development. Sunaram was always determined to lead the Tribal people of Odisha to the pinnacle of development.

In 1958, he was appointed as the Asst Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes by the Government of India for the state of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. In 1962, he was again elected to the Odisha Assembly from the Bahalda Assembly Constituency as a candidate of the Jana Congress Party.

And in 1967, he was elected as an MLA from Bahalda Assembly Constituency for the third term as a Congress nominee. But in 1977, he contested the Assembly Election from Bahalda as a Janata Party candidate and was elected. He continued as MLA till 1980.

Apart from the above, Sunaram was a social reformer who always endeavoured to alleviate all the superstitions were prevalent in Santal and other Tribal Societies. He had realised the ill effect of such superstitions, which would act as one of the major factors leading to the severe backlash of social development.

In those days, Santal and other tribal people always remained engaged in fairs and dances. Their culture is indeed opulent. They were too proud of it. But it was a major drawback to their social development. Hence, Sunaram warned the Santal people to bring it to an end. With his strenuous efforts, he had succeeded in putting a stop to fairs that were baselessly organised and the dances baselessly performed by Santals.

In the course of attendance of fairs and dances, Santal people were engaged in Alcoholic consumptions. In many cases, later, the Santal people suffered from severe ailments and were compelled to expend huge amounts towards the recovery of their ailments. This led their economic condition to much deterioration, as economically, they were very weak from the very beginning because of illiteracy and lack of awareness. It did bring adverse impact to Sunaram.

Hence, they began to say:

Chah ya, Suna

Pata dom bond ked

Butul butul pawra le ngu led

Khalah khalag ladu le jom led

Chah ya, Suna – pata dom bond ked?

(Why did you, Suna

Bring to an end

The fairs and dances

We had consumed

Bottles of drinks

We had eaten

Full leaf – bowls of sweets

Why did you, Suna

Bring to an end

The fairs and dances?)

Sunaram was a poet of heart and an excellent song composer as well. Some of his significant works are Bhonj Konka Kunki (Crazy Man and Woman from the land of Mayurbhanj), Adibasi Rah Aandor (Adibasi Laments), Sibil Serenj (Sweet Songs) and Jatra Pata Bagi Gira (A message to discard fairs and dances), etc.

He was a fluent platform speaker and delivered speeches before the public for hours at a stretch. He recited poems and songs from his writings and others in his speech which mesmerised the common people. He was an excellent musician who used to play the Mridung while attending dance performance of Santals and others. This great man’s journey towards excellence suddenly stopped and he breathed his last on 19 July, 1988, at the age of 70.

Reference: Bhanj Bir Sunaram Soren centenary celebration – 2018 souvenir 

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