Banamali Das: A Legendary Communist Leader

Santosh Das

NILGIRI occupies a glorious space in the history of our nation as it was the first among the 552 princely states, out of 565, to merge with India, paving the way for the rest to sign the instrument of accession. The pride goes to the Prajamandal movement of Nilgiri, and Banamali Das was its legendary leader.

One of the towering leaders of people's movements, he emerged as a frontline leader of the Communist movement in Odisha. During his schooldays, he was a prominent student leader and subsequently he associated himself with movements of the peasantry, agricultural workers and tribal people.

He was elected to the Odisha Assembly twice in 1967 and 1971 as the CPI(M) nominee. In 2002 when on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Odisha Legislative Assembly, an evaluation of debates was done, Das was chosen as the best legislator in the 50-year period.

Banamali Das was born on August 29, 1918 in Nilgiri. He lost his father when he was only four. He was good in study and passed the matriculation examination in first division, but his family could not afford to pay for his higher study. Self-study was integral part of his life, along with his struggle for people's emancipation and social change.

The objective reality of feudal torture and exploitation of women had its reflection on the mind of Banamali Das in his teens and two of his teachers inspired him to be patriot and Communist. The martyrdom of Bhagat Singh and the call for ‘Salt Satyagrah’ generated such patriotic urge in him that when he was a 14-year-old student in the lower secondary classes, he rushed to the Congress training camp to be trained as a ‘satyagrahi’. He was baptized to Communism by his teacher Gopal Kanungo when he was a student in the secondary school. He was expelled from hostel for his attempt to spread patriotic feelings, utilising the platform of school debates.
After completing matriculation, he first joined a Gandhian outfit, named ‘Yubasakha Samiti’, that was undertaking activities against untouchability, and spreading handspinning and mobilising youths for village sanitation in a part of Nilgiri state. This organisation under the influence of Banamali Das and his radical team also organised campaign for abolition of forced labour (bethi), gift (veti), collection (magan) and hunting (sikar). As a result, the organisation invited the wrath of the king, who arrested its leaders and activists, put them behind bars, imposed fine on them and auctioned their properties.

Events led to the formation of the Prajamandal in Nilgiri in 1938 and that became the year of struggle on 31-point charter of demands, including an end to certain feudal practices and democratisation of governance. It could inspire the subjects to come forward in hundreds and thousands at different places responding to the call of the Prajamandal. While Kailash Mohanty, the president of the Prajamandal, was a Congressman and Gandhian, its secretary Banamali Das was a Communist.

The struggle against collection of fine by police forces in the village of Patana made Banamali Das a legendary figure when he was just 20 years old. Following the Gandhian concept and the decision of Bardoli session of the Congress, when the Prajamandal in the presence of stalwarts like Harekrushna Mahatab, Nabakrushna Choudhury and Sarangadhar Das was about to decide to allow the payment of fine without entering into any resistance, Banamali Das boldly opposed it. He argued that if the collection of fine and auction of property are not resisted in princely states it will lead to loot and people would be helpless and ultimately surrender and as a result, the movement will disappear. Stalwarts agreed with the young man and the movement was planned.

Ten thousand people continued their protest for a week and did not allow officials and police of the king to enter the village. Receiving information from the king, Major Bazalgette, the Political Agent, came to the spot. His conversation with Banamali Das was as follows:
Political Agent: Do you know this type of revolt against Raja sahib was sedition punishable with death sentence?
Banamali Das: Yes, I know that. But kindly tell me, if your ancestors beheaded the King Charles-I to establish the parliamentary system in 1649. Whether you are ashamed of it or proud of it?
Political Agent: Oh! I am proud of that tradition. The King was irresponsible.
Banamali Das: So is the Raja who stands by you.
Political Agent: can you prove it?
Banamali Das: Yes, by all means.

Then Banamali Das narrated the story of ruthless drive for collection of fines imposed on the people for the crime that they participated in ‘satyagraha’. The Political Agent asked Banamali Das to call upon the people to disperse and invited Prajamandal for talks. Discussion ended in the exemption of fines and release of some political prisoners. This event made Banamali Das a hero and a legendary figure. The struggle of 1938 led to the achievement of 29 demands out of 31. Only the demand for democratisation of governance and submission of the state’s accounts in Prajasabha were unacceptable to the king.

In course of this struggle, Banamali Das earned the anger of the Congress leadership of the state as he disagreed with them to accept the king's claim for continuance of the practices of bethi (forced labor), veti (gift), magan (collection) and sikar (hunting) on limited occasions. The support of the vast majority in the Prajamandal committee in favour of Banamali Das's proposal led to the humiliation of Harekrushna Mahatab, the towering leader of the Indian National Congress in Odisha at that time.

The events of 1938 were followed by two kinds of disruptions -- (I) the king sought to divide the subjects engaging the tribal and aboriginals against the non-tribal, and (II) Banamali Das was expelled from the Prajamandal by the Congress stream of the organisation.

With the king's patronisation, an outfit called Prajamangal (welfare of subjects) was floated. They were armed and military training was provided to them. The military wing of Prajamangal was named ‘Kalapithia Vahini’. Within the Prajamandal, the conflict was ideological. Two events were utilised to expel Banamali Das -- his house was searched by the police and literatures on Communism and Soviet Union were seized; and following the outbreak of the Second World War, Banamali Das called upon the people not to pay a pie towards tax, not to join the army to help the imperialist war. At the instance of Mahatab, a letter was sent to the Secretary, All India State People's Conference that Banamali Das was violating Gandhian norm and instigating people not to pay taxes and to resort to violent activities.

Banamali Das was expelled from the organisation when he was in jail after being arrested in the "Cuttack Communist Conspiracy Case". He wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru, the President of All India State People's Conference, about his expulsion, who, in turn, congratulated him for his brave fight against the king and the British, and opined that reading Communist literature or believing in Communism is no crime and that does not affect Prajamandal in any way. He also wrote to Harekrushna Mahatab and Kailash Mohanty, the President of Nilgiri Prajamandal, to revoke Banamali's expulsion. The Congress leadership of Odisha did to pay heed to Nehru's advice.
Such action of Congress leaders deprived the Nilgiri movement of an able leadership and it eventually weakened the movement.

After his release in April 1942, Banamali Das went underground and stayed in the caves of Devagiri hills and from there moved to villages at night to mobilise people, organise Krushak Sabha and Communist Party. During the Quit India Movement, he was arrested in January 1943 and put behind bars. He was released in 1944. He organised the district-level conference of the Communist Party in Nilgiri to expand the organisation and build the peasant movement on the line of Tebhaga Movement.

Following the enactment of the Indian Independence Act in British Parliament, when the days of independence was drawing nearer, the king began preparations to face the new situation. With the patronisation of the palace, a civil war-like situation emerged in Nilgiri, unleashing the attack by Kalapithia Vahini on the non-tribal people, looting their properties, destroying their crops, outraging the modesty of women, etc. People out of fear started to desert the state to neighborhood localities. Banamali Das called upon the people to retaliate for self-defence. The Communist Party floated its military wing “Muktisena”, military training camp was organised in Nilgiri, and volunteers were sent to state-level military training camp set up in Mendhashal in Puri district.

Muktisena confronted the Kalapithia Vahini, defeated them and was making preparation to capture the palace on November 16, 1947. At this juncture, the Government of India and the Government of Odisha intervened and asked the king to hand over the administration. With the inevitability of Muktisena capturing the palace, the king with its poor strength of army and police felt helpless and agreed to the proposal of the government on November 14, 1947.

Nilgiri was designated as an “occupied territory” of Odisha and after the king signed the instrument of accession, the merger was formalised, paving the way for other princely states to follow suit.

Banamali Das had the concrete understanding of the concrete situation. He did not call upon to continue the armed struggle after the merger as Nilgiri became part of India. He understood that to achieve the goal of socialism, the People’s Democratic Revolution has to be organised first. He continued to advance the class struggle and mass movements.

In the post-Independence period, Banamali Das was arrested time and again, jailed and had to stay underground as the independent Indian state remaining faithful to its class interest was cruel, atrocious and undemocratic to resort to such activities to suppress the democratic movement of the people. Once he had to abscond from the jail heroically and go underground.

Banamali Das took up the causes of share-croppers, fought for redistribution of ceiling surplus land, tribal right over the forest land, fare wage for agricultural workers. He led the food movement when hunger and starvation was the order of the day in 1973 and 1974 in
Nilgiri.

Though Nilgiri was his laboratory, his activities went beyond it. He was the state secretariat member in the undivided Communist Party. After division, he became the Odisha state committee secretary of the CPI(M) and was elected to the central committee of the party at its 7th congress. When the CPI(M) started to publish its Odia organ “Samyabadee”, he became its Editor. He stood firmly against the left disruption that emerged in the name of Naxalism in late 60s.

Till the end of his life he firmly believed in Marxism-Leninism and the ultimate victory of socialism. He passed away on February 25, 2007 at the age of 89. 

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