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Brave Paikas are cannon fodder for Odisha’s politicians

Odisha goes to the polls in 2019 and the BJP hopes to unseat Patnaik who has been at the helm of the state uninterruptedly since 2000.

opinion Updated: Jul 21, 2017 16:53 IST
Ruben Banerjee
Ruben Banerjee
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik inaugurating Netaji Subash Chandra Bose Bridge over River Kathajodi in Cuttack on Wednesday.(PTI)

The Paikas, a group of farmer-soldiers of Odisha, were known for their valour. They rose up in revolt against the British in the early 19th century when the erstwhile colonial rulers snatched their rent-free land given by the local king.

But that was then. Today, the Paikas are cannon fodder for politicians out to exploit their exemplary courage for vote-bank politics. Exactly 200 years after the uprising led by the legendary Buxi Jagabandhu Bidyadhar Mahapatra, present-day Odisha leaders led by chief minister Naveen Patnaik have suddenly woken up to rediscover the heroic exploits of the brave Paikas.

The Paika rebellion beginning in 1817 lasted many months before being snuffed out. The political fight to appropriate its legacy will also expectedly be as bitter and prolonged, between Patnaik’s ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which has set its sights on the state as its next frontier.

Odisha goes to the polls in 2019 and the BJP hopes to unseat Patnaik who has been at the helm of the state uninterruptedly since 2000.

But in search of an emotive issue and a powerful icon to sweep the people of the state off their feet, it was the BJP that first zeroed in on the Paika revolt in its attempt at establishing strong emotional connect with the people. Earlier this year, Union finance minister Arun Jaitley allotted Rs 600 crores in the budget for commemorating the 200th year celebrations of the rebellion.

The BJP has the powerful image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hard sell in the state in the run up to the elections. Celebrating the Paikas will expectedly stoke local pride and establish a closer bond with the people it is seeking to woo. In more ways than one, the imagery of Paikas is to the BJP what Ram Temple was for the party in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere. In Uttar Pradesh, the idea was to play on Hindu pride and create religious consolidation. In Odisha, it is to play on Odiya pride and create regional consolidation.

The BJP has elaborate plans to build on the Paika narrative. A giant statue of Buxi Jagabandhu is being planned in the state, so huge in size that it would overshadow other tall personalities who had dominated the state till date. That would include Patnaik’s father and former chief minister Biju Patnaik. And as was the case with building the planned temple in Ayodhya, Odiyas from across the state will be invited to donate steel and other material that would be required for the statue.

Chief minister Patnaik has so long been satisfied with eulogising his late father. Only last year, the state government celebrated with grandeur the birth centenary of Biju Patnaik, coupled with calls to the Centre to posthumously award him the Bharat Ratna.

But alarmed at the BJP’s attempt to shine in the reflected glory of the Paikas, the CM too has jumped into the fray. Besides attending the high-profile Paika revolution celebrations in Delhi, his government has urged the Centre to declare the uprising as India’s first war of independence, as it predates the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.

Every state has the right to celebrate its glorious past and the Paikas definitely deserve their due place in history. But what Odisha is witnessing today isn’t genuine expression of gratitude and respect, but rank political opportunism to encash the exploits of the Paikas. Known for their bravery, the Paika heroes would have cringed had they been around.

First Published: Jul 21, 2017 16:43 IST