UTKALAMANI GOPABANDHU DAS as the Harbinger of Social Modernisation - I

The predominant image of Gopabandhu Das embedded in our mind and consciousness is that of a freedom fighter, poet, educationist, founder of leading Oriya daily The Samaja, legislator and above all a selfless and self effacing person ever dedicated to the cause of suffering humanity. The numerous records on his epoch making life and deeds celebrate this enduring image of Utkalmani and none less than Mahatma Gandhi, copiously referring to Gopabandhu's high-minded ideals, underlined that defining image and even went to the extent of writing in 1921 that if there were 100 such people in the country, Swaraj would be certain over a period of one year.
Even Gopabandhu's supreme selflessness manifested in his decision to survive only on rice and dal after the noncooperation movement stunned Mahatma Gandhi. When Gandhiji asked him "…Whether this poor diet would not affect his health" Gopabandhu replied "Should we not submit to this privation for the sake of swaraj?" Mahatma Gandhi in his article "My Orissa Tour" written in the Navajivan on 10th April 1921 exclaimed at Gopabandhu's reply and observed "I was silenced". It is worth noting that Mohan Das Karam Chand Gandhi who attained the exalted status of Mahatma for his service and sacrifice and for identifying himself with the humblest of the human beings was never silenced by a mere answer from any national leader of great accomplishment, reputation and stature. Such rare observations of Mahatma Gandhi constituted historic tributes to Gopabandhu and possibly are unparalled in the annals of our struggle for independence. Mahatma Gandhi after returning to India from South Africa in 1915 had not given such stirring remarks even as he met and closely interacted with towering personalities like Gopal Krishna Gokhle and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. In fact when Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the author of the rallying slogan of our freedom movement "Swaraj is my Birth Right" and one of the best known examples of a man acclaimed for self service, came late to a function in 1917 Mahatma Gandhi noted that such late arrivals would inevitably delay our Swaraj. The comments of Mahatma on Gopabandhu and Tilak are not only contrasting but also revealing and enable us to understand the stature and standing of Utkalmani at the national level on account of his dedicated services to the lowly and the lost.
The inspiration Gandhiji got from Gopabandhu and the confidence and optimism he displayed to attain Swaraj within a year after seeing Utkalmani's sacrifices and suffering for the cause of Swaraj testified to the remarkable saga of his selfless service to people, society and nation.
While the people of India and particularly the people of Odisha reverentially commemorate his life of exceptional service and sacrifice and often cite his hallowed name as the shining example of a man devoted to wipe out every tear from every eye of the victims of flood and famine, they are insufficiently aware of his robust social vision and modern mind.
The dearth of literature and research on Gopabandhu's worldview is a sad reflection on our intellectual tradition which has failed to adequately appreciate and make people aware of the genius of Utkalmani as a fine exponent and practitioner of a movement for modernization of our social tradition. We must be mindful of the fact that India in its long history was repeatedly subjected to foreign invasion and control not due to its economic deprivation and poverty but because of the social factors which restricted our outlook, fostered blinkered approach to life and narrowed our understanding of society and universe. India was shining through its wealth and riches and the radiance of the shining India very powerfully drew the attention of rest of the world. Not only the mysticism of the land but also the authentic celebration of life in all its splendour made India the center of attraction and all attempts were made by the Europeans to exploit its treasure. While the restlessness of mankind to reach the shores of India was finding concrete manifestation in the attempts of Vasco da Gama and Columbus to explore sea routes to this enchanting land we in our own country were confined to inhibition of social taboo and prohibition to undertake sea voyage. This regressive social custom combined with the rigidities of caste and religious dogma constituted the single most important factor behind the degeneration and decline of India in her history. The sensation of renaissance felt in many parts of the country and the mighty struggle for independence under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi represented, among other things, the deeply felt desire of our people to change society along progressive lines and initiate processes so that modernization of society, outlook and attitude could take place. After all it is only through the processes of social modernization that the consciousness of the people could be awakened and their worldview broadened.
The downfall of India despite its glorious heritage of science and technology be attributed to the way education and talent was appropriated by particular castes for centuries. In a way there was hundred percent reservation, in diverse fields of life, on the basis of caste.
Swami Vivekananda in one of his insightful writings observed that the monopolization of education and intelligence by a few was responsible for the decline of India. The low levels of literacy rate in India for thousands of years in spite of the millennia old tradition of worshipping the God and Goddess of learning Ganesh and Saraswati respectively highlighted the social factors that retarded the progress of mass education and resulted in all round backwardness of the nation. During our freedom struggle it was progressively realized by our leadership that there is no better way to change society and nation than educating people, expanding their abilities and inculcating among them the values of service, nationalism, sharing, fellow feeling, compassion and understanding. Gopabandhu spearheaded a movement for social modernization through education. It was silent and unspectacular but had revolutionary implications for society. His approach remained far above narrow confines of caste and religion and covered the whole nation.
It is well known that in 1909 he established the Satyabadi Bana Vidyalaya which possibly became the first ever experiment in our country for conducting open-air school. Mahatma Gandhi wrote appreciatively on this effort. A celebrated educationist of that time Sir Asutosh Mookerjee understood its significance for the nation when he wrote "The promoters of this school have set a laudable example to the country…one cannot but wish that every village in Bengal should possess a genuine place of instruction like the Satyabadi School". The thoughtful observation highlighted the nationalistic and universal approach of Gopabandhu whose ideas are of immense importance for our age.
A survey of his writings brings to light his wide ranging ideas and his modern approach and educates us about his farsighted vision. A thorough study and understanding of Gopabandhu's life and work help us to understand that he was a refreshingly modern person and had the innate desire to modernize society and broaden the attitude and outlook of people. At the heart of that path breaking approach remained education.
On 16th September 1912 i.e. three years after he established Satyabadi School he addressed the Puri District Educational Conference organized at Satyabadi and said "Education is the well spring of all national development". (Siksha samasta jatiya unnatira muladhar). A man committed to national development through education was obviously perturbed to see caste based organizations becoming the nucleus for the spread of education.
In the address cited above he painfully observed that Brahmana Samiti, Karana Samiti, Kayastha Samiti, etc. were engaged in extending educational facilities to the members of their respective castes. In the second half of the twentieth century sociologists like Rudolf and Rudolf focused attention in understanding the role played by caste in promoting the cause of modernization. They interpreted that tradition in spite of its apparent contradiction with modernization process has the potential of advancing it. By way of example they referred to the construction of schools and hostels by caste associations for students belonging to particular castes for availing modern educational facilities.
But Gopabandhu in the beginning of the twentieth century had indicted caste based approaches to impart education and remarked that howsoever noble the objective of such associations might be their attempts based on narrow considerations could not promote the educational advancement of the nation as a whole. His observations "these associations are communal, not universal", "Ehi sabu Samiti Sampradayika- Sarvajanin Nuhen", brought out the limited scope of caste associations and therefore advocated and pursued the wider vision free from all constrictions. He specifically emphasized on spread of education among all castes and communities and the establishment of Satyabadi School was a splendid example of his broad minded approach to education. He carefully analysed the report concerning spread of education in India and learnt with a heavy heart that for every five villages of India there existed only one school. Referring to the Puri district he said with lot of sadness that in 10, 25 and even 50 villages one hardly heard of the pronouncement of the alphabets. He informed that the first syllable represented by AA and AAA was never uttered in those villages. Continuing to reflect on the deepening ignorance of people in remote villages he told that the dim ray of education had not reached there. He entertained the doubt that in hundreds of villages of Orissa people even would not be aware of the basic fact that they were being ruled by the British authorities. Today we talk of the division of society in terms haves and have nots. In 1912 Gopabandhu talked about division of society in terms of literates and illiterates. The cause of the dichotomy was obviously due to lack of education among vast masses of ordinary men and women. He therefore expressed the opinion that efforts should have been made much earlier to dispel ignorance among people. He forcefully argued for a campaign in all villages and among people of all castes and creed to make them understand about the value and utility of education for them. He favoured for broadening the scope of the campaign to include in it not only book learning but also vocational education. For he believed that excessive reading of books puts heavy burden on the brain and therefore suggested that public instruction should give equal emphasis on the use of hand, feet, ears and eyes to make mind steady, stable and focused. In 1921 Mahatma Gandhi wrote a book for school children called Bal Pothi in which he wrote that household work is education. Elaborating it further he explained that both boys and girls by doing house hold work could exercise their hand, feet, eyes, muscles and brain and grow up as healthy and balanced human beings. The comprehensive understanding of education by Gopabandhu Das and Mahatma Gandhi and the stress they laid on both the physical, intellectual and spiritual development of the student need to be followed by the present generation which is plagued by the decline of values and crisis of standards of behaviour.
One of the distinguishing features of the movement for spread of education in twenty first century has been to make education accessible for those who are in the margins of society. Utkalmani Gopabnadhu Das had nurtured that vision at least nine decades back and much before Mahatma Gandhi reached the shores of India from South Africa. Keeping in mind the special concerns of the people belonging to the labour class he specifically wanted that they would be taught about the new methods for using their skills in local industries. The fact that his campaign for education covered all communities and castes and the fact that he wanted special education for the labourers, established his credentials as the arch advocate of inclusive society and Sarvodaya.
Above all he wanted that education be made the principal instrument for building our national character. The all encompassing approach and the nobility of the challenging vision of Gopabandhu contained the seeds of total literacy campaign which took the form of a mighty tree in Ernakulam district of Kerala in the 1980s and gradually branched out to different parts of India including Orissa and emerged as a giant movement for spreading literacy in the country. The current focus at the national level on Sarvasiksha Abhiyan embodies the vision of Gopabandhu Das which covered all communities and which emphasized on their inherent right to be the recipients of knowledge and wisdom. The ideal of fraternity enshrined in our Constitution can only be realized in full measure only if the objectives set by Gopabandhu to educate every citizen of the country are realized in practice. It is only by effective and quality public instruction that we can put an end to divisions caused by caste, religion and community and promote social solidarity, national unity and integration. Any attempt to ensure equality of opportunity for the spread of education would be a powerful step for social modernization. After all the essence of social modernization demands that people must nurture an open mind free from the fetters of narrow identities, stretch their arms to embrace new ideas and be governed by the ideals and practice of liberty, equality and fraternity. The historic efforts of Gopabandhu Das in the early part of the twentieth century to spread education among people cutting across contrived barriers of caste and creed constituted a rarest of rare instance of a leader so passionately dedicated to the spread of education in the face of countless difficulties and hindrances caused by foreign rule. His heroic efforts and his pioneering contributions make him one of the forerunners of social modernization and builder of modern India.

Dr. Satya Narayan Sahu
Courtesy Orissa Review
Part-II follows...

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