“It is not a pyre, O Friends! When the country is in dark despair, it is the light of our liberty. It is our freedom-fire.” These are the lines from a poem by eminent poet Sachi Routray that he began writing when he was overcome with emotions as he watched twelve-year-old Baji Rout’s pyre lite up. The name Baji Rout invokes a sense of pride in every Odia’s heart and stands as a symbol of unwavering courage and determination. His life may have been cut short but the impact his tragic death had was huge.
Born on October 5th, 1926 at Nilakanthapur village in Dhenkanal District of Odisha, he grew up with only his mother, having lost his father at a very tender age. His family used to sustain on the wages his mother earned from rice-husking activities in the neighborhood. As a child, he joined the Banar Sena of the Praja Mandal movement, which comprised young children. The Prajamandal movement was a part of the freedom struggle in Odisha which was mostly a movement by the people living in the erstwhile princely states as a campaign against the unjust and autocratic rulers of the states as well as the British Raj authorities.
On midnight of October 10th, 1938 the British Police forces attacked the village Bhuban and arrested some leaders of the village without any reason and took them to Bhuban Police Station. On being alerted, the members of the Prajamandal came and gheraoed the Police Station and demanded the release of the arrested individuals. The Police retaliated by firing at the protestors and in the process leaders like Raghu Naik and Quri Naik were shot dead. Fearing public angst and a threat to their lives, the British Police Force members then decided to escape to Dhenkanal and chose the route through Nilakanthapur Ghat as it was the shortest route.
On the night of October 11th, 1938, Baji Rout volunteered to keep watch by the Brahmani river at Nilakanthapur Ghat at night. Some members of the British Police Force came to the river bank and ordered Baji to ferry them across the river on his boat which he denied. While the nitty-gritty details of what transpired that night remain unknown, it was clear that there was an argument regarding crossing the river and on being denied by Baji Rout, the British Police Force members shot at him along with Laxman Malik, Fagu Sahoo, Hrushi Pradhan, and Nata Malik. As a result of the firing, Baji Rout succumbed to his injuries and became the youngest martyr in the Indian freedom struggle.
While it is indeed tragic that such a brave life was cut short, his death ignited the passion of the people in his region to stand up against injustice by the British Raj and the authoritarian princely states. His death woke people up to the complete disregard the British Raj had for Indian lives and the worst forms of abuse it resorted to if nothing else worked. For the people of Odisha, his legacy remains etched in stone and though he is largely absent from the national narrative, his contribution and sacrifice is an important story to tell.
At the cusp of 75 years of Independence, it is even more important for the citizens of the country to learn about the freedom struggle beyond history textbooks and become more aware of the regional leaders and freedom fighters whose contribution to the freedom struggle is largely unspoken about. It is important for the people of a nation to be aware of the struggle of their ancestors so the freedom of this country from colonial shackles is not taken for granted and the sacrifices of people like Baji Rout are honored.