Even after 72 years of independence, any story about the Indian freedom struggle feels like a personal memory. Even though most of us have not felt the burns of the fight first-hand, the mere mention of it amplifies our pride, angst, love, and pain for the loss of lives we never knew, yet we became an integral reason for their selfless sacrifices. The cost of freedom was the unfathomable amount of bloodshed, and uncountable lives lost. One among these was the life of a 12 years old boy, Baji Rout, who selflessly took upon the bullets to stop British troops from chasing the revered freedom fighter Baishnav Charan Pattanayak. He is the youngest martyr of India, and his tale of valour is what the forthcoming generations should grow up listening to!
Baji Rout was born in the tiny village, Dhenkanal in Odisha on 5th October 1926. He lost his father even before he was able to speak complete sentences. Raised single-handedly by his mother, he was greatly influenced by the stories of Baishnav Charan Pattanayak or “Veer Baishnav” as he was fondly called. During that time, Odisha was on the verge of having a prominent revolt. The atrocities by the King under the influence of the British were crossing boundaries making the blood of the exploited, boil. At such a time, Baishnav Pattanaik along with Hara Mohan Pattanayak, an intellectual and local freedom fighter formed “Prajamandal Andolan”, which means “Protest by the locals” with a youth wing called “Banar Sena”. Baji joined Banar Sena at a very young age.
Pattanayak was employed as a painter with the Indian Railways. His main motive was to obtain the Railway pass that could enable his free movement to various places to meet people and strategize for the revolt. Through his travels, he was able to meet and draw the attention of illustrious leaders towards the poor state of Dhenkanal, including those at the National Congress, Cuttack. This fueled the Prajamandal confidence, however, it also made the King cautious. The King sought the help of the kings from the neighbouring states and the British to send their armed forces to oppress the mass movement. Obliging to King’s request and to instil fear in their respective kingdoms, the neighbouring kings sent their troops to Dhenkanal. Even the British sent 250 gunmen from Calcutta to shoulder the King’s injustice. Endowed with such enormous armed forces, the King unleashed his reign of terror on the people of Dhenkanal to uproot their revolt. Along with the exploitation, he introduced the unjustified “Raj Bhakta Tax” aka “The Loyalty Tax”. Those who were unable to pay it had their houses throttled by the elephants, and all their property confiscated without notice.
Unlike the King’s expectations, his oppression did not deter people. Instead, led by Baishnav Pattanayak, it strengthened their resolve to fight for their justice. Frustrated, the King decided to eliminate the captain that was sailing this ship of protests. He decided to target Baishnav Pattanayak, without whom the mass movement would fall apart. The King raided his ancestral property and tried to build pressure on Pattanayak. However, he remained unfazed by it. On 22nd November 1938, the King executed a surprise attack during which Hara Mohan Pattanayak and other local leaders were arrested. Baishnav Pattanayak hoaxed the forces and escaped. This agitated the Kings as well as the British, and they began a widespread search for Pattanayak. They caught a loose thread that Pattanayak had taken refuge in Bhuban village. The King along with the army attacked the village multiple times to scoop out Pattanayak himself, or at least some news about his whereabouts. The villagers endured the torture but refused to give out any detail about Pattanayak.
Soon, the King caught a rumour that Pattanayak could be swimming across the Brahmani river to safely escape through the other side of the village. On 11th October 1938, the army marched towards the river, and was constantly hindered by the protests of the locals who tried their best to stop the forces from getting hold of their hero, and hope – Baishnav Pattanayak. Irritated, the troops started open firing, thus claiming lives of Raghu Naik and Quri Naik. Taken aback by fear, the locals reluctantly paved the way. By the time it was night, the troops reached Nilakanthapur, the closest ferry port to sail to the other bank of the river. A young 12 years old boy, Baji Rout, in charge of the Ferry in the Ghat at the time was sleeping when the troops approached him to ride them.
Baji had been warned by the senior activists to keep the army away from crossing the river. He looked straight into the eyes of a British army officer and without flinching said “no”. This offended the British beyond measure. A 12 years old poor downtrodden child dares to look them in the eyes and refuse their orders. They threatened Baji, first with words and then with the guns to narrow down his gaze and silently follow their order if he wanted to see the sun the next morning. However, Baji was stubborn. He refused to oblige.
Infuriated, the British soldiers hit his skull with the butt of their guns. This fractured his young head, and it started bleeding all the life out of him. Baji Rout knew these were his last moments. Yet, he also knew this was his moment. Instead of wailing, or even silently reminiscing about what his life could have been had he lived, he started yelling at the top of his voice to alert villagers and probably hidden activists about the presence of the army. Astonished by the supposed breach of conduct before them even at the time of death, a soldier ruthlessly pierced Baji’s skull with his bayonet while his fellow fired at him. A few villagers who were hideously following the troops were shocked to see that the atrocities of these invaders didn’t even spare an innocent child. They rushed back to inform the village, whose grief and anger knew no bounds when they heard about Baji’s ruthless murder.
Filled with new energy, they fearlessly rushed towards the spot where Baji’s corpse lay. Seeing them approach with anger, the British gunmen who were fully armed felt a shiver run down their spine. They jumped onto Baji’s boat, not to chase Pattanayak, but to cowardly flee from the sight. As a last chance to save their face, they again open fired towards the villagers, thus claiming four more lives. As soon as the news reached Baishnav Pattanayak, he himself came to collect the corpses, and take them to Cuttack for post-mortem. He and other prominent Congressmen were stunned at the martyrdom of Baji, and the rest of them. They decided to carry out their funeral procession to the crematorium through the lanes of Cuttack so that everyone could pay homage to the valour of the martyrs, especially to Baji Rout. There could be no better way to honour Baji Rout and his fellow martyrs’ sacrifice. It is no surprise that thousands of people joined Baji in his final journey, making it the largest funeral procession in the state until that time.
While the world has seen many freedom movements, what marvels me about our struggle for independence is that we fought the mighty arms with our invincible human values. It is not unknown how crippled Indians were in the face of the British. However, what we had in excess was our courage, brotherhood, and undying love for our beloved mother India. No wonder, at a time when most of the world was unnerved by the British, a young 12 years old ordinary boy could see eye-to-eye with the British officials and bravely say NO to their unjust demands only to protect another man. At 12, he stood up for what he felt was right, fully knowing it would lead to nothing but death.
Can such people really die? Can their valour be forgotten? Can their sacrifice be lost in history? It is for us to decide. It is we who decide if we want Baji Rout to be forgotten, or Be alive in every child by passing on what he laid his life for – brotherhood and love for our country!