Madhusudan Das, a lawyer and social reformer, did pioneering work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, laying the foundation for the current state of Odisha. Sadly, he remains a largely forgotten figure among the pantheon of famous Indian historical figures. (Image above of Madhusudan Das, the legendary Odia)

As the first graduate and advocate of Odisha today, he founded an organization called ‘Utkal Sammilani’ in 1903, through which he not only campaigned for the establishment of the province of Orissa (now Odisha , India), but also provided a strong impetus. to the Odia language movement struggling with British repression.

This province finally came into being on April 1, 1936. Without the historical contributions of “Kulabruddha” (Great Old Man) or “Madhu Babu” as he was called, it could be argued that modern Odisha might not have not even existed today.

National leaders like MK Gandhi and BR Ambedkar held Das in high regard. While the former called him a “great philanthropist”, the latter acknowledged his speech challenging the caste system and highlighting other Dalit issues while writing “The Untouchables and the PAX Britannica”.

Here is the story of this remarkable historical figure.

Break the chains

According to researcher Dr Janmejay Choudhury’s April 2005 article in the public magazine Odisha Review, the movement for a unified Odisha began in earnest in the second half of the 19th century. This followed centuries of fragmentation of Odia-speaking communities under various kingdoms, from the Mughals to the Marathas and eventually the Britons.

“The first proposal for the unification of the scattered [Odia] Oriya language tracts under one administration came from Raja Baikuntha Nath De of Baleswar and Bichitrananda Patnaik of Cuttack in 1875. They presented a memorandum to the [British Colonial] government in this regard. In November 1888, Sir SC Bayley, the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, visited Orissa [Odisha]. It was presented with a memorial by the ‘Utkal Sabha’ [a prominent political organisation] by Cuttack. Among other things, he was asked to pay attention to the problem of unifying the Oriya-speaking territories of Madras, Central Provinces and Bengal into a single administrative unit so that its overall development would be possible,” Choudhury writes.

This proposal, however, was reversed by Sir SC Bayley, and the Odia language was subsequently banned from “official use” in the Odia-speaking district of Sambalpur in 1895 by the Chief Commissioner of the Central Provinces. This decision provoked many protests, but they will remain without success. Even though the language movement enjoyed popular support among native speakers on the ground well into the 20th century, it needed a leader with the required intellectual and moral conviction that the British establishment could take seriously.

Enter Madhusudan Das, born on April 28, 1848 in Satyabhamapur, some 20 km from Cuttack town. Born into a Zamindar family, Das grew up with privilege as a member of the ‘Karana’ or writer caste, but soon “made a clean break with tradition and changed his religion” to Christianity in 1868, notes the writer Hiranya Kumar Panigrahi in his book. ‘Odisha of my time’.

“It was only after breaking free from the shackles of tradition that he came out with brilliant ideas to usher in a new era of Odisha. Many nationalist poets, litterateurs and followers of the Satyabadi school of thought follow him,” says Panigrahi. Founded by poet, patriot, freedom fighter and priest Gopabandhu Das, the Satyabadi school has been instrumental in shaping national consciousness among many Odia-speaking students in the region.

The ‘Utkal Sammilani’ first met in late 1903 and met annually in different areas where Odia was spoken until the establishment of Odisha in 1936. Throughout, Das spearheaded the language movement through this organization. In addition to this, Das has also used his education (as the first Odia to earn a bachelor’s, master’s and LL.B degree) and extensive training as a lawyer to highlight other issues plaguing the region.

Madhusudan Das statue (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Kamalakant Nayak)

Other Contributions

As the first person of Odia origin to enter both the Provincial Legislative Council (Bihar and Orissa Province) and the Central Legislative Assembly, he used his platform to highlight the dire situation of public health in rural Odisha. The region was plagued by diseases such as cholera. Madhusudan Das criticized the colonial government for not having put in place the necessary budgetary provisions to deal with it.

Going further, he also used his platform as an elected leader to eradicate superstition in rural Odisha and promote modern medicine and real progress in public health work related to the fight against diseases. epidemics.

Das was also a prolific writer and poet in English and Odia. Some of his notable literary works include poems like “Utkal Santan”, “Jati Itihash” and “Jananira Ukti” with the spirit of Odia language movement and patriotism at the forefront of his writings.

However, one of his most interesting and perhaps most influential contributions was closer to home. While Cornelia Sorabji is considered by many to be India’s first female lawyer, some Odisha historians dispute this claim. They believe that title goes to Das’ adopted daughter, Sudhanshubala Hazra, who broke through all sorts of obstacles to become India’s first female lawyer in 1923.

During an April 2017 interaction with The New Indian Express, renowned scholar Dr. Basudev Das said that it was Das who fought Hazra’s case in Patna High Court in 1921 so that she could practice law. like her male counterparts. Das eventually won the case, and Hazra was officially appointed as a lawyer in 1923, almost a year before Cornelia got that honor.

His remarkable contribution, however, remains the creation of present-day Odisha carved along linguistic lines. To fight for this province (later state) linguistically, he even broke away from the Indian National Congress. Historians claim that he showed great foresight in demanding a state/province carved along linguistic lines in view of what the future held after independence. Unfortunately, he didn’t live long enough to see his dream come true.

‘Utkal Gurab’ (Pride of Utkal) Madhusudan Das died in 1934 at the age of 85 and just two years before the official establishment of Odisha.

That said, his ideas and contributions to strengthening an Odia identity and creating an administrative unit for Odia-speaking people in India live on today.


‘Utkal Sammilani and Unification of the Scattered Oriya-Speaking Tracts’ by Dr Janmejay Choudhury; Published April 2005 with permission from Orissa Review

“Contribution of the Satyabadi School to the National Movement” by Dr. Janmejay Choudhury; Published January 2004 with permission from Orissa Review

‘Sudhanshubala First Lawyer, Not Cornelia: Scholars’ by Ashis Senapati; Published November 17, 2017 Courtesy of The New Indian Express

‘Madhusudan Das – the lawyer who unified Odisha and reformed the Indian judicial system’ by Raghav Bikhchandani; Published April 28, 2022 courtesy of The Print

‘Odisha of my Times’ by Hiranya Kumar Panigrahi (translated by Krishna Chandra Panigrahi); Posted May 7, 2021

(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)

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