In his league of leaders like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, C Rajagopalachari, the name Dr Harekrushna Mahatab was no lesser significant in the political history of India. Though the historiographers tried to confine Mahatab just within the boundary of Odisha, his influence was truly pan-India.
November 21 marks the birth anniversary of Dr Harekrushna Mahatab who is known with the epitaph Utkal Keshari (the Lion of Odisha). As a prominent figure of Gandhian era of freedom struggle, Mahatab fought bravely against the British imperialism. As a key leader of Utkala Sammilani, he was instrumental for the cause of liberating Odisha as a separate state on the basis of language. As the first Chief Minister of Odisha, Mahatab was the architect of modern Odisha. As the Union Minister of Commerce and Industries in Nehru Cabinet, he pioneered India’s industrial revolution. His brief stint as Governor of undivided Bombay state was no lesser eventful either.
Even as we give due credit to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel for the integration of princely states with rest of India, many of us are not even aware of the significant contribution of Dr Harekrushna Mahatab in initiating the merger of princely states. In fact, Mahatab started the process of accession of Odia speaking princely states with Orissa province months before India had attained Independence.
The year was 1946. Harekrushna Mahatab was the Prime Minister of Orissa province. The Praja Mandala movement was raising its head against the atrocious rulers Garhjat States (Tributary States) across Odisha. Garhjat States were Odia speaking princely states located in Garhjat Hills, the heavily forested region of eastern Odisha. In those princely states, the economic burden on the common people was heavy with high taxation and civil rights were severely restricted. Mahatab came to the rescue of the exploited people. He wanted the merger of 26 Garhjat States with Orissa province.
Mahatab had convened a meeting with the rulers of the Garhjat States on October 16, 1946. It was in that meeting, Mahatab had declared, “So far as Odisha is concerned, considering its geographical, linguistic, ethnological affinity with the states, it is desirable that there should be one administration for both the states and the province; otherwise both the province and the states can have no efficient planning in the absence of which each part will be weak in comparison with the other states of India.”
But the rulers of Garhjat States played hard ball and decided to form ‘Eastern State Union’ under the leadership of the king of Patnagarh on August 1, 1947. The British left India by giving full freedom to princely states to either to join Union of India or remain independent. As India attained Independence, common people of princely State of Nilagiri started an uprising against the king demanding the accession of the princely State with Odisha. When the king tried to suppress the agitation by use of force, Mahatab, the then Chief Minister of Odisha, asked the interim Indian government for military action. The then Union Home Minister Sardar Patel authorised Mahatab to take control over Nilagiri. Finally, Odisha government took control over Nilagiri on November 14, 1947 and the princely state was acceded into Odisha.
Following the success of Nilagiri accession, the Mahatab government had declared the so called ‘Eastern States Union’ as outlawed. Mahatab again convened a meeting of the rulers of the Odia speaking princely states. He persuaded the then Union Home Minister Sardar Patel and the then Minister in charge of States Department VP Menon to meet the rulers of Odia speaking princely states at Cuttack. In the meeting with the rulers of the princely states on December 14, 1947, at Rajbhawan, Cuttack, Patel told the princes, “If you don’t accept our proposal, I won’t take responsibility for law and order in your state. You take care of that yourself.”
The pressure and persuasion finally worked and all the rulers of the princely states in Odisha signed the document of accession on December 15, 1947. This set the ball rolling for the integration of princely states in other parts of India.
This was what Sardar Patel had said about Mahatab on the merger of princely states. “Harekrushna Mahatab was the living spirit in that drama. I am happy that I helped him to realise what was not only his dream and his ambition, but also the dream and ambition of all Odias. I am happier still that it was that backward province as they call it, which led the way for rest of India to follow.”