81 Years on, Integration of Odisha Is Still a Work In Progress

By Sandeep Sahu

Amid the symphony of dipped-in-sentimentalism messages that reverberated on Facebook since early morning on Utkal Dibasa today was one that struck a discordant note. “Aame Nuhun Udia, Aame Samalpuria; Aame Nuhun Utkali, Aamar Jati Koshali” (“We are not U(O)dias, We are Samabalpurias; We are not Utkali, Our creed is Koshali,” said the message posted by Birendra Panigrahi, the convenor of the Koshal State Coordination Committee. This was followed by other messages with pictures of a group of people observing what the rest of the state was celebrating as Utkal Dibasa as a ‘Black Day’ in Sambalpur. The presence of only a handful of people at the protest site, which suggested that it lacked mass support, was reassuring. But the fact that such a protest took place at all on a day when the state was celebrating the 82nd anniversary of its statehood certainly left a bitter taste in the mouth. The vitriolic comments that followed the multiple posts gave an idea of the extent of bitterness on both sides of the political divide.

One of the few things Odisha is genuinely proud of is the fact that it was the first state in India to be formed on linguistic basis, way back on April 1, 1936 – 11 years before the country won its hard-fought independence. Ironically, the place where the protest took place today was part of the truncated state of Odisha (then called Orissa) formed on that day while vast swathes of land that are now part of the state still retained their status as princely states. While many of these latter day additions have made a seamless transition to the political and geographical entity called Odisha, a section of people in parts of western Odisha continue to clamour for a separate state of Koshal.

There are historical, political, social and cultural reasons behind this continued alienation of a section of people in western Odisha. With a majority of people in decision making positions – both in politics and bureaucracy – belonging to coastal Odisha, western Odisha has admittedly got a raw deal when it comes to distribution of resources and opportunities despite its significant contributions to the state. Migrants from coastal Odisha continue to control the levers of economic power in these parts even now. No wonder a section of people feels their interests would be better served in a separate Koshal state. Mercifully, this section does not yet enjoy mass support.

Elsewhere, the people of what is called ‘bichhinnanchala’ – areas which once belonged to Odisha but are now part of the neighbouring states of Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh – find themselves in an unenviable position. They are unable to shake off their Odia roots and integrate fully into the states they now live in even as they know they don’t stand a ghost of a chance of ever becoming part of the state they are culturally, sentimentally and historically attached to. What hurts them the most is the fact that mainland Odisha couldn’t care less for their plight. As someone who belongs to one such area, this columnist finds it tough to reconcile to this indifference. While the people of my native village have braved daunting odds to preserve their language and culture, often at great cost to themselves, the overwhelming majority of Odias in the mainland don’t even know about Sadheikela (now spelt Saraikela) and Kharasuan (now spelt Kharswan). The Odia people now living in the geographical territory of West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, I am sure, are equally hurt by this indifference of new generation Odias. But when the people living within Odisha – and not just in western Odisha – themselves feel alienated, expecting their parent state to care for them is perhaps asking for the moon!

That Odisha cannot afford a split is a no-brainer. Allowing the feeling of alienation, at least among those who live inside Odisha territory, to grow would be a disaster. A lot of sweat and blood has gone into the making of Odisha as we know it today and it would be a betrayal of the likes of Utkala Gauraba Madhusudan Das and Utkalamani Gopabandhu Dash who worked so hard to build the unified state of Odisha. We must do everything we can to take the unfinished project launched by these great sons of Odisha – that of the emotional and cultural integration of all Odia speaking areas – to its logical end.