The “father of the nation” visited Odisha during the crucial years between 1921 and 1946, when the critical issues like the formation of the state of Odisha and the then prevailing economic poverty warranted robust leadership and cognisance at the national level.
The abject poverty of Odisha had moved him and prompted him to be even a stronger votary of Swaraj or Self Rule for India and advocating for the Khadi movement in the country. He had remarked, “the picture of Odisha, which is dancing before my eyes, has convinced me that it will be Swaraj for them, if we can provide food to them. The best way to this is to propagate khadi. If this programme is carried out sincerely, khadi production in Utkal will increase and one day, this province may become the khadi store of India.”
Odisha provided the perfect platform for Gandhiji to wage a Khadi program, which had the potential to ameliorate poverty and sufferings of the people, at the last mile. He had dreamt Odisha to be the “khadi hub” of India. During his visits to Odisha between 1921 and 1946, he emphasised on development of agriculture, cottage industries (including khadi and dairy farms) and urged the people of Odisha to make villages the epicentre in the battle against poverty.
Such was Gandhiji’s attachment with the State that he was instrumental in carving out a place for Odisha and Odias in the Congress and owing to his insistence, the Congress also accepted the principle of reorganising provinces on the basis of language. It is said that Utkalmani Gopabandhu Das, had once famously said: “Like Bhagirath brought the Ganges to the earth, Gandhi brought the Congress to Utkal (Odisha).”
Gandhiji first visited Odisha in 1921 and the non-cooperation movement started in 1921 in the district of Ganjam along with other districts. A training camp was organized for orienting volunteers in propaganda and picketing work. Gandhiji came on a tour to Ganjam district in March and addressed meetings at Berhampur, Aska, Bhanjanagar etc. His presence galvanised and inspired thousands of people who took the plunge of freedom movement. Many including women volunteered for the Civil Disobedience Movement and salt satyagraha and camps were established at Ganjam, and salt was manufactured both at Ganjam and Huma. During his visit to Berhampur, Gandhiji also helped to being about an amicable settlement of the Telegu-Odia boundary dispute. He declared in the public meeting at the barracks that “before the sun rises tomorrow, the Telugu-Oriya boundary dispute should be settled” and after a meeting in the residence of Madhusudan Panigrahi, it was settled.
It was due to the motivation of Gandhiji that the leaders of Odisha constituted an All Party Conference to prepare and submit a memorandum to the national level All Party Conference at Calcutta in 1928. This memorandum was a strong brief prepared meticulously, advocating for a separate Odisha province. Apart from Biswanath Das other members of the said Conference were Bhubanananda Das, Gopabandhu Choudhury, Lingaraj Panigrahi, Nanda Kishore Das, Mukunda Prasad Das, Jadumani Mangaraj and others. The All Party Conference resolved that Odias should be allowed to have a separate province to shape their own future and shoulder their own financial burden.
Besides Ganjam, Gandhiji had travelled the length and breadth of Odisha, covering places like Cuttack, Puri, Bhadrak, Balasore, Jharsuguda, Sambalpur, and spending about 69 days in the state. He said, “if one wants to serve the poor, he could serve Utkal”. Such was his drive to develop Odisha that he did not confine his visits to only addresses at the district headquarters or major towns, but had undertaken padayatras deep inside the State, to spread the message that “human vanity lies at the root of untouchability”. One such march was held in 1934 which began from Puri and covered Harekrushnapur, Chandanpur, Sakhigopal, Kadua Ashram, Danda Mukundapur, Pipili, Balakati, Satyabhamapur, Balianta, Telengapenth, Kajipatna on way to Cuttack.
He lamented that “British regime and frequent natural calamities as the state’s enemies” and assisted the team from Odisha including Maharaja Krushna Chandra Gajapati and Lingaraj Panigrahi to move the memorandum for greater Odisha state and for the justifiable inclusion of more areas in the state. The team besides presenting at the Round table conference, made a legendary representation to the Secretary of State of the joint select committee for merger of Paralakhemundi, Jeypore, Angul, Padampur and Khariar in the proposed Odisha province. Consequently, a report was published on behalf of the joint select committee which was accepted by the British Parliament. Due to the iconic advocacy of the team in London, the Maharaja of Parlakhemundi was famously given the moniker of the “Warrior in the battle of Thames”.
Thus, was born the State of Odisha, with active support and guidance from Gandhiji, the Father of the Nation. Regarding a separate Odisha he had said: " I have always raised the issue in the discussion with the Congress authorities. I shall press for it myself as representative of Orissa at the Round Table Conference".
Owing to the socio-economic backwardness of the state, Gandhiji nurtured a special interest in the development of Odisha, and this has been demonstrated in many of his speeches and writings. He wrote an article in Navjivan exhorting urgent and generous help for the famine-stricken people of Odisha in 1919-20. He quoted Rabindra Nath Tagore in this write-up to sensitise the nation that 'Utkala' was a famous land and place of great pilgrimage. He deputed his associate Thakkar Bapa to Odisha for relief work in 1920 with crowd sourcing of Rs.50000/-, collected from the people of Gujarat and elsewhere for the flood affected people of Puri. At his instance the Christian missionary C.F. Andrews stayed in Odisha for a long time to assist the needy, the flood affected and poverty-stricken people. Another dedicated benefactor Jivaramji Kalayanji Kothari, a follower of Gandhi dedicated his life and property to the service of Odisha. In 1927 Kothari with his wife established an Ashram at Bhadrak. Ishwarlal Vyas and his wife Purubai being inspired by Gandhi set up an Ashram at Soro. On the invitation of Gandhiji, India’s most famous engineer, Vishweshraiya, visited Odisha and provided services pro bono to solve the flood problem, only because of Gandhiji's special love for Odisha. On his advice hundreds of Charkha centres were opened in Odisha with the hope of providing fillip to the cottage industry and livelihoods of people at villages. He exhorted the workers and leaders to make Odisha "the Khadi hub of India". Not only did he promote and appeal for the use of Khadi to improve the economic condition of the people, but he also mobilised funds for the same. Gandhiji influenced Jivaramji Kalyanji Kothari who contributed one lakh rupees to Gandhi Seva Sangha for Khadi work. These initiatives revived the village industries and handicrafts and were developed through the support of the Odisha Government.
In many ways he was responsible for starting the Harijan movement in Odisha which helped in the transformation of the Odisha society during the first half of the 20th century. During his visit to Odisha he advocated for the temple entry of the so called “untouchables”/marginalised. He sensitised the trustees of the Raghunath temple and entered it with “untouchables”. During his visit to different places and meetings, he was mostly received and garlanded by the marginalised people. He personally visited the Harijan colonies and interacted with the communities. He commenced his national mission of removing untouchability and upliftment of harijans, from the holy land of Jagannath in Puri. In fundraising for the Harijan Fund, Odisha got the larger share than the normal quota from the central fund for the Harijan Sevak Sangha. It was due to the Gandhi influence that the First and Second Ministry in Odisha passed various pathbreaking Acts for the welfare of the Harijans and removal of untouchability.
The issues of Odisha were mainstreamed at the national level, due to the Mahatma’s continued engagement with Odisha and the social fabric. 'Utkala Deepika' the then leading newspaper of Odisha and Odias highlighted: "Mahatma Gandhi now stands higher and higher having scored a triumph which was seldom attained by any Indian politician". Orissa has accepted the principle of non-violent non-cooperation ideology preached by Mahatma Gandhi". He contributed to the rekindling of political dynamics in the state which subsequently lent Odisha, the national platform. About his successful tours to Odisha, the government wires reported," In this land (Orissa) of Hindus, Mr. Gandhi was considered as an Avatar of the deity and a worker of miracles". In fact, the places where he halted and held meetings became places of pilgrimage. He was looked upon by many people as their saviour. The languishing Odisha got into the national bandwagon.
Front ranking women leaders of Odisha like Rama Devi. Sarala Devi, Malati Devi took the lead role in freedom movement, under the guidance of Gandhi. This resulted in mass awakening of women in Odisha and helped them come out of many restrictive and oppressive systems in the Odia society.
Not to mention, Biju babu, the creator of modern Odisha was greatly influenced by Gandhiji and his early life was majorly modelled under the indelible impact of the Mahatma, the Father of our nation.