Surendra Sai was born in Khinda, about forty kilometers from Sambalpur on the 23rd of January 1809. The king of Sambalpur Maharaja Sai had died issueless. His widow, Maharani Mohan Kumari succeeded him with the support of the British. The queen was a pawn of the British and her administration and policies, especially those dealing with land revenue and which in fact were in agreement with the British, were met with severe opposition from the Gondi and Binjhal people, who are natives of the region. They revolted against her. Taking advantage of the unrest and using the very controversial Doctrine of Lapse policy, the British cunningly dethroned the queen and appointed Narayan Singh, an ageing and unfit descendent of the Chauhan dynasty as the king of Sambalpur.
The Zamindars and the common folk wanted their leader, Surendra Sai to be their king. He was a direct descendent of Madhukar Sai, the Chauhan King of Sambalpur and an able leader. Sai’s rightful claim to the throne was bluntly refuted by the British government as Sai was an independent thinker who could not be taken for a ride.
A rebellion broke out and the gallant warriors of Sambalpur gave a tough fight to the British. They valiantly fought against the British soldiers in Deheripali, on the foothills of Budharaja. Sai was captured and along with his uncle Balaram Sai and brother Uddant Sai was sent to Sambalpur prison and from there to Hazaribag jail in 1940. He spent seventeen years in Hazaribag until the sepoys released Sai and his brother during the first war of independence in 1857. Balaram Sai had died in prison.
The king Narayan Singh had died in 1849, while Sai was still in prison. Since he had no children, the British had taken over the control of Sambalpur using Doctrine of Lapse. Sai was now invincible. He was supported by brave warriors like the Zamindar of Ghens Madho Singh, Hatte Singh, Airi Singh, Bairi Singh, Kunjal Singh, Salegram Bariha, Uddant Sai and many others. They fought fiercely and used tactics that weakened the very backbone of the British. They severed the communication links of the rest of India with Sambalpur, to isolate the British in Sambalpur. Madho Singh along with his sons guarded the Singoda ghat from where the British could enter Sambalpur.
The British used all means and even brought its most able officers like Major Forster and Captain Smith to suppress the rebellion. Sai and his supporters were but invincible. Sambalpur was perhaps the only patch of land in the entire country where the rebellion was still in full force. It continued until 1862, when Major Impey, another officer took over and decided to solve the matter peacefully. He made sure Sai’s confiscated property is returned and convinced him to stop the rebellion. Sai was disillusioned and agreed to Impey’s proposal but the rebellion never stopped. After Impey’s death the British arrested Sai and his associates. He was sent to Asirgarh jail where he spent the last twenty years of his life. He breathed his last on 23rd May 1884, far away from his motherland at the age of 75. Thus came an end to an immortal life that lived and died for the motherland. It is noteworthy that even after Sai’s arrest, the rebellion continued in Sambalpur until 1864.
Sai finds an important place in popular literature of the land. The medical and engineering colleges in Burla are named after him. The stadium in Sambalpur and the airport in Jharsuguda are also named after him. The ‘Ulgulan’ memorial stands tall in the Budharaja hillock of Sambalpur commemorating the struggle of Surendra Sai and his associates. A proposal to erect the statue of Sai in the parliament complex has also been made. The people of Western Odisha hope to see that as a reality soon. In Sambalpur, the statue of Sai in Jail Chowk is an apt depiction of his valiance.
Surendra Sai started his struggle when he was about 18 years old and continued to fight till his last breath, for about 57 years. He fought to protect the rights of his people and the culture of the land. His patriotism and bravery is a source of inspiration for all.
The contribution of Sai and his associates in the freedom struggle is unmatched. But these brave sons of the soil are yet receive the recognition that they truly deserve. Their stories should find a way into our textbooks so that they inspire generations to come.