Veer Narayan Singh (1795-1857) is remembered today as a great freedom fighter of Chattisgarh and India who sacrificed his life fighting colonial rulers. A huge cricket stadium has been named after him in Chattisgarh, and this provides a convenient identity point with him to the youth. However there is more to his valiant life that we need to know and remember, in particular his combination of great courage and concern for his people.
When as a reporter I was covering the struggles of the movements led by or associated with the legendary labour leader Shankar Guha Niyogi (who was assassinated in 1991) I often came across the name of Veer Narayan Singh in the revolutionary songs composed by the labour and peasant movements. This aroused my curiosity and I tried to know more about him.
From what information I could gather, Veer Narayan Singh belonged to a different kind of valiant feudal family whose members were very close to their people including tribal communities of Chattisgarh, particularly in the Sonakhan and Balod areas now known more in the context of mining activities. Even the father of Veer Narayan was known to have entered into confrontation with the British for protecting the interests of his people. Young Veer had similar tendencies, combined with even more courage. Legend has it that when a tiger turned into a man-eater, he confronted and killed the animal. People of Chattisgarh know how to honour the brave, and Veer was very popular among his people.
When after the death of his father, at the age of 35 years Veer inherited his feudal legacy, he wanted to do more for his people but he had to be careful as his pro-people leanings were disliked not just by the British but other feudals of the region as well. Matters came to a head in 1856 in the middle of a worsening famine situation and increasing discontent of the people in the region as well as the country.
Veer Narayan was determined that he will not allow his people to die of hunger as long as he could help it. There was indeed a huge shortage of foodgrains particularly rice but a big trader still had plentiful stocks. Veer Narayan first pleaded with him to provide this grain and he would be compensated for this over a period of time. But the trader aimed to profit more from his stocks in a period of growing scarcity of grain, so he refused. Veer Narayan then simply seized his stocks and distributed the grain among the hungry people.
The trader went running to the British to complain, and it so happened tht the British officials led by one Smith were waiting just for a pretext to go after Veer. With the support of other feudals, they arrested and imprisoned Veer. But Veer had great support of people which also extended to several soldiers and guards. In any case strong feelings of a big revolt were spreading all over the country. Despite being heavily guarded Veer Narayan managed to escape from prison.
Then in extremely difficult conditions he mobilised an army of about 500 soldiers who gathered in hilly terrain and gave a very tough time to the British army. We must remember that by this time Veer was already about 62 years old and following the rigours of jail life he must have been experiencing difficult health conditions. Still there are stories about him fighting very bravely and moving very quickly on his legendary horse from one place to another.
If only other feudals had not sided with the British, Veer could have been assured of much greater success. But because of the help extended by other feudals to the British, the task of Veer was becoming more difficult. It was also very painful for him that while searching for him the British used to inflict a lot of atrocities on his people to learn about his whereabouts. Some people believe that this suffering of people had pained him so much that he even thought of allowing himself to be captured.
Anyway the brave resistance could not last for too long against the much bigger strength of colonial forces and their allies. Finally Veer was arrested and imprisoned in Raipur.He was hanged to death in December 1857 spreading great distress among his people.
His brave resistance and in particular the combination of courage and compassion which led him to seize and distribute grain stocks among hungry people, knowing fully that this will lead inevitably to a bigger confrontation with the colonial rulers, are still remembered by people and will never be forgotten. At a time when several hundred thousand people used to die in famines without suitable steps being taken to reduce their distress, Veer Narayan Singh had the courage to immediately take control of the grain hoarded for profiteering to distribute it immediately among the people who needed this food the most. This is why the workers, miners and peasants who marched under the green-red flag of the Niyogi led unions equated Shaheed Veer Narayan Singh with the all-India hero Shaheed Bhagat Singh and sang— from Veer Narayan Singh to Shaheed Bhagat Singh—we all are one, we all are united.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include When the Two Streams Met ( Freedom Movement) and Azadi ke Deewanon Ki Daastaan( Hindi).