The Enigma That Was Bansidhar Mishra Aka Surat Alley

In the forgotten pages of days gone by, are many tales & stories worthy of a mention-yet many of which have got lost among many other popular narratives. One such story which stands out among many of its contemporaries is the enigmatic life of a revolutionary & social activist Sri Bansidhar Mishra (aka- Surat Alley). His is a story of two identities & a myriad life experiences. He was a brilliant mind with fluency in multiple languages as well as a great flair for Mathematics. His is a life inspired by the Bhagavad Gita, Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Utkalamani Gopabandhu, Pandit Nilakantha, MasterDa Surya Sen, Gandhiji. He was an intellectually brilliant mind with great foresightedness & a huge panache for adventure, risk-taking, & living-on-the-edge spirit. Who was this enigma? To know more about him, here is an informative article sent by the esteemed Shri Niranjan Mishra from Sudbury, Canada.


Banshidhar Mishra was born in the village Khandasahi, not far from my village Raisungra in Salepur area. Khandasahi was known as the education capital of our area (Salepur); the village produced great scientists, lawyers, physicians & politicians. To name a few, they included Professor Brahmanand Mishra (Physics), Dr. Satyabadi Mishra (Physician), Dr, Brajabandu Mishra (Ayurvedic Doctor), Dr. Surendra Nath Dwivedy (Independence movement and politics): many of their descendants are well educated and well established around the globe.

Bansidhara spent his early school days in his village, and later went to study at the Ravenshaw Collegiate school in Cuttack for further studies. From his young age he had the inherent qualities of voicing out against injustices; he got rusticated from his school because of his protesting against the British teacher’s unfairness to students. He went on to complete his schooling at the Ramakrishna Mission School in Cuttack , while boarding at the Ramakrishna Kutira. During this, he came in contact with a guru from SriRamkrishna Matha, Calcutta, and got inspired to lead & dedicate his life to the principle of ‘service over self’ and community service.

Banshidhar, after matriculation with a First Class, joined the Ravenshaw College; while studying for his B.SC. degree, he started an independent business - an aluminum (dekchi) store called ‘Mishra Store’ in Cuttack. Simultaneously, he started publishing a journal “Yuvak”(the youth). His editorials were strongly worded; and indicated elements of socialism, and struggle for independence from the British Raj. The contents published by him were perceived as rebellious by the British administration, and he was put under surveillance. Only three issues were published before the magazine went into oblivion and brought him financial disaster. Unfortunately, both his ventures- the Dekchi store & the publication were not successful!

During his visits to Calcutta for business purposes, he had made close association with political leaders & freedom fighters & during his trips as the general secretary of the Congress regional committee, he had gotten inspired by the ideals of MasterDa Surjya Sen.

During his student life he was highly motivated to join the cause of India’s freedom struggle. He printed & distributed pamphlets, did strikes, burnt foreign clothes, even took the Union Jack off the collectorate & burnt it (for which arrest warrants were issued), and many other activities related to the struggle.

Between 1925-1927, an Ashram ‘Nirvaya Nilaya’ (which had been named by Bansidhara) was estd. at Raisunguda by a group of nationalist youths. The students here were taught about Gandhian teachings, spinning yarn & khadi clothes, and other nationalist as well as social ideals. Ganapati Vidyalaya- a school for Harijan kids was also started by Bansidhara where he taught these kids simple Maths and reading.He also treated patients around that region by self-teaching himself the science of Homeopathy.

Those were also the formative days of the Congress Party in Orissa, and because of his deep respect for Utkalamani Gopabandhu, Bansidhara had joined the Congress regional committee in 1924, and later worked as its General Secretary between 1925-1928.

After some incidents of rebellion against the British Raj and multiple arrest warrants against him, Bansidhara understood that an arrest & ‘Kalapani’ might be imminent for him; so, hetook the decision of leaving his home & family in 1928. He moved on to Bengal undetected, and for some time worked with Masterda Surjya Sen’s group.

Surat Ali / Surat Alley- a new alias & a new life:

After the unfortunate Chittagong incident of 1930 where Masterda and his group were captured & persecuted in 1934, Bansidhara somehow managed to move on to Burma with an alias of Ibrahim Khan. During his days in Burma, while ferrying, hawkering, and working on ships, he took on a new alias- that of Surat Ali / Surat Alley. (Such completely different identities were based on his association with the ‘Lascar’ seamen most of whom were Muslims, while his time in Chattagram/Chittagong, Bengal)

While in Burma, he hawkered used clothes, and sweets made by him -like’Jalebi’ & ‘Malpua’- in the streets & door-to-door. He also worked for a short while as a cook in some Burmese family homes; he had to leave that job and move on in fear of his alias being blown (it so happened that one time after seeing the tuition master teaching wrong mathematics to the child of the house, he had correctly taught it to the child later, and when the parents came to know they had suspicions about how could a poor Muslim cook be that brainy!!)

From Burma he moved on to Singapore; worked as a lascar and made several trips between Singapore, Ceylon, USA, Japan, England etc. Simultaneously, he formed the ‘Indian Seamen’s Association’ for the welfare & betterment of his fellow sailors. During one such assignment, he got a chance to feature for a sailor’s role in a movie that was being shot around Panama Canal & Suez Canal by a Ceylonese movie company. Eventually, he moved on to England to live & work in a shipyard community, mainly a community of (East) Indian laborers & sailors, where he continued his alias of Surat Ali. He saw & experienced how terrible the living & working conditions were for thousands of sailors, ex-sailors, & working-class folks . Because of his passion for championing such social injustices, he incessantly worked for the betterment of such working class people from the various colonies of Britain, who had ended up living in London.

Apart from his social interests specific to lascars, he was very active politically as well. The Hindustani Social Club, an organization he had co-founded, committed to the social welfare of working-class Indians in Britain while parallely working so as to raise the consciousness among such working class people towards the struggle for Indian independence. Through this club, he helped organize a charity performance by Ram Gopal and his troupe at the Vaudeville Theater in December 1939. In1942, the Club hosted an ‘Indian Independence Day’ meeting, attended by Mulk Raj Anand as well as numerous well-known activists. He was also instrumental in the formation of the Oriental Film Artistes’ Union. He was involved with Swaraj House (which was actively working for the cause of Indian Freedom Struggle) and in 1943 he helped to set up the Federation of Indian Associations in Great Britain which brought together the middle-class members of Swaraj House with the working-class members of the Indian Workers’ Association.

From actors, to students, to the Sikh supporters of the revolutionary Udham Singh, Surat Alley interacted with a wide range of Indians, advising them of their rights and aiding them in their various campaigns for justice. Thus, Alley facilitated a productive interaction & exchange between Britons and South Asians within the political sphere.

He was under constant surveillance by the Scotland Yard because of his initiating & steering off many protests/strikes/rallies/uprisings, & also because of close association with revolutionaries fighting for the cause of India’s independence (e.g. Matlub Ali, Said Amir Shah, Sasadhar Sinha, Iqbal Singh, Akbar Ali Khan, Uddham Singh etc.), Shortly after Sardar Uddham Singh’s arrest in 1940, Alley’s lodgings were searched.

V.K. Krishna Menon once met him (in England) and highly complimented his works for Indians staying and working abroad. It is said that there was good friendship between Reroze Gandhi and Surat Ali, and they exchanged many letters, Sucheta Kripalini knew him as Surat Ali from England and thus addressed him while meeting him in a general meeting in Cuttack in the 1950s; she complimented him on his efforts for social reforms in England and assistance to Indians abroad. Sociologist Suresh Vaidya, in grateful appreciation, dedicated his famous book “An outline of Socialism'' to Surat Ali.

India became independent in 1947 and things continued to progress in India. Once on a trip to London, Professor Brahmanda Mishra (from Ravenshaw College, Cuttack) got a chance to meet ‘Surat Alley’ and recognizing his real identity of Bansidhara told him of the plight of his estranged family he had left behind in his native village. (The fact that Surat Alley was just an alias, and that Bansidhara had a family back in his native place was not at all known to his close associates in England!)

Contacts with this estranged son of KhandaSahi was made through an exchange of letters & Odia books (by Gangadhar Meher and Upendra Bhanja which he was yearning for) by his brother- Advocate Srinivas Mishra of Cuttack.Thus, persuaded through letters and imploring words from home, he, with some hesitation, returned home after a self-exile of twenty-four years.During his absence, his wife had worked with Rama Devi, Malati Choudhury, & Rajkrishna Bose on many social fronts.

Return of the native (1951):

He left London and his life as Surat Alley, and returned home as Bansidhara to his family in Odisha after a long absence of around 24 years! His return home was received with great happiness by family & friends as he landed in Cuttack in 1951. The journey to his village Khandasahi was in a flower-decorated motor(motorized) launch. The villagers were very jubilant to welcome him back. Banshidhar was re-born!

Slowly, the English attire he used to wear were sold or exchanged, and Banshidhara started dressing up in a simple dhoti-chadar.

His eldest daughter Krishanballavii was married during his absence, and a second child (Sanghamitra) was born after his return home.

He realized that in all these years, his village still didn’t have a high school; so, he founded the ‘Jagannatha Vidyapitha’ and became a teacher for some years. Around the year 1959 due to disagreement with the school management, he opted to leave it and started tutoring on his own in the front yard of his home.

The last phase:

Banshidhar’s financial conditions slowly became difficult. He would not get government support that was available to political pensioners. Pressed by his wife and children, he-with hesitation- implored the Odisha and Central governments for assistance;but, he was not considered for any benefit.(He was never jailed and had no jail certificate to authenticate his political involvement as a freedom fighter!!) He couldn’t have an interview with any of his old-time colleagues nor current leaders. He became “yesterday’s hero” without any records of heroism.

But he still continued tutoring students and used to keep himself busy in community service and that too with meager self-sustenance. It was difficult for him to sustain; his mind was strong but health went down. Ignored or possibly neglected, he broke down; still he used to maintain his steadfastness and self-respect (swabhiman).

Emaciated, depressed, and with a feeling of being neglected, he gradually became immobile and bed-ridden. He passed away in 1988 after six long years of sickness. He was 87.


From Shri Niranjan Mishra:

I have an interest in writing stories & anecdotes relating to common people from my village whose stories should not be forgotten; about the Arts & Heritage of Odisha; rituals, festivities & folklores of Odisha- some of which face a cultural decline and possible extinction in the coming times.

The life & legacy of Shri Banshidhar Mishra of KhandaSahi has been almost forgotten in our region; we admired his courage & adventures in our childhood days, and unless spoken or written- his life’s journey so tumultuous and untrodden- might be forgotten.

It was sometime in 1955, I chanced upon a wooden sinduka (shipping box) on the verandah of Late UdayaNath Rath of Rajabagicha, Cuttack and curiously looked at it . The name written on the box was of a ‘Banshidhar Mishra’ and it had been shipped from England. Few years later, when I was contemplating transferring to Jagannath Vidyapitha of KhandaSahi, I heard that the school has an England-educated teacher who teaches Mathematics & English very passionately and does so without any remuneration. I was tempted to get a transfer to that school and study under him, but it didn’t materialize. Later, during one of my visits to KhandaSahi, I saw this dhoti-clad gentleman from England tutoring local students for free in his front yard.

Little did I know then that this gentleman had an absolutely unbelievable & unheard of adventurous life and had been a ‘biplabi’ (revolutionary) with an eventful life. Very few of us knew of his arduous journey in life.

While casually mentioning his life history to Sumitra Nani (Mrs. Sumitra Padhi of Burlington, Ontario - the granddaughter of Pandit Nilakantha Das) who addressed him as ‘Banshi-jeje’, I was encouraged by her to write some memoirs.

I have put together anecdotes and elements of his elusive & daring but undaunted life in India’s pre-and post independence era.

REFERENCES:Various Sources

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