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Sher-e-Kali Kumaon (The Tiger of Kali Kumaon)

Portrait of Harsh Dev Oli

Harsh Dev Oli was a journalist and renowned Kumaon Mandal freedom fighter during the Indian independence movement. Referred to as the Mussolini of Kumaon for the respect he commanded, Harsh Dev Oli was also popularly called the Sher-e-Kali Kumaon (The Tiger of Kali Kumaon) for his fearlessness and leadership skills. Born in 1890 in the village of Goshni, Khetikhan Champawat (in present-day Uttarakhand), Oli completed his early education at the local village school. However, he lost his father at the age of 11, and after that, he shifted to the Mayawati Ashram. While he was at the Ashram, he worked for the publication Prabuddha Bharat (Enlightened India), which was published by Swami Vivekananda. To study further, he eventually moved to Ramsay College in Almora.

The Partition of Bengal and the Swadeshi Movement had a profound impact on Harsh Dev Oli. He left college to join the nationalist movements that were spreading across the country. He continued writing, as journalism was his full-time profession. In 1914, he was appointed the Manager of the ITD Press. His first meeting with Motilal Nehru in 1916, at the Lucknow session of the Congress, got him more involved with the ongoing freedom struggle. On 05 February 1919, when Motilal Nehru started the publication of the English newspaper ‘Independent’, he made Harsh Dev Oli its Deputy Editor. In 1923, Oli moved to the Princely State of Nabha with Motilal Nehru. There, he was chosen as Raja Ripudaman Singh's advisor. Oli worked very hard to support Raja Ripudaman Singh and his nationalist agenda. It was while he was working here, that he and Jawaharlal Nehru were arrested on the charges that they were working to help Raja Ripudaman Singh oppose British rule.

After his release from jail, Oli left the Nabha State to join the Jungle Movement in Kumaon. From 1923 to 1930, Oli travelled all over Kumaon to promote the ideals of Swadeshi. He reached out to the public and spoke about the exploitative practices of the British administration. The Salt Satyagraha Movement in 1930 was getting a lot of attention. By that time, Harsh Dev Oli's popularity was such that the public was willing to give up everything just to see him. It is said that on 09 August 1930, when he arrived at the Devidhura fair, there were huge crowds to welcome him and hear him speak. He fearlessly denounced the British government in his address. Though he was so vocal in his opinions, the authorities could not arrest him as they feared the public’s reaction.

Harsh Dev Oli (2nd from right) statue at Indra Park in Khetikhan

Finally, on 12 August 1930, the police raided his home and detained him. In Kali Kumaon, this news spread like wildfire. To show their resentment, a crowd of nearly 30,000 people armed with firearms besieged the Tehsil office. Oli was then given a reduced six-month sentence of solitary confinement. It was only after the Gandhi-Irwin deal was signed in March 1931, wherein Gandhiji pledged to give up the satyagraha campaign, and Lord Irwin agreed to release those who had been imprisoned during it, that Oli was set free. However, in 1932, Oli was fined and incarcerated again for six months during the Civil Disobedience Movement.

In addition to his efforts in India’s fight for freedom, Harsh Dev Oli was also known for taking the initiative to help eradicate the social ills that existed. For instance, since people of the Nayak caste used to force their daughters into prostitution in the villages of Lelu, Chaupakhia, Sinchod, Naini, and Kali Kumaon in Pithoragarh district, Oli began a public awareness campaign with Narayan Swami. They were successful in getting the Nayak Practice Prevention Act of 1934 passed.

Though there are very few monuments to commemorate the untiring efforts of Harsh Dev Oli in India’s freedom struggle, a Fighter Park exists in his honour in Khetikhan. He died on 05 June 1940, in Nainital.