The Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra is at the very heart of India’s dangerous ‘Red Zone’ of Naxal insurgency. Located on Maharashtra’s border adjoining Bastar in Chhatisgarh, it only makes news due to the Naxal attacks on security forces. It is from the deep jungles of Gadchiroli, that LHI contributor, Amit Bhagat brings to you the story of Sama Veladi, a Madia-Gond tribal who was conferred the Albert Medal, the highest gallantry award under the imperial British Empire.
You often hear of rags to riches stories & legends from the past. But how often do you hear of an ordinary villager, a vulnerable tribal at that, to rise up the social ladder and be ultimately awarded the Albert Medal, the highest gallantry award under the imperial British Empire? Sama Veladi is, till today, the only tribal to ever win the highest peacetime bravery award under the Imperial British Empire. Interestingly, every single major newspaper in Britain covered and lauded his act of bravery in 1925. I chanced upon his extraordinary story quiet by accident.
On moving to Mumbai from Chandrapur in January 2019, I couldn’t help myself but keep thinking about the city which was my home for over 4 long years. As a history lover, I kept searching for all available historic records about this city, which was once known as ‘Chanda’, a kingdom ruled by a tribal Gond dynasty uninterruptedly for almost 5 centuries! Sadly and quiet surprising, very few records exist of the Gond or the Maratha rule in this region, which made me turn to the British records.
My search to uncover Chandrapur’s history led me to forage through the documents available on British Library, East India Company records, the vast records at the India Office and contemporary newspapers and magazines like the Guardian, the Illustrated Weekly and the London Gazette.
One fine morning, while going through the online archives of the London Gazette, I stumbled upon a news report dated 25th June 1925, that made me sit-up and take notice.
It was about the conferment of the prestigious Albert Medal to a Madia Gond tribal named ‘Sama Veladi’ from Chanda (Chandrapur), for gallantry shown in saving the life of a British forest officer named H.S George, from a man-eater tiger. It mentioned that the award had been conferred by no less than the British King-Emperor - George V!
Surprised and intrigued by this report, I decided to dig in deeper. The Albert Medal for Lifesaving was the highest award bestowed on those who risked their lives in saving or endeavoring to save the lives of others, in peacetime. First instituted by Royal Warrant on 7 March 1866, the medal was named after Prince Albert, the king and the beloved husband (consort) of Queen Victoria.
I only had two clues to dig deeper into the story, first the name of the tribal hero as ‘Veladi Sammai’ and second, the place of attack was the jungle near a village called Murwai in Chandra district. It was no easy task, putting the pieces together considering that the incident occurred around 95 years ago and at least 1000 km away.
The original ‘Chanda’ district of the British ruled ‘Central Provinces’ has now been divided into two districts – Chandrapur and Gadchiroli of Maharashtra state. I first began with making a list of the 3800 villages in these two districts. There was no village with the name of ‘Murwai’, though I could see a number of villages named similarly such as Morawahi, Murmadi, Mudewahi, etc. I even sent a friend to Morawahi village (Near Baba Amte’s Somnath Project in Tadoba tiger reserve’s buffer zone) in Chandrapur, but he too could find no clues there. Even the district authorities and forest Officials who I contacted were of little help.
In the course of my research, I came across the name of a retired IFS officer Shri V T Patki who served as the Deputy Conservator of Forest of the Allapalli division of Chandrapur district in 1978-80. He offered me a first big clue- he had heard of a village named after the Forest officer saved by Sama Veladi, Mr. H S George named Georgepetha!
I scouted for the village on the map and found that there indeed was a place called ‘Jarjpetha’, a nearby village of Mudewahi located deep inside the Sironcha tehsil of Chandrapur district. Today, the region is Naxal infested and forms part of the extensive Red Corridor of India. I set on course to traverse more than 1100 kilometres from Mumbai to reach one step closer in my search for Sama Veladi.
After a long and arduous 26 hour journey, I somehow managed to reach the Range Forest Office of the Bamani range. Before proceeding to that village, I arranged for a local interpreter since the Madia Gond, the major tribal group of the region, spoke a dialect of Telugu and Madia alone. Thankfully, a forester too volunteered to accompany me.
On reaching the Mudewahi village, I was quite astonished to meet the grandchildren of Sama Veladi. Overcoming their initial reservations, the family became extremely friendly and helpful. They brought out their most prized possession, for which I had travelled so far - The prized Albert Medal, an accompanying Charter gifting him 45 acres of land, a Silver belt, a silver armlet with his name inscribed on it.
Linga, the grandson of Sama, is now the Sarpanch of Mudewahi. He took me to the place where the Tiger attack on the English officer had taken place, around 5 km away. It wasn’t an easy trek. A sense of fear accompanied by silence dawns on you as you make way across the dry deciduous forests, the mood of silence only being broken by the crunching sound of boots stomping on dry leaves. It didn’t help that Linga began recounting the stories of Tiger attacks in the area.
Slowly, I was able to piece together what had taken place on that fateful morning of 9th November 1924. H S George, Indian Forest Service Officer, the then deputy Conservator of Forest of South Chanda (Now Sironcha tehsil of Gadchiroli District, Maharashtra), had arrived in Bejurpalli as he was on his way to a town named Parsewada. Even today, the 15 km journey from Bejurpalli to Parsewada, continues to be a treacherous journey through these dense forests where tigers, leopards and bears rule supreme. Aware of the dangers ahead, the Village headman asked Sama Veladi to accompany him as a guide.
To cut the travel time, George, with his 12 bore shotgun beside him and Sama ventured through the forest, leaving the bullock cart on the longer cart path. However, as fate would have it, they had walked little ahead, when an enormous man-eating tiger sprang upon George from behind, grabbed his neck, and started dragging him into the forest. Summoning all his courage, George screamed for help.
Sama Veladi attempted to use George’s gun but was unable to discharge the weapon owing to its safety catch. As the tiger began to get even more violent, he clubbed the gun & beat the tiger with the stock of the gun over the head until the tiger let go of George’s throat.
The Tiger left George in a pool of blood and charged at Sama who could only defend himself with the butt of the gun. As Tiger took hold of the gun in his jaws, the teeth marks of the man-eater were found to be eight inches up the barrel of the gun! After a terrific struggle, the Tiger retreated back into the forest.
George rose only to be suddenly dropped right into Sama's arms as he collapsed. He was bleeding freely from his wound in the neck made by the 4 canine teeth, two on each side of the neck, about four inches apart.
However, the nightmare was not over for them. The tiger guided by its spectacular sense of smell of blood, continued to trail the two of them as they made their way back to camp. Sama had no other option but to lift the sturdy George over his shoulder and make the run towards the nearest British camp of ‘Mudewahi’, some 4kms away. It was a treacherous journey that needed him to cross the steep ridges and navigate the uncertain streams as quickly as possible. All while being in the hot pursuit of a blood thirsty tiger.
Sama with George on his shoulders staggered back to camp at Mudewahi where he was well attended to. George was afterward taken into Chanda, and when sufficiently recovered to undertake the journey, was brought into the Mayo Hospital, Nagpur, where he was well cared for and ultimately made a good recovery.
In recognition of his gallantry in saving the life of Mr. George. the British government announced that Sama Veladi would be conferred the ‘Albert Medal for Lifesaving’, the highest award for gallantry in the British empire during peacetime. Sama Veladi was one of the only two Indian civilians who ever won this award, the other one being a boatman named Gharib Shah, who saved 45 passengers from drowning in river Yamuna in 1914.
Since he could not travel to London to receive the award, hence it was decided to call him at Nagpur, headquarter of Central province, where the Governor of Central Province, Sir Montagu Butler, conferred the award on him. Apparently, just before the ceremony, there was minor flutter at the Governor’s House in Nagpur, as Sama Veladi had shown up wearing only his loincloth.
Ironically, Sama Veladi was treated quite shabbily after independence. The fertile silt land along the riverside, conferred upon him was washed through continuous erosion of the banks of the floods of Pranhita river in the 1950s and 60s. The family is still fighting for compensation.
Sama Veladi passed away in 1968. Sama’s eldest son Joga, now an old man in his seventies, took me to the place where Sama’s memorial stone (Menhir) stands erect. Toddy (natural alcohol from palm trees) being a favorite drink of Sama, a large bamboo bottle used for carrying toddy was kept hanging from his memorial stone. His family regularly pays tribute to him on every auspicious occasion. As per tribal customs of ancestor worship, they also offer the first grains of their harvest every year to his Memorial stone.
I returned to Mumbai happy, that I was able to uncover the story of this brave Madia-Gond hero, whose story has been lost in the Naxal infested forests of Gadchiroli.
Cover Image: Rear of the Albert Medal
Amit Bhagat is an independent researcher. He is currently working on the Megalithic and Stone Age culture of the Vidarbha region in Maharashtra.