The fight for Indian Independence has generally been projected as being male dominated, with focus on well known male leaders purportedly fighting for India’s freedom. However, that has not always been the case, and in some recent studies it has been clearly seen that how women once inspired by various revolutionary leaders played active roles on their own, and how many of them were direct participants in the nationalistic revolutionary activities that took place in Bengal, Punjab, and Maharashtra.
Besides being directly involved, women also provided a large motivational support system by helping to hide, and carrying secret messages and weapons for the men fighting the war. Unfortunately for us, we will never know their names or see them in the lists of those who fought for our freedom. More often than not these women came from poor or the middle class segment of the society, and the help they provided arose from their love for the nation and did not wait for any kind of social approval. Like the direct participants these supporting women also remain in oblivion with almost zero acknowledgement.
With little idea of the growing women participation among most of the nationalist leaders of those times, Gandhi himself gave a confusing perspective of what a women’s role should be in this fight for freedom. His statement that women should be both active and passive was almost meaningless, and while claiming men and women to be both equal, he also preferred women as mistress of the home and men as wage earners; thus, indirectly appealing to the women to be self sacrificing and adopt peaceful means of waging the war, where the woman’s attention and priority would always be her family before the nation.
Thus, in the ‘Gandhian freedom fight’ women would always remain in the background, focus on family and forging kinship bonds, and remain within patriarchal lines. However, luckily for India many women from Bengal, Punjab, and Maharashtra did not adhere to such logic, and took both direct and indirect part in the fight. This article will take a brief look at three such women from Bengal who had taken direct part in India’s fight for freedom.
Bina Das was the daughter of Beni Madhab Das (a teacher), and Sarala Devi (a social worker). After completing school she became a part of the Chattri Sangha, which trained young women revolutionaries in arms and driving. These trainees lived in an ashram run by Bina’s mother Sarala devi, where weapons and bombs would be hidden to avoid police inspection.
Carrying a gun supplied to her by Kamala Das Gupta, this 21 year old girl on 6th February 1932 walked into the Calcutta University during a convocation program and fired shots at the Governor Stanley Jackson. As Jackson managed to avoid the shots, the VC Hassan Suhrawardy jumped into action and overpowered her, but she kept firing shots as long as her ammunition lasted.
Bina Das was caught, interrogated where she revealed no names of her accomplices, and sentenced to 9 years of rigorous imprisonment. Even after her release she did not lose her resolve and took part in the Quit India movement, and her fight against the British continued until Indian independence. Unfortunately for India this firebrand revolutionary died an ignominious death.
As Prof Satyavrata Ghosh wrote in an article, “She ended her life by the roadside. The dead body was in a partially decomposed state. It was found by the passing crowd. The police were informed, and it took them a month to determine her identity. It was in independent India for which the once-acclaimed Agni Kanya had staked her everything. Now lay her dead body there unknown, unwept and unsung. The nation should remember this somewhat poignant story, even though late and salute her, the great lady.”
Born in Dhalghat village (now in Bangladesh), this Agni Kanya was the headmistress of a school, when she first got in touch with Surya Sen, the well known freedom fighter from Bengal, also called as Masterda. As she was accepted in the underground force, Pritilata became one of the main conspirators of the famous Chittagong loot, and it was her perfect planning that helped Master Da and his group to successfully loot the Chittagong police armoury and escape as the British looked on helplessly.
However, retaliation by the British forces came soon and there was a heavy backlash against the freedom fighters who were traced to the Jalalabad hills near Chittagong. Several thousand of armed British forces were deployed and 12 of the freedom fighters (mostly teenagers) were killed in the gunfight, while others including Masterda managed to escape.
It was again Pritilata, who was in charge of arming the revolutionaries during this bloody gunfight. In 1932 Masterda and Pritilata decided to avenge this Jalalabad massacre by burning down the Paharatoli European club as it carried the signboard, ‘Dogs and Indians are not allowed.’ The club was torched but the British were quick to retaliate, and after an intense chase Pritilata and her group were surrounded.
Realizing that there was no route to escape she thought of a plan that would help her fellow members to escape and she created a diversion for them. Then remaining true to her love for her country she swallowed a cyanide pill and committed suicide, rather than allowing herself to be captured by the British forces. She was only 21 when she chose death for her country.
A member of the Chattri Sangha and a part of the Pritilata Wadderdar’s Chittagong uprising, Kalpana Dutta was another member of MasterDa’s revolutionary team who decided to carry on the work of Pritilata who had given up her life. She was a part of both the armoury loot, and the first attempt at torching the Pahartoli club, which led to the death of Pritilata.
As she and Masterda made a second attempt, they failed as the British were better prepared this time. Kalpana managed to escape,and even when the British finally managed to capture MasterDa in 1933, Kalpana escaped initially but was arrested three months later, and sentenced to life for taking part in the Chittagong Armoury Loot. She was released six years later, and after independence preferred a quiet existence with her family. She died in 1995.
The nationalist movement of the 19th century opened up a new dimension for the Indian women who had previously remain secluded performing their traditional roles as mothers and wives. Patriotism and Politics combined together provided the women a chance to take active part in the freedom fight and also work for various social reforms. The women, long isolated and living under patriarchal norms in most cases, finally broke the shackles and came out in large numbers to work collectively for a British free India.