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Remembering Bengal’s Pritilata Waddedar on her death anniversary, who chose to die at 21 than being caught by British

Through her example, Pritilata Waddedar sent out a message to the women of Bengal that they can march shoulder to shoulder with men in liberating the country from the British.

History is replete with examples of valour, grit and determination exhibited by India’s freedom fighters against the British Raj. While some of them featured prominently in history textbooks, others never received their deserved recognition. Even freedom fighters, who put down their lives for their motherland, also disappeared into oblivion. Such has been the case of Bengal’s first female martyr, Pritilata Waddedar. She made the supreme sacrifice on this day (September 23), 89 years ago.

Born to Jagabandhu Waddedar and Pratibha Devi on May 5, 1911, in Chittagong (present-day Bangladesh), Pritilata Waddedar was a bright student since her childhood. Her father was a clerk at the Municipality Offices and barely managed to make ends meet. Despite financial difficulties, Jagabandhu Waddedar provided his daughter good education. “My hopes are bound up with you”, he would often tell Pritilata Waddedar. She exhibited signs of ‘striking intelligence’ as a student at the Khastagir girl’s school in Chittagong.

Pritilata completed her matriculation in 1927, followed by her Intermediate examinations in 1929. She had secured the first rank among all candidates from the Dhaka Board. She joined the Bethune College of Kolkata to pursue her bachelor’ degree in Philosophy. It was around that time when her father lost his job, leaving the family’s responsibility on the shoulders of Pritilata Waddedar. She continued to pursue her education but her degree was withheld by the British authorities. Her degree was later awarded posthumously on March 22, 2012, by the University of Calcutta.

Pritilata Waddedar and her entry into revolutionary organisations

After completing her Bachelors degree, she returned to Chittagong and became the Headmistress of a high school named Nandankaran Aparnacharan School. During her Intermediate at Eden College, Pritilata began taking a keen interest in revolutionary activities and had joined freedom fighter Lila Nag in Dipali Sangha. Bengal in the 1930s had shunned Gandhi’s idea of ‘non-violence.’ Revolutionary organisations, espousing armed struggle against the British regime, had gained centrestage in Bengal.

Pritilata Waddedar was introduced to Masterda Surya Sen and Nirmal Sen, by one of her revolutionary brothers. It was rare for women in those days to be accepted in revolutionary groups. Pritalata Waddedar was not only accepted but was trained in fighting and leading attacks. Her inclusion into the Dhalghat camp of the Jugantar group, run by Surya Sen himself, drew the ire of fellow revolutionary leader Binod Bihari Chowdhury. However, Sen understood that it would be easier for a woman to transport arms without raising suspicion.

Although her inclusion was initially meant to deceive the British authorities, Pritilata Waddedar soon rose the ranks in the group. During the Chittagong Armoury raid of April 18, 1930, Pritalata Waddedar was successful in destroying telephone lines, telegraph office. Besides Surya Sen, she was also inspired by revolutionary Ramakrishna Biswas. He was serving prison time in Alipore Central jail for killing rail officer Tarini Mukherjee mistakenly, although his target was the General Inspector of Police (Chittagong) Craig.

Pritilata Waddedar was firm in her resolve, willing to die for the motherland

Owing to her deception skills, she was able to meet Biswas in jail about 40 times without raising any suspicion. Pritilata Waddedar easily passed off as his elder sister. When Biswas was hanged to death in 1931 by the British authorities, the incident fuelled her revolutionary ideas even more. Freedom fighter Kalpana Dutta shared her experience with Pritilata Waddedar in her book, ‘Chittagong Armoury raiders : Reminiscences.’

Excerpt of the book

She narrated how Waddedar was reluctant to sacrifice a goat on Durga Puja, thereby making fellow revolutionaries question her ability at armed struggle. “Do you want to fight for the country’s freedom too non-violently or what?”, Pritilata was asked. She replied, “When I am ready to give my own life for the country’s freedom, I won’t hesitate a bit in taking somebody’s life too if necessary.” The incident went on to show the resolve and the fire of patriotism that was burning in her heart.

The raid on Pahartali European Club

Pritilata Waddedar had a narrow escape when she went to meet Surya Sen on June 13, 1932. His hideout was surrounded by the British troops, leading to a confrontation. Although some revolutionaries were martyred, the duo managed to escape. The British authorities got alerted and they put her up on the list of ‘most wanted’ revolutionaries. Sen instructed Pritilata to remain underground for someone while the group hatched other plans. Masterda wanted to target a racist, white supremacist club named ‘Pahartali European Club’. The notice board outside the club read, ‘Dogs and Indians not allowed.’

The torched ‘Pahartali European Club’, image via Wikimedia

Revolutionaries, including Pritilata Waddedar, were tasked to conduct a raid and destroy the club on the fateful day of September 23, 1932. She was to lead a group of 40 people. Pritilata disguised herself as a Punjabi man while others wore shirts and lungis. The revolutionaries laid siege on the club at 10:45 pm and set it on fire. During the raid, one woman was killed while four other men were injured. The revolutionaries came under a counterattack from the police officials stationed inside the club.

Martyrdom and aftermath

Pritilata was injured by a bullet wound. To avoid being captured by the British, she consumed a pill of potassium cyanide. Her martyrdom at the tender age of 21 years sent waves of inspiration for other revolutionaries in Bengal. Kalpana Dutta recounted in her book how Surya Sen was against the idea of handing potassium cyanide capsules to Pritilata Waddedar.

Excerpt from book

“I don’t believe in suicide. But she forced potassium cyanide out of me when she came to bid her last farewell. She was so eager and argued so well about its need in case she was trapped. I could not hold out. I gave it to her,” Masterda narrated. The participation of Pritilata Wadedar and her eventual martyrdom, therefore, became crucial as the armed revolution was largely a men’s affair.

Excerpt from book

Through her example, she sent out a message to the women of Bengal that they can march shoulder to shoulder with men in liberating the country from the British. In her book, Kalpana Dutta recounted how the parents of Pritilata Waddedar were devasted at her loss. “People of Chittagong have not forgotten Preeti or her great sacrifice. They point out her father to any stranger and say, ‘He is the father of the first girl who gave her life for our country,” she concluded.

References: Dutt, K. (1945). Chittagong Armoury Raiders: Reminiscences. India: People’s Publishing House.

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Dibakar Dutta
Dibakar Dutta
Centre-Right. Political analyst. Assistant Editor @Opindia. Reach me at [email protected]

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