ROLE OF THE WOMEN FREEDOM FIGHTERS
The incitation, enthusiasm, self-sacrifice and the mental set up of the Indian women for acceptance of danger have a glorious chapter in the history of Indian freedom-movement. The promptness, with which the Indian women had stepped forward from the safe and secluded life behind the ‘pardah' to the turmoil of the noisy world outside, is a most remarkable phenomenon in India . The Indian women, who were well-known for their inborn timidity and shyness, cast off their long-cherished conceptions and came forward at the call of the nation, to embrace the hard and pitiless lives of prison. Even the Home Secretary of the British Government had to confess that nothing had disturbed him, more than the great awakening among the Indian women and the part played by them in Indian politics. The enthusiasm of the women made the British Officials also afraid; and this is proved from the secret report of Mr. Clarke, the Commissioner of Calcutta Police. A portion of the report is reproduced below.
‘Bhagini Sena’ - 1940
“The lady volunteers use to set out in public road everyday and they pick up male volunteers and other enthusiastic on the way ... The procession as it moves slowly along, augments in size until about three or four hundred persons are moving in a body. Traffic being hindered and often entirely blocked... If no steps are taken now it is inevitable that the movement will be encouraged and grow and the inevitable will happen, that is there is bound, sooner or later to be a collision between these parties of feminine agitators and the subordinate police”.
Police trying to through Susila Samanta’s only son into fire – But she didn’t reveal the hideout of the freedom fighters.
In the circumstances the Chief Secretary to the Government of Bengal wrote a letter to the commissioners of all divisions. A portion of the letter:
“One particular problem has arisen recently which is difficult of solution and about which Government would desire to have the advice of commissioners, viz. and the problem of how to deal with women who are taking an increasing part in public demonstrations on behalf of Civil Disobedience. The problem is how to maintain law and order and freedom of movement in public places... It is obvious that Government cannot allow Government business to be brought to a standstill and Courts and Treasuries to be closed merely because the force used for obstruction consists of women instead of men. I shall be glad if you will consult Indian Officers and non-officials and suggest any measures for general use in dealing with this problem”
Patriotic show of Mukunda Das – Women’s are breaking their bangles and throwing. – “rejection of ‘reshmi churi’ (bangles)”
The Karachi Congress in March, 1931 specially congratulated the women of India “That rose in their thousands and assisted the nation in the struggle for freedom”.
The consciousness of the women in the whole of India took a unique shape and the women of Midnapore did not lag behind. Rani Siromani of Karnagar of Midnapore Police Station area had already earned the glory of being the first lady prisoner for lading the Chuar Rebellion in 1794. Again in 1781 Rani Krishnapriya of Tamluk had shown the courage to contest the English East India Company in order to protect her rights. So no wonder that women in general of Midnapore would come forward during the freedom- movement, when their services were considered to be essential. Imperfectly educated women of Midnapore, even women not related to letters plunged into the movement, and soul. They became the source of unyielding power and constant source of energy and inspiration behind the resistance movement. Though engaged deeply in household works, the women of Midnapore furthered the great national work in various ways. They were the primary source of energy and they put manliness in the men and nerved them with strength and energy. Mothers and sisters encouraged their sons and brothers to serve the country; the wives, as the real partners of life, followed their husbands to the four walls of prisons.
1930 – Narghat, Salt-Satyagrah – Police torturing.
In the battle for freedom the contribution of the Midnapore women, starting from well-to-do to beggars was wonderful and praiseworthy. Even ladies belonging to socially outcaste community, like the professional prostitutes also helped the movement in many ways. They used to give shelters to the Congress volunteers in their bedrooms, feed them and nurse the injured workers. The distinguished Congress leaders of Midnapore had to confess that the hospitality of this class of women, their cordial behavior and their arrangements for food and lodging for the workers, irrespective of caste and creed, also helped indirectly in rooting out the curse of untouchability, At least partially. It also became possible for the villagers, during the Union Board Barjan Movement, to allow their metal vessels and other belongings to be seized or distrained solely due to the active support of the ladies. Again, during the No-Chowkidari-Tax Movement it would have been impossible for the male members of participant family to take the risk of their crops and granaries to be burnt, their houses plundered and their moveable properties to he seized, without the consent of the women. The role of traditionally home-centered village-ladies and girls in this resistance movement was actually incomparable. The housewives, daughters, mothers and sisters of even peasant householders became the partners of the male members in this movement. They even used to distribute Congress bulletins secretly and communicate secret news to the workers. They also helped the Congress organization even by collecting alms from door to door.
1945 - Mahisadal
These types of activities or any act of anybody that might be helpful to the freedom-fighters in any way, directly or indirectly, were considered to be unlawful and naturally they fell in the category of punishable offence. But the women did not hesitate to accept punishment including imprisonment. As a result, the number of women prisoners went on increasing rapidly. In Midapore district the rate of increase was so high that the prison authorities had to face the problem of space for accommodating the female prisoners.
1945, 27th December – Dr. Susila Nayar and Abha Ghandhi making report from 49 raped women (That barbaric incident took place on 9th January 1983.)
From the “Nihar” Patrika we come to know that— Due to increase in the number of female prisoners, the sub-jail attached to the Hijli Prison had to be converted to a female Prison.
But the way leading to the jail as well as the prison life itself was not at all smooth; it was invariably preceded by and followed by oppression of inhuman nature. But oppressions by the police and the jail-guards, sentences of imprisonment by the trying Magistrates and the hardships of prison life failed to dishearten them. On the contrary, their enthusiasm often surpassed that of men. They went on taking active part in picketings before shops, dealing in foreign goods and in this way preventing the shopkeepers from selling foreign clothes, liquors and other foreign goods. They marched shoulder to shoulder, with men in procession. They also conveyed prior information to the workers and volunteers of the surrounding areas by means of conch-shell signals, about the arrival of government forces.
1940 – Satyagrah by Lakshmimani Hazra (Kakima)
The deep feeling of love, affection, self-sacrifice and toleration of the women of Midnapore were the source of inspiration to the Congress volunteers. Their patience and efficiency of work, their power endurance and nursing capacity would remain ever bright in the memories of our countrymen who possess the least quantity of love for the freedom-fighters and who feel themselves indebted to those freedom-fighters for the fruits of their toil and sufferings.
1942, 29th September – 72 years old, Matangini Hazra marching towards Tamluk Court.
But this participation of the women of Midnapore in the political upheavel did not take place within a day or two. In the beginning the women could not make their public appearance neglecting the red-eyes of our male-dominated society. But the Congress leaders were careful and laborious about rousing the consciousness of the women. During the Non-cooperation Movement of 1920 to 1922, the male volunteers used to go personally to the ladies in their houses and keep them informed about the latest news on the progress of the movement. Subsequently most of the distinguished Congress leaders set an important precedence by bringing out the female members of their own families and engaging them in resistance movement. This had a stimulative effect on others, both male and female, and it paved the way for mass participation of women in the future years. Side by side processions and meetings were held everywhere to make the women conscious of the tense national situation and about their duties in such a situation. Importance was also given on introducing ‘Charka' (spinning wheel) and in order to make it attractive to the women, ‘Katuni Sanghas' were established in different places. Competitions were also used to be held among the women spinners and at the end of the competition prizes were awarded to the winners.
1942 – Prabhabati Maity leading a huge numbers of volunteers and hosting flag in front of Moyna Police Station (She was arrested after this incident)
In addition to these, distinguished ladies like Jyotirmoyee Ganguli, the Dictator of the Bengal Provincial Congress Committee; Shantilata Das, wife of Humayun Kabir; Basanti Das, wife of Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das; Ashalata Das. Vice-President of Nari Satyagraha Samity of Calcutta and Sarala Devi Chowdhury, the founder of the Bharat Shree Mahamondal, the President of the Nikhil Bharat Samajik Mahasamity and the editor of the Bharati Patrika were invited to Midnapore for delivering speeches in different meetings in order to inspire the women. Other eloquent speakers like Dr. Pratap Chandra Guha Roy of Calcutta and Purushottam Nanda of Barisal enlightened the women of Midnapore in the principle of self-denial for the cause of the nation. Side by side, the famous, minstrel Mukunda Das travelled from village to village of Bengal singing his self-composed nationalistic and patriotic songs, which inspired the people, both men and women, to boycott everything foreign.
1942 – Midnight – Usha (Giribala) and Kumudini Dakua chasing police with daggers.
The demonstration of Magic Lanterns also played an important role in generating patriotic feelings in the minds of our people. This was first planned by Acharya Prufulla Chandra Roy and was subsequently implemented by Jnananjan Neogi. Various slides projecting the scenes of ships sailing from England to India loaded with refined salt, sugar, cloth, knives, scissors and other finished products and in their return journey carrying away materials like cotton and other ingredients from India with a view to greater production in their industries, were shown in order to apprise the people as to how the foreigners were enriching themselves at the cost of our countrymen. Slides showing savage repression, especially on village women, for their fault of preparing salt in their own soil were also shown. The sight of separation of right-hand thumbs of the world-famous Indian weavers, with a view to crush the handloom industry of our country and at the same time to open the Indian markets for foreign cloths horrified the viewers and filled their hearts with hatred and rage.
Village women’s attacking police
But side by side attempts were made to make the people self- reliant and self-supporting by projecting before them various remedial measures such as, use of handloom cloths made out of hand-spun threads, rejection of ‘reshmi churi' (bangles), sugar, liquor and other foreign goods. Stress was also laid on the preparation of molases and processing of red sugar at home and on the use of indigenous goods only.
The programme also included taking out of processions consisting of both men and women with saline water, utensils, fuel and match box in hands with the aim of preparing salt publicly. For salt manufacturing was declared by the British Governments as an illegal act.
Mobilisation of women in the resistance movement was also made through different articles, circulated through different bulletins. Most of these articles were based on the theme of—until and unless the vital principle of ‘Shakti', lying imprisoned in women, is not released, the great act of sacrifice will not attain perfection.
1931 – Mrs Hutait handing over theft police arm to freedom fighter Ramesh Bhattacharya.
The arrival of Mahatma Gandhi in Midnapore in September, 1921 and July, 1925 and his appeal to the women to come out of their homes and to take part in the movement, shoulder to shoulder with men, had great effect on them.
Moreover, the Congress with its ceaseless activities became something like a parallel government in Midnapore and the Congress leaders and volunteers could establish themselves as the true friends of the people. They could create an alternative concept of morality. As a result, participation in any movement organised by the Congress became like obedience to the properly constituted authority and its defiance was considered to be an illegal act. This idea became deep-rooted especially in the minds of the women and this new concept found its expression during the Civil Disobedience Movement, which marked a major advance in the emancipation of the women of Midnapore.
In this connection it is worth mentioning here that the cooperation and coordination of the women from 1920 to 1930 was an indirect one. In other words, they supported the movement and performed only those works which were found to be feasible:
but all from behind the ‘pardah' or curtain. But from 1930 onwards they began to take part in the movement openly by ignoring all sorts of social and customary prohibitions. The age-old pardah system was torn off and all sorts of social barriers were thrown away. And their participation gave this movement a new spirit and a new vigour and enhanced its speed.
During the Civil Disobedience Movement the women of Midnapore proved beyond doubt that they were always mentally prepared to undergo any kind of sufferings for the cause of our country and they were ready to take part in any movement standing side by side with their sons and brothers. Even, very often their counsel was considered to be of immense value. No wonder that at various levels the women held responsible positions in different committees.
As the resistance movement was gaining momentum day by day and as the numbers of women participants were increasing rapidly, the cruel police personnel also went on inventing new methods of torture for applying upon them. All sorts of filthy words were used to humiliate the ladies; merciless beating became a very common thing; very often women volunteers were carried by police lorries to distant places in the dead of night and were deserted, sometimes completely naked, in dense forests; modesty of women became an object to be trodden under feet by the police and cases of rape became very frequent. But neglecting all sorts of disgrace and humiliation the women of Midnapore joined the movement in large numbers in the Civil Disobedience, Salt-Satyagrah, No-tax, and Quit India Movement.
1930 – Police torturing on the procession.
As resistance and repression reached new heights the women became increasingly important as fully matured politic and active members in all such movements. In the face of barbarous persecution, assault, injury and physical humiliation the women did not loose their spirit, but on the contrary they added new strength and new vigour to the resistance movement active and actual partners of men.
It is worth mentioning here that had that movement been simply a political affair, there is every doubt as to whether it would have been possible for the women to join the movement so spontaneously. But their inherent desire to get rid of their domestic slavery and the shackles of the society prompted them to take part in the movement with the hope that in free India they will he free from their fetters. But at the same time they knew very well that the path they had chosen was thorny one and there was the possibility of meeting with dangers at every step. So, in order to save themselves from danger and distress, they used to keep ‘Banthi' or vegetable cutters always ready at hands. The members of the Bhagini Sena also distributed about ten thousand sharp daggers among the ladies of different villages and towns of Tamluk Subdivision in order to protect their chastity. The ‘Congress Prachar Barta' wrote as a mark of admiration:
“The means adopted by the women to protect their chastity from the hands of the ruffians are perfectly correct. Well done! the women of Midnapore.”
The remark of Pratima Asthana that “One time a class movement, it assumed the shape of mass movement, centering round greater participation of women of all shades in the national movement”°—also holds good in the case of struggle for freedom in Midnapore.
The struggle has ultimately come to an end and we are enjoying the fruits of the struggle, strain, tears and blood of thousands and thousands of unknown men and women freedom- fighters. But it is a pity that most of them have sunk into oblivion and the same fate is awaiting the rest of them.
Dr. Rina Pal