Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Agni Kanya: Preetilata Waddedar

Preetilata Waddedar
10.45 PM, September 24th 1932. Party was in full swing inside the Chittagong European Club. At the entrance of this club hung the infamous notice – Entry of Dogs and Indians Prohibited. Suddenly nightly quiet of the Chittagong Hills was shattered with the sound of gunfire and bombs. A small group of 7-8 Indian revolutionaries from Masterda Surya Sen’s Indian Republican Army (Chittagong Branch) attacked the Club with light fire arms and bombs. As some of the club members were also carrying arms, a gun battle ensued. When gunfire from inside stopped, revolutionaries felt their mission was accomplished and prepared to leave. All the revolutionaries were unhurt and they believed that a number of persons inside the Club were dead (though the official figure was one dead and seven injured). As they were leaving, their leader asked one of them to pour Potassium Cyanide in her mouth. Why did she commit suicide at the hour of victory is still not very clear – but thus ended the short life of Preetilata Waddedar, the only lady to have died fighting against the British since 1857. 
As Bengal gets busy in Shakti –aradhana this week, I thought it is time to pay tribute to a small group of Bengali girls, who did not hesitate to take up arms to free the motherland. Women played an important part in revolutionary movement right from the beginning – but that was more of a passive role, providing shelter, carrying pistol etc. A group of daredevil girls changed that picture in early 1930s – eight decades later they are all completely forgotten. Between 1857, when the valiant young Rani of Jhansi fought against the British and the early 1940s when young girl cadets of Rani Jhansi brigade of INA under Laxmi Swaminathan marched alongside their male colleagues through South-East Asia and Burma to India’s North-East, there were exactly three incidents of girls participating in armed operations against the British.
On December 14, 1931, two school girls – Shanti Ghosh and Suniti Choudhuri, belonging to the famous Jugantar group shot dead District Magistrate of Kumilla (now in Bangladesh), Mr CGB Stevens. Both the girls were just 14. They were caught, beaten up badly but spared the gallows because of their age. They were released after seven years in prison.
Beena Das
On 6th February, 1932, Beena Das fired 5 bullets at Bengal Governor Sir Stanley Jackson (also a former captain of England cricket team) in the convocation ceremony of Calcutta University but failed to hit him. Beena was sentenced to nine years of rigorous imprisonment. Shanti and Beena joined Gandhiji in Noakhali. Suniti finished her studies and became a medical doctor. There were so many others, who did not participate in any action but played key roles in organization – Leela Roy(Nag) was one such remarkable lady, who built Deepali Sangha and later on became a close associate of Netaji. A number of them left valuable autobiographical accounts (mostly in Bengali) but hardly anyone remembers that today. I remember reading a collection of their life stories as a young boy – the collection was perhaps edited by Kamala Dasgupta, herself a noted freedom fighter, but struggled to find any material in English [except one article in Manushi – Women in the Bengal Revolutionary Movement(1902-35), Sandip Bandopadhyay]

Leela Roy (Nag), founder of Deepali Sangha
But the most famous of them were two Chattogram girls – Kalpana Dutta and her one year senior Preetilata Waddedar. Masterda, who led a veritable armed insurrection against the British in Chattogram in 1930, had decided that the attack on the Club would be led by a girl as a sort of symbolic gesture. But Kalpana, who was marked for this role was caught by the police just two days before the planned attack, thus providing Preeti with this golden opportunity.
Preetilata Waddedar was born in a lower middle class family of Chattogram town – her father was a clerk in the local municipality. She did well in Dr Khastagir High School and then joined Eden College, Dhaka for IA. She also joined Deepali Sangha of Leela Roy in Dhaka. She stood first among girls and overall fifth in the IA exam. Her results fetched a scholarship for her and enabled her to join Bethune College in Calcutta for BA. In Calcutta too she maintained her close links with the revolutionaries. She was entrusted with an unusual job during this time – she was asked to go with a forged identity and meet Ramakrishna Biswas at Alipore Jail. Biswas was waiting to be hanged for murder of a high-ranking Bengali official. In a few months leading up to his hanging, Preetilata met Biswas around 40 times and he left a deep impression on her. After her exams she came back to Chattogram. She wanted to leave her family behind but was forced to take up a job instead to support her parents. She joined local Nandankanan Girls High School (now Aparnacharan Girls High School) as the head mistress. Once when she was staying at a safe house along with Masterda and Nirmal Sen, another senior leader of the group, police suddenly encircled them and a gunfight broke out. Though Masterda and Preetilata managed to escape, Nirmal Sen died in the fight. Within days they launched their attack on the Club.

Kalpana Dutta
Why did she commit suicide? Someone said she wanted to make a point that girls were not afraid to lay down their lives for the country. But a number of others believed that Preeti fell in love with first Ramakrishna Biswas and then Nirmal Sen and of course saw both of them dying – the emotional impact was perhaps too much to handle for the 21-year old girl. Her best friend and fellow revolutionary Kalpana, who was incinerated for a long time following her arrest, fell in love with another comrade Ramakrishna Dastidar. Ramakrishna was hanged alongside Surya Sen in 1934. But since Ramakrishna’s body was not handed over to the family, she kept on waiting for a long time, hoping someday Ramakrishna would be back. Later on Kalpana, then a member of Communist Party of India, married its former general secretary P C Joshi. Her daughter-in-law and well known political journalist Manini Chatterjee wrote a book on Chattogram revolutionaries a few years back – Do and Die.  A recent Bollywood movie based on the book Khele Hum Jee Jaan Se, starred Deepika Padukone (as Kalpana Dutta). No one had the time to celebrate Preetilata’s birth centenary earlier this year.

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