Books | A Matter of Choice

In memory of unsung tribal warriors. An extract

Tuhin A. Sinha

Growing up, Helen had two clear choices before her: one that would allow her to enjoy the newly evolved fast life of Kurseong, the hill station; the other which would mean treading the fiery path of the freedom struggle that could lead to having to give up basic comforts and face jail time or even death. Luckily for her, the commencement of the First World War in 1914 lifted the veil off the long-promoted belief that Western civilization was superior, advanced and to be desired. Instead, the fact that spinning, weaving and selling khadi could lead to economic independence found favour in her young mind.

The 14-year-old Helen found herself drawn to this bigger cause of freedom from the British, like many of her school-going friends. In 1916, after attending a Congress meeting in Kurseong, headed by Dal Bahadur Giri—the Darjeeling head of the Congress party—Helen became one of the first from her community to join the party, and, consequently, the freedom struggle. Quitting school, she joined the Khadi Movement started by Mahatma Gandhi. In 1918, she went to Calcutta, where her elder sister lived, and enrolled at the charkha training school run by Motimala Devi, the granddaughter of Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. Her dedication and deft skills at charkha-spinning and khadi-weaving impressed her instructors and in 1927, she was chosen to represent Calcutta at the national-level Khadi and Charkha Exhibition in Muzaffarpur in Bihar in 1927.

During the Bihar floods of 1920, Helen volunteered to do relief work and was praised for her selfless contribution. When Mahatma Gandhi came to tour the flood-affected region, he heard about Helen’s work from Safidat, a leading Congress leader of the area. A meeting was arranged between Mahatma Gandhi and Helen. Impressed by her work and personality, he invited her to Sabarmati Ashram. It was during her stay at the Sabarmati Ashram that Helen deepened her understanding of the Gandhian philosophy of non-violence and satyagraha in order to lead a meaningful life. At the suggestion of Mahatma Gandhi, Helen changed her name to Sabitri Devi.


A powerful woman in politics

This was the time when women leaders of the Congress, like Sister Nivedita, Madam Bhikaiji Cama, Annie Besant and Sarojini Naidu, among many others, were spreading the fire of Indian nationalism, both in India and abroad. Getting to hear them and working closely by their side strengthened Sabitri’s resolve. Soon, she was assigned the responsibility of leading the masses in Patna, Danapur, Bakipur, Muzaffarpur and the Jharia coalfields. Working with dedication, she soon proved herself to be a capable and influential leader. Her anti-British activities soon brought her under their scanner. She became one of the most wanted Congress leaders from the Bihar and Uttar Pradesh region. A warrant was issued against her and intelligence officers were deployed round the clock to keep track of her movements and activities. Once, when she was leading a horseback rally, she was shot at by the British. Luckily, the bullet missed her. But none of this shook her spirit.

In 1919, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place in Amritsar, Punjab, exposing the brutal face of the British Raj. The incident killed nearly 379 and wounded over 1,200, 192 of whom were severely injured. The brutality of the incident led to the patriotic fervour in the country reaching its peak. Mahatma Gandhi reinforced this fervour by launching the non-cooperation movement in 1921. People started returning their government titles, shunning schools, rejecting foreign goods and refusing to pay taxes.

Sabitri Devi initiated her contribution towards the non-cooperation movement by leading a rally of thousands of labourers at the Jharia coalfields as she held the Indian national flag in her hand. However, she had to return to Kurseong to care for her ailing mother. Despite this personal challenge, she successfully launched a door-to-door campaign asking families to boycott foreign goods in Kurseong and Siliguri. Furthermore, she led marches that collected British goods and burnt them in huge bonfires, even when the government had imposed Section 144 to prohibit such gatherings. Failing to control her movement and that of the participating masses, the police resorted to a lathicharge. On 30 January 1922, it was evident that the police actions had been ineffective. So, they opened fire and eventually took Sabitri Devi into custody along with the Congress secretary and several other Gorkha volunteers. An anti-government case was registered against her and she was sentenced to three months of imprisonment at the Darjeeling Sadar jail. After her release, she was put under house arrest and was not allowed to move out of Kurseong for three years.

When Sabitri Devi’s house arrest was lifted, she immediately went back to serving her people and country. Under the guidance of leaders from the Congress Mahila Samiti, she formed groups of women that worked for the health, hygiene and education of women and children. Her dedication and popularity made her the first woman commissioner of the Kurseong municipality.


The role women played

It was only in the 1930s that women, especially students, began to actively participate in the Indian freedom struggle in an unprecedented manner. They were involved both actively and passively, depending on whether they were students, wives, mothers or unmarried women and they were equally fierce in their fight, be it in the non-violent or revolutionary methods deployed against the British. For all of them, Sabitri Devi served as an inspiring role model with her impartial and secular leadership. One of her most important contributions to the freedom struggle was her crucial role in assisting Netaji escape. Due to this, predominantly male associations, like Netaji Bose’s All Bengal Young Men’s Association, started being renamed in a more inclusive manner, like All Bengal Youth Association. Some groups also started creating sister groups to support these women freedom fighters.

As the freedom struggle reached its final phase, Sabitri Devi’s role in the struggle peaked. She became a constant part of the innumerable meetings of the Congress at Anand Bhawan in Allahabad. She was particularly close to the Nehru family, with the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi referring to her as ‘Saili didi’. When freedom finally came on 15 August 1947, Sabitri Devi proudly unfurled the national flag at Kurseong and listened to Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech on the radio with her fellow countrymen.

After Independence, Sabitri Devi remained involved in numerous causes and supported the efforts of fellow freedom fighters to eradicate social evils such as purdah, untouchability, illiteracy and casteism. She was honoured with the Tamra Patra (Bronze Plaque) award for freedom fighters in 1972, when the Indian Government honoured Indian freedom fighters to mark 25 years of India’s Independence. She remained active with a number of groups such as the Sherpa Association, Nagar Congress, Anjuman Islamia, Kurseong Mandal and the Lepcha Association. A true Lepcha all her life, she lived a simple Gandhian life devoid of any luxury until her passing on 18 August 1980, at the age of 78.

Tuhin A. Sinha with Ambalika
Rupa Publications, Pg 161, Rs 495


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