While honouring the descendants of those who had participated in the Paika Revolt of 1817 in Bhubaneswar, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a very pertinent observation. He said that the narrative built around the struggle for India's freedom had been limited to a few episodes and a few families while it was, in reality, a "Jan Andolan", a peoples' movement. This narrative thus needs liberation and needs to be looked at as it truly was—a peoples' movement which saw countless women and men join the struggle and undergo severe hardship, mental and physical torture and sacrifices.
Stories of such participation abound, stories which, if weaved into our curriculums, into our books and narratives, can evolve a wholly different understanding of ourselves and more importantly of our freedom. It is the memory of this dimension that needs to be rediscovered and reiterated. Prime Minister Modi, in his own way, has been at it right from his days as Chief Minister of Gujarat when he brought back to India the ashes of Shyamji Krishna Verma in 2003 from Geneva where they had lain ever since Krishna Verma's death in 1930.
Even as Prime Minister, Modi continued on Krishna Verma's trail and ensured that the Inner Temple reinstated Verma as a barrister having expelled him in 1909 for advocating India's freedom. In August 2016, inspired by Modi and with the pledge of protecting our freedom, BJP leaders fanned out across the country on a "Tiranga Yatra", travelling across the country, honouring forgotten heroes of the freedom movement, paying tribute and homage to thousands of other such leaders, workers and activists who had contributed their strength in pushing forward the wheel of liberty.
It was in this context of Prime Minister's observations on the need to recognise that the freedom struggle was a peoples' movement, that the programme, organised by Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) to commemorate the 87th anniversary of the Chittagong Revolt became highly symbolic. The NMML has, under the present dispensation, at last, opened its doors to many other narratives and sagas – all of which have made legitimate contributions to our struggle for freedom but were neglected or marginalised over the years.
It is also often forgotten that women played a significant role in the fight for freedom especially in the revolutionary movements. The commemorative programme thus saw the release of the English version of the autobiography of Kalyani Das. Bina and Kalyani Das – known in the revolutionary circles as Das Sisters – were intimately involved in the revolutionary movement in Bengal.
Both were daughters of Beni Madhav Das, Headmaster at Ravenshaw School Cuttack who was also Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's teacher, mentor and guide. Netaji kept in close contact with Beni Madhav Das till his escape from India and the Das sisters became close associates of Netaji. It was through their father that Kalyani and Bina Das came in close contact with Netaji and helped him in organising women volunteers group while being active in revolutionary activities as well. Kalyani Das organised the Chhatri Sangha, adynamic women's group that trained women in martial arts for revolutionary activities. Both the sisters became popular members of the Bengal revolutionary network.
In 1928 when Netaji organised his famous Bengal Volunteers he took help of Kalyani Das, among others, for organising the Women Corps of the Bengal Volunteers. In her memoirs, Kalyani recalls an interesting incident. "It was our responsibility to bring women into the folds of the Non-Cooperation movement," she recalled. "Women had to whole-heartedly participate in our struggle for freedom. We moved from one locality to another, organising meetings and enlisting women 'satyagrahis'.
One day, my friend Sovarani came and told us that, in recognition of our arduous work, Subhas Babu had offered us the use of his car, for moving about from place to place. We would get tired and exhausted as we went around on foot, and, therefore, it would be a great relief for us to have the car at our disposal," she added. Beni Madhav Das, Kalyani's father and Subhas's mentor, frowned on this act of his favourite pupil. "When other workers are going around on foot, you should also do the same. You will feel superior to others if you use the car. Don't let this happen to you", was his caution.
Kalyani Das and other women who helped Netaji organise the women's corps, foremost among them was Lotika Ghosh (Sri Aurobindo's niece) interestingly saw themselves as the precursor to the famous Rani Jhansi regiment of the INA. Because of their close and unrelenting involvement with revolutionary work, both sisters had to face prolonged spells of imprisonment, mental torture and challenges of various kinds.
In 1943, Kalyani Das became an active member of the Bengal relief committee set up by Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee during the Bengal famine which saw over 3 million deaths. Dr. Mookerjee made herculean efforts to organise relief work, and it was due to his efforts that the rest of India came to know the actual reality of the famine. Kalyani formed an integral part of that work.
In the end as, Prime Minister Modi pointed out, the saga of this epic struggle needs to be liberated, and the story of many such Kalyanis and Binas need to be narrated and celebrated.
(Dr. Anirban Ganguly is the Director of the Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation in New Delhi. The views expressed are strictly personal.)