The history surrounding the Indian Independence movement has undergone a transformation, progressing from initial colonial narratives to more sophisticated and comprehensive interpretations. It is crucial to shift away from the prevailing mainstream discourse around the movement, which mostly originates from a privileged caste viewpoint, and acknowledge the existence of several alternative voices.
A focused study of the women from the time explains the double-edged battle they were fighting: they endeavoured to enact social reforms, while simultaneously striving to expel the colonisers from their homeland. The contributions of notable women such as Rani Rashmoni, Putalimaya Devi Poddar, Helen Lepcha, Moolmati and Matangini Hazra serve as significant examples of the arduous journey these individuals undertook in their pursuit of gender equality, liberation, and social justice.
An Honorific Rani
Rashmoni, often regarded as the princess of Kolkata, was born into a family of fishermen residing in Bengal. They were part of a community known as Kaivatra. Her empathetic and supportive attitude towards the fishermen and marginalised groups resulted in her being bestowed with the honorific title of ‘Rani’ or ‘Karunamoyee Rani Rashmoni’.
She established the Dakshineswar Kali temple in Bengal and appointed Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa as the priest. She was recognised as one of the pioneering social reformers of the early nineteenth century in Bengal and had a significant role in the emergence of the Bengal Renaissance.
An eleven-year-old Rashmoni, who entered into matrimony with a prosperous zamindar household in Jaan Bazaar, saw a significant advancement in her educational pursuits as a result of the substantial assistance provided by her husband, Raj Chandra Das. With an exceptional aptitude for learning and a highly proficient intellect, she swiftly ascended to the position of her husband’s business associate. The majority of their income was allocated towards providing assistance to impoverished individuals, establishing communal kitchens and constructing water distribution facilities for those in need.
Following the untimely loss of her husband in 1830, she assumed sole responsibility for the management and subsequent success of her business, all the while fulfilling the role of a single parent to her four children and confronting the pervasive challenges of gender-based discrimination.
The East India Company (EIC) and her husband’s rivals attempted to gain control of the firm, due in large part to her riches and the absence of a male successor. Both were taken aback by the astuteness and practicality displayed by Rashmoni as she managed the company affairs, with the assistance of her son-in-law, Mathura Nath Biswas.
She emerged as a prominent figure in social reform movements in Bengal, displaying notable activism. Furthermore, she demonstrated her commitment to the cause by formally petitioning the EIC against the practice of polygamy. She also actively voiced her opposition to the practice of Sati, child marriage, and caste-based injustices.
Call for Education
Putalimaya Devi Poddar was born in 1920 in the hill region of Kurseong, West Bengal. Affectionately referred to as ‘Mattaji’, she wholeheartedly devoted her life to the upliftment of the marginalised. The establishment of a branch of the Congress party in Kurseong in 1936 led to Poddar eventually joining the party.
She made notable contributions to the field of education. She established a school where she actively advocated for women’s involvement. The objective of her endeavour was to empower women as conveyors of patriotism. Additionally, she initiated the establishment of the Harijan Samaj, which encouraged Dalits to pursue education, and the Mahila Samiti, a women’s organisation that facilitated the large-scale manufacture of Khadi garments with the intention of supporting and advancing the Swadeshi ideology.
Poddar was issued a warning by the police due to her engagement in activities opposing British rule. But it only motivated her to collaborate with other members of the Congress in organising a significant demonstration in 1942, which resulted in her arrest. Despite her poor health, Poddar continued her work as a social activist and a member of the Congress party until her death.
Rechristened by Gandhi
Born in Namchi, South Sikkim, Helen Lepcha actively engaged in the proceedings of the Congress party. She emerged as a highly prominent individual but lived a simple life based on Gandhian principles. She is said to have helped Subhas Chandra Bose escape house arrest in Kurseong and migrate to Germany.
She actively participated in and even assumed leadership roles in the Charkha and Khadi movements in 1917. In 1920, Helen was called upon by MK Gandhi, who had become aware of her altruistic efforts in aiding the less fortunate after the Bihar floods. Gandhi was moved by her commitment to the cause and invited her to Sabarmati Ashram, where she was given the alias Savitri Devi.
Following her rechristening, she assumed the role of a Congress leader responsible for overseeing regions in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, including Patna, Danapur, Bakipur, Muzaffarpur, and the Jharia coalfields. Helen actively participated in the Non-cooperation Movement and the Quit India Movement.
Helen was characterised by her resolute determination, influential nature, and intellectual prowess. She directed her attention towards social activity and dedicated herself to serving the cause of her homeland.
Moolmati, a tribal woman from Chhattisgarh, actively participated in the Quit India Movement. Although forgotten by history, she inspired and motivated her son Ram Prasad Bismil to give himself up for the freedom struggle. Ram Prasad played a pivotal role in the formation of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association in 1928. This association, which included notable individuals such as Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad, Ashfaqulla Khan, Shivaram Rajguru, and several others, emerged as a revolutionary force.
Ram Prasad’s active participation in the renowned Mainpuri Conspiracy case of 1918 and the Kakori Conspiracy of 1925 has been well-documented. On 19 December 1927, he was apprehended and subsequently executed by hanging at Gorakhpur jail.
A mother of humble origins, Moolmati provided unwavering support to her son during his involvement in the liberation movement. Her determination was so strong that following Ram Prasad’s demise, during a public meeting, she extended her second son’s hand and presented him for the cause of Independence.
Old Woman Gandhi
Matangini Hazra, also referred to as ‘Gandhi Buri’, old woman Gandhi, was a courageous freedom fighter who played an active role in the Civil Disobedience Movement and Non-cooperation Movement. She faced arrest due to her involvement in the Salt Satyagraha. Despite her prompt release, she continued to persist and campaigned against the chowkidari tax. She was once again apprehended and imprisoned for six months.
In 1942, during the Quit India Movement, she led a group of peasants in a parade in Tamluk, West Bengal. She was shot thrice by the police but kept walking while singing Vande Mataram until she collapsed.
These women exist on the edges of history books, but there are bound to be countless nameless women whose contributions were never acknowledged in writing. Especially since conventional historical texts mostly recognise the endeavours of upper-caste women.
The lack of representation of women in historiography is a cause for concern since it deprives contemporary women of a comprehensive grasp of their previous accomplishments and potential future prospects. Although these women did not actively seek to leave a mark in history for the sake of being documented, it is important to recognise them because they serve as inspiration for other women who have similar aspirations but lack guidance or established precedents.
This article was first published in The Print as Rani Rashmoni to Helen Lepcha—women revolutionaries were fighting Indian society & the British on 14th August, 2023.
Read more about the author: Building a Stronger Dalit Feminist Movement with Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Ideals