‘Gandhi Budi’ Matangini Hazra

It is in this week, 80 years ago, that Gandhi’s call for Quit India reverberated through the length and breadth of the country, and struck a chord in the heart of old and young. People everywhere gave up their all to heed Gandhi’s call of “Do or Die” as they joined protests against the British government, boycott of foreign goods, and demonstrations in support of swadeshi goods. Last week we remembered a young girl Kanaklata Barua from Assam, who gave her life for the tricolour.

The movement was not confined to the young. People from every walk of life, and of every age threw themselves into the nationalist cause with fervour, undaunted by the challenges, and the risk to their own life. One of these was a poor, uneducated woman from Bengal who lived, and died, for a dream of a free India. This is the story of Matangini Hazra.

The first statue of a woman revolutionary put up in Kolkata in independent India was that of Matangini Hazra.

Matangini was born in 1870, a girl child in a very poor family in Hogla village near Tamluk in Midnapore district in what was then the Bengal Presidency. Her family could not afford to send the child to school, and she remained unlettered all her life. The family circumstances also led to her being married off early to a sixty-year old widower. The child bride became a widow herself by the time she was eighteen. Thereafter, Matangini returned to her parent’s village but chose to live separately. Over the next few years she spent most of her time helping people in her community.

The turn of the century also brought a turn in the life of the young widow. The nationalist movement was gaining momentum; the idea of engaging in a cause that transcended her own village and community attracted the interest and attention of Matangini. She began to participate in local events of protest. Even as she continued her work with local community, she was following the growing movement for independence across the country.

Years passed, as Matangini grew older, but still full of spirit and passion for the cause. On 19 December 1929, the Indian National Congress passed the historic ‘Purna Swaraj’ (total independence) resolution at its Lahore session. A public declaration was made on 26 January 1930 – a day which the Congress Party urged Indians to celebrate as ‘Purna Swaraj’ or ‘Total Independence’ Day.

The Purna Swaraj declaration was followed by the announcement of the Civil Disobedience movement which was led by Mahatma Gandhi. Protesting against the taxation on salt production, Mahatma Gandhi led his followers on a 26-day Dandi March which lasted from 12 March 1930 to 6 April 1930.

On 26 January 1932, the menfolk of Matangini’s village took out a procession to create awareness about the non-cooperation movement, and the political situation in the country. As they passed by her hut, Matangini felt herself being irresistibly drawn into the heart of the action. She joined the procession and marched with the young men, chanting slogans against the British. She was 62 years old, small, and frail in health, but strong in resolve; and she vowed to proactively fight the struggle for independence.

There was no looking back. She joined the nationwide Salt Satygraha. She walked long distances to attend various Congress meetings, and threw herself into all the protest activities. She was arrested for the first time when she took part in salt manufacturing at Alinan, her late husband’s village. After her arrest she was made to walk many miles before she was jailed. She was then released because she was a woman, and her advanced age.

She later participated in the movement for the abolition of the chowkidari tax, a tax collected from villagers to fund a small police force in their areas. This was not only unfair, but the police troops were also used as spies against the villagers by the British Government

During a march towards the court building, to protest against the Governor’s harsh decision to punish all agitators, Matangini was arrested again and made to serve a six-month prison term at Baharampur jail.

In 1933, the then Governor of Bengal Sir John Anderson came to Tamluk to address a gathering. There was tight security everywhere but Matangini managed to reach the dais and stage a black-flag demonstration. She was sentenced to six months rigorous imprisonment. While she was incarcerated, she came in contact with other political prisoners and used this opportunity to learn more about the movement and Gandhi. She was strongly drawn to Gandhi’s ideas and committed to following these in practise. After being released she became an active member of the local unit of the Indian National Congress. She took to regular spinning of khadi on her own charkha, even as her eyesight was failing and her health was deteriorating.

In an incident during the same period, the story goes, that one summer afternoon Matangini was part of a freedom march in the district capital. The marchers reached the residence of the Governor who was standing on his balcony and observing the demonstration while his soldiers cordoned off the immediate area. Matangini, who was leading the protesters managed to break the cordon, and holding aloft the freedom flag rushed ahead shouting Go Back. She was beaten up by British police for this daring act, and was severely injured.

Even as her age increased year by year, so did her rebellious acts. So closely did she associate with Gandhi and his movement that she began to be locally called Gandhi Budi or ‘old lady Gandhi’.

Her feisty spirit and commitment to the cause culminated with the tidal wave of Quit India that was sweeping India. On 29 September 1942, Gandhi Budi led a procession of about 6,000 protesters, mainly women, heading for the Tamluk police station. The plan was to take over the police station from British authorities, and establish home rule in the small town.

Just as the team reached the outskirts of the town, the British police arrived and ordered the marchers to disband, or else be penalised for violating Article 144 (Unlawful Assembly) of the Indian Penal Code. There was chaos. The police tried to stop the march by threatening to shoot at the advancing crowd. Matangini appealed to the police force to refrain from shooting at the protestors. But the police were in no mood to listen. Even after they started to fire, Matangini continued to advance alone, holding aloft the tricolour. The police bullets hit her three times. Injured on the forehead and both hands, Matangini continued to struggle onwards, uttering Vande Mataram and not letting the tricolour fall. She continued marching till she collapsed and died.

Matangini Hazra was 72 years old. She lived a life of dedication to service, and died a hero’s death in the service of the cause of freedom.

–Mamata

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Fabrics for Freedom: Khadi and Beyond

We are all aware of how central khadi was to our struggle for independence. It was not only about defying the British and refusing to buy their imported cloth, but a potent symbol that it was not mere freedom from colonial rule that was critical, but also economic independence—a means of livelihood for millions of people of the country. In the words of Divya Joshi: ‘Gandhiji presented khadi as a symbol of nationalism, equality and self-reliance. It was his belief that reconstruction of the society and effective Satyagraha against the foreign rule can be possible only through khadi….The spinning wheel was at one time the symbol of India’s poverty and backwardness. Gandhiji turned it into a symbol of self-reliance and non-violence.’

Khadi

But India is not the only country where spinning and weaving of textiles were a core part of a movement for independence. Another large British colony also used this as a weapon. This was the USA!

Britain saw its colonies including the American territories, as suppliers of raw material, insisted that they export all cotton to it, and buy all finished cloth from it. And of course it imposed huge taxes on all these products including fabric.

In defiance, the people in the American colonies started spinning their own cloth, and the spinning wheel because as important a symbol of patriotism in Americanin the 1760s and 1770s as the charkha was to the become in the 20th century in India.

Women were at the forefront of the spinning movement in the American War of Independence, and created their own homespun cloth to disrupt the British monopoly.  Fabric made this way was called “homespun.” Wearing homespun was a symbol of patriotism.  

In certain areas like New England, women showed their protest by going to ‘spinning bees’ where they would set up spinning wheels and keep each other company while they spun yarn. And these were not isolated events—for instance, in a single area, from Harpswell, Maine to Huntington, Long Island, over 60 spinning meetings were held over 32 months starting in March 1768.

The Daughters of Liberty, a group of political dissidents who got together to fight for liberty, were at the forefront of these spinning bees. They organized boycotts of British goods, especially tea, and they manufactured replacement products, especially cloth.

As in India, spinning was at the centre of a lot of publicity and was a rallying point for the freedom fighters. Newspapers reported elaborately on the smallest cloth-making development to amplify the message. Spinning schools were set up and awards were offered for the person who wove the most cloth. Old and young learnt to spin—it is reported that a 70-year-old woman in Newport, R.I., learnt to spin for the first time during the movement. Competitions were held—‘in 1769, two Connecticut women held an all-day spinning contest in which the winner spun seven skeins and two knots of fine linen yarn, just a little more than her competitor’.

The boycott of imported fabric and other goods from tea to molasses, worked, and it is estimated by some sources that the value of imported goods from Great Britain to the US fell by half in 1769 over the previous year, from 420,000 to 208,000 pounds.

So ‘swadeshi’ proved a potent war cry against imperial colonizers halfway across the world!

As it did in India almost 150 years later–rallying self-confidence, morale, giving a sense of identify.

Happy Independence Day!

Buying one pair of Khadi clothes a year can contribute to livelihoods for our millions of weavers. And they need it more than ever now, as the spinning of the national flag, which was their monopoly, has been taken away.

–Meena

‘Birbala’ Kanaklata: Teenage Martyr for the Tricolour

Here is a mantra, a short one that I give to you. You may imprint it on your hearts and let every breath of yours give expression to it. The mantra is ‘Do or Die.’ We shall either free India or die in the attempt; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery. Every true Congressman or woman will join the struggle with inflexible determination not to remain alive to see the country in bondage and slavery.

These words spoken by Gandhi on 8 August 1942 launched the Quit India movement. Although Gandhi and many other leaders were arrested within hours of his speech, with the expectation that without their leadership the resistance movement would be rudderless, the effect was the opposite. Thousands of Indians, young and old, heeded this call and plunged into the movement, each contributing in their own way.

This mantra shared by Gandhiji at the Gowalia Tank Maidan Park in Bombay echoed across the country. Its reverberations reached the eastern corner of India, to Assam, and lit a spark in the heart and mind of a young girl named Kanaklata.

Kanaklata Barua was born on 22 December 1924 in Barangabari village of Gohpur, now in the Sonitpur district in Assam. Her mother died when Kanaklata was only five years old, and the young child developed a sense of responsibility much beyond her tender age. Her father remarried but he also died when she was thirteen. With added household responsibilities, and caring for her siblings, Kanaklata had to drop out of school and could not continue her studies after third standard.

Even as she was growing up in her village in Assam, the sparks of the nationwide freedom movement were spreading across the length and breadth of the country. The non-cooperation movement was gaining strength. The movement reached a climax with Gandhi’s call for “Do or Die”, and the wave of the Quit India Movement surged to new heights.

In Assam too there were widespread protests against British rule, and young and old joined in. Initially the protests were peaceful, but the British arrested all the Congress leaders of the state, and stepped up their brutal repression of the people. This only strengthened the opposition, and engendered underground conspiracies to fight the British. Among these was the setting up of a suicide squad which engaged in subversive activities like derailing and burning trains, attacking army outposts and snapping communication channels.

Seventeen-year-old Kanaklata was inspired and fired by the cause, and eager to contribute. Her dream was to join the Azad Hind Fauj, but as she was still a minor, she was not permitted to do so. Undeterred, she volunteered to join Mrityu Bahini–a suicide squad. For this too she was technically underage, but her determination and passion for the freedom movement was considered suitable for granting her membership. Subsequently she became the leader of the women’s cadre of the Mrityu Bahini.

The then president of the local Congress committee, Kushal Konwar was an ardent believer of non-violence proposed by Gandhi. He was falsely accused by the British for derailing a train which killed many British soldiers, and he was hanged. After the martyrdom of Kushal Konwar, the revolutionary camp of Gohpur division, under the leadership of Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, decided to mark their protest by removing the British flag and unfurling the National Flag at the local police station.

On 20 September 1942, Kanaklata led the procession of members of the Mrityu Bahini, walking proudly with the national flag in her hand, and with cries of Vande Mataram. The officer-in-charge of the police station was anticipating this. He warned the procession not to proceed further. He threatened that the police were duty-bound to start firing if the protesters advanced. Kanaklata responded by saying that he could do his duty while she carried on with her duty.

The procession carried on towards the police station; Kanaklata was leading, with the tricolour held aloft in her hands. As they neared, the police fired. Kanaklata fell to the bullet, with the flag still firmly held up. Before the flag could touch the ground it was taken by Mukunda Kakoti, another member from the group. He too was felled by a police bullet. Two young lives, snuffed out even before they attained adulthood. Kanaklata was not yet eighteen years old, and did not live to see the independent India of her dreams.

Their martyrdom did not go in vain. Even as their comrades were breathing their last, the others in the group did not let the tricolour down. They picked it up and with cries of Vande Mataram, the flag was eventually unfurled at the police station. One of the millions of small but significant gestures that added nail after nail to the coffin of the end of British rule in India.

While Kanaklata’s tale is not well known, it has at least been told. This month as we remember the many struggles and sacrifices that contributed to the unique non-violent movement that led India to become Independent, let us also pay tribute to the many unsung heroes and heroines who gave their all, even their life, for this cause.  

And as we swell with pride to see the Indian tricolour fly freely and fearlessly, let us not forget the brave young woman “Birbala” Kanaklata Barua who gave her life for it.

–Mamata

Animal Tales

Since the beginning of human history, people and animals have lived in close contact. Animals are an integral part of our lives. The relationships vary: animals may be domesticated for work; they may be loved as pets; they may be hunted as food; they may be admired and envied for their strength or other qualities; they may be. But even beyond these relationships, animals fascinate humans and so the numerous myths and stories, the worship of animals, and their symbolism.  

In last week’s post marking International Tiger Day, we saw a few myths, stories and legends about tigers. While there are many tiger-stories, it is not just tigers, but many, many animals and birds—real and imaginary who feature in these tales.

The book ‘Adbhut: Marvelous Creatures of Indian Myth and Folklore’ by Meena Arora Nayak, provides an overview of many of these. The book compiles 55 stories, drawing from all religious and cultural traditions.

The book is organized into different sections: Creatures of the Sky; Creatures of the Sea; Creatures of the Earth; Other Creatures of Air, Water and Land—Worms, Insects, Reptiles and Dragons; and Creature of Amalgam.

The last two are less familiar categories, so here are a few fascinating stories drawn from these sections of the book:

Bhramari the Beehive Goddess: Aruna was a daitya who had received a boon from Brahma, giving him immunity from death by war, weapons, man or woman, biped or quadruped or a combination thereof. To circumvent these conditions, Goddess Adi Shakti took the form of Bhramari, and her body became a beehive from which swarms of bees emerged. The bee swarms attacked and destroyed the daityas, who had no weapons against them. And at the end of the mission, all the bees merged into the Goddess’ form.

Shamir the Stone-cutting Worm: Shamir the worm was just the size of a grain of barley, but his gaze is so sharp that it could cut through stone, iron and even diamond. It is believed that the Shamir was used by Moses to engrave the names of the twelve tribes of Israel on the breastplate of a priest. After this, Shamir disappeared. It was with great difficulty that King Solomon found him and brought him to help build the First Temple in Jerusalem. The King did not want to use any tools to cut the stones because the use of such tools symbolized violence. He therefore used the shamir to cut the stones.

Nariphon the Plant Women: Both Hindu and Buddhist traditions talk about these. The mythical mountain of Meru stands in the midst of thick forests. The trees in this forest bear not fruits but beautiful young women. They emerge from the pods feet first, hanging from the trees on stems attached to their heads. They are about eight inches long. It is believed that in the last incarnation of Buddha before he was born as Siddhartha Gautama, he was so generous that his people banished him, his wife Maddi and children, to the jungle so the kingdom did not go bankrupt. Indra is said to have created Nariphon so that the eyes of itinerant sages would be drawn to these exquisite little creatures rather than to Maddi.

An interesting book which gives insights into the fascinating relationships of humans and animals, and reminds of the close bonds between humans and other animals. While not told in a story-telling style, it does indicate how our love, fears, imagination all come into play in the creation of myths and legends. The book lends itself to creative illustrations, and one wonders why only the back and front covers have them.

–Meena