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.