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.
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.