We wish a very Happy Birthday to Pritilata Waddedar. She was born on 5 May, 1911. Her soul rests in peace in the most coveted position in her eternal abode and will be happy to note that a section of her compatriots still remember her with high reverence. She has often been referred to as Joan of Arc of Bengal for her extraordinary revolutionary zeal and enthusiasm. She had to fight and drive away the British colonial forces from her motherland.
The British colonisers had already been exploiting and draining out the enormous wealth that Bengal and India had for more than 150 years when she was born. In the 17th/18th centuries, India is estimated to have about 25% of the world's wealth. By colonial methods of sucking the economy of the subcontinent, by the beginning of the twentieth century, it was reduced to less than 5%. Indian Congress was formed in 1886 to represent the Indian population to negotiate their demands of a colonial oppression-free society. It failed to deliver and dissenting citizens of British India, especially the youth, were becoming restless to get rid of the British. In 1905, the second major political party Muslim League was also formed. Parallel to regular political movements, the revolutionary youth of India, more specifically of Bengal and Punjab supplemented by some from other presidencies, were so frustrated by the ineptness of Indian political leadership that they started grouping themselves as revolutionary cells aiming at armed actions to drive the colonisers out of India by force. Thus started the Agnijuga— the armed revolutionary phase of the anti-colonial movement in India. It was the beginning of the twentieth century and we came across the heroic deeds of revolutionary youths like Khudiram Bose, Prafulla Chaki, Bhagat Singh, Ashfaqullah Khan and many others who laid down their lives on the altar of their motherland's freedom. In Bengal, the revolutionaries started working under two platforms, Jugantor and Anushilan Samity. Many of them worked under the cover of political parties like Congress, whilst many others worked underground building themselves as physically strong young men with strong moral character and imbued with unparalleled patriotism. They took physical training and were engaged in bodybuilding with occasional exposure to small firearms. In Chittagong area, an innocent-looking person with high leadership qualities took up the leadership of the revolutionaries. He was a school teacher namely Surya Kumar Sen who was also a leader of Chittagong branch of Congress. He was popularly known as Master Da who was greatly respected by his students and their parents alike.
After the most heroic and much-known Chittagong rebellion, Master Da decided that no further frontal encounter will be undertaken. The revolutionaries will adopt hit and run policy to inflict losses on the enemy. He had few other plans in his mind. Here comes the importance of Pritilata, Kalpana Dutta and a few other female revolutionaries.
So far, no girl was accepted in the ranks of the Swadeshi revolutionaries as females were considered physically weaker and of a soft mentality. Moreover, Master Da was concerned about their safety in hideouts. The fact that some boys and girls may become emotionally involved was also a concern of the leadership. The barrier was finally broken by Pritilata and Kalpana.
Priti came from a middle-class family in Dengapara village near Patiya. Her parents settled in her maternal property in South Samura, now a part of historic Dhalghat village. This area had a high concentration of revolutionary youth and to tackle their activities, a British camp was established in the village. Till date, the erstwhile camp area is known as Dhalghat camp. Priti's three maternal cousins, Purnendu, Ardhendu and Sukhendu Dastidar were in the ranks of Swadeshi fighters under Master Da. Amongst them, Ardhendu was one of the martyrs of Jalalabad. Young Priti had her first exposure to armed revolutionary struggle from her cousins. She was a bright student and was academically successful all through. Her father Jagat Bandhu Waddedar was an employee of Chittagong Municipality. He rented a house in Chittagong Ashker Dighi area and brought his family to Chittagong. Pritilata passed her Matriculation exam from Chittagong Dr Khastagir's Girl's High School and Intermediate from Dhaka Eden College with flying colours. Then she was sent to Calcutta Bethune College for her Bachelor's degree. Though she continued to study, her concentration on academia was not deep. Rather she tried to get involved in Swadeshi work. While in Dhaka, she was an active member of Deepali Sangha, an organisation founded by Leela Nag to prepare female patriotic students to participate in Swadeshi work like their brothers. Once, Preeti even thought of abandoning her studies at Calcutta to return to Chittagong to join the revolutionary struggle. Some of her close friends dissuaded her from doing that until she was at least a graduate. While she was in Bethune, Chittagong's young revolutionary Ramkrishna Biswas was at Alipore jail awaiting his capital punishment for trying to punish a British police officer by firing and killing him. Pritilata went to see Ramkrishna many times in disguise as his sister. She wanted to know the details of his operation so that she could learn the little nuances of armed struggle and associated dangers. These meetings consolidated Preeti's resolve to join the armed revolutionary struggle to free her motherland.
After completing her BA degree, Pritilata returned to her native Chittagong. She joined the famous Aparna Charan High School as head teacher and tried to convince the leadership of Chittagong revolutionaries about her willingness and suitability to join the ranks of revolutionary youth. Finally, learning in detail about her strong personality, patriotism, academic achievements and willingness to serve the motherland, the Supreme leader agreed. In the meantime, some changes in policies took place and Kalpana Dutta was already taken into the revolutionary group. The first meeting and briefing session of Pritilata was scheduled at Sabitri Devi's house in Dhalghat. Unfortunately, a traitor neighbour tipped off the police and the house was attacked. A short fierce exchange of fire resulted in the death of two senior revolutionaries, Capt Cameroon and other sepoys. Master Da and Preeti could escape.
Meantime, hit and run policy of the leader continued to unsettle the British colonial authorities. Master Da was drawing a plan to attack Chittagong European Club, a symbol of white supremacy. He decided to try female leadership on this occasion. Kalpana and Priti were selected to lead the team. The training was going on in the seashores of Kattali. The date was fixed. Unfortunately at this juncture, Kapana Dutta was arrested. Pritilata was now the sole leader of the operation. On 23 September late evening, Pritilata disguising as a Sikh youth led eight young armed revolutionaries from their Kattali assembly point to Pahartali. The European Club was as usual bustling with activities. The white men were talking, smoking, drinking, dancing and having fun. A pre-designated local employee gave the go-ahead signal and hell was let loose on the Europeans. The revolutionaries threw grenades inside the club and fired at the Europeans. Several casualties were there on the club side. The exact numbers could not be ascertained as the authorities always play false cards on these numbers. On the revolutionaries, none of the eight male fighters were injured. Their leader had a small injury from a bullet fired by an Englishman from inside the club. When the operation was over, Priti took her final decision promptly. She ordered the boys to retreat and proceed to safe heavens. She took a dose of potassium cyanide so that the British police could not arrest or torture her. On 24 September morning, her body was found hardly 100 meters away from the club.
By her sacrifice, she has shown selfless dedication to the motherland and her action soon attracted thousands of girls towards armed freedom struggle.
She has become an icon of a brave patriotic Bengali woman.
We salute the great soul.
Happy birthday to Pritilata Waddedar once more!
The writer is a columnist