Surya Sen assigns Priti with night attack on Pahartali European Club
Masterda gives his blessing to Kalpana and Pritilata
In September 1932 Masterda put into action another plan that he had hatched. He entrusted Kalpana and Priti with a plan to attack the Pahartali European Club at Chittagong which was a prestigious social club for the British officers, their wives and their accomplices. The Club had a notoriously disparaging signboard that read "Dogs and Indians not allowed".
Amongst the British facilities was Pahartali European Club, which, as was not uncommon, bore at its gate a notice that symbolised the sad sense of insecurity felt by so many of these lower middle class British. The notice read: "Dogs and Indians Not Allowed"... except, of course, as servants.
Unsurprisingly, the great independence leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, himself a well-educated Indian, said of such notices: "In India every European, be he German, or Pole or Romanian, is automatically a member of the ruling race".
Railway carriages, station retiring rooms, benches in parks etc, were marked "For Europeans Only".
This was bad enough in South Africa or elsewhere, but to have to put up with it in one’s own country was a humiliating and exasperating reminder of one’s enslaved condition.
Surjo Sen planned an attack on the Pahartoli European Club as part of the war against the British regime.
This would be their second attempt to attack the Club. They had first attacked the club as part of their infamous Chittagong Armoury Raid (also known as Chittagong Uprising). However, that grand plan was partially unsuccessful as they carried out their attack on a Good Friday when the officers were off duty.
This time there was going to be no mistake.
Masterda chose two women to lead the group so the attack would send shockwaves throughout India. For this he needed women of courage, bravado, skill and leadership. He chose his two closest female allies - Kalpana Datta and Pritilata Waddedar, the two silent assassins.
Kalpana used to have regular training in revolver shooting along with her comrade and pal Priti and both young girls had already fought on many guerrilla attacks against the British rulers.
Surya Sen summoned both of them to meet him at his secret hideout where he divulged his master plan.
On 16 September 1932, summoned by Masterda, Pritilata and Kalpana reported to him at Kaltali village. The village was not far from Chittagong and both the young ladies had to be very careful while getting to that place because they could not take the risk of being shadowed. From his hiding place near Kaltali, Masterda disclosed the final plan.
"Do remember this is a very bold plan and it won’t be an easy task. Therefore before deciding on the final date and time of the attack on the Pahartali Club, you must carryout a thorough reconnaissance of the entire are. I do not want it to be another fiasco like the one we had, when we attacked the European Club at Chittagong on the night of the 13th of April, which happened to be Good Friday, and there was not a soul in the Club. Your task with your motivated young group of revolutionaries will therefore to kill as many of those white bastards, and then once and for all destroy the bloody place so that they will never be able to use it again. Have I made myself clear?"
"It will be done as per your wishes Masterda", said Preetilata as she took the blessings from her revered Commander-in-Chief.
"Best of luck then and Vande Mataram", replied Masterda as he too made his way back to his hideout.
Kalpana arrested a week before planned attack
On 17 September 1932, a week before action, Kalpana Datta was arrested by the police on her way back to Chittagong. She was dressed in a boy's attire which had aroused their suspicion. However, a few days later she was released for want of any concrete evidence regarding her links with Masterda’s Indian Revolutionary Army. Because of this untimely arrest, Pritilata was assigned the leadership of the guerrilla attack by Surya Sen.
Masterda was planning an action headed by a woman revolutionary. The task naturally fell on Pritilata who had been his constant companion through all dangers and obstacles.
Mahatma Gandhi's fast to death adds to tension
A new twist to the civil disobedience movement came in September 1932 which added to the growing tension within the country.
On 20 September 1932, whilst in prison at the Yerwada Central Jail in Pune (near Mumbai), Mahatma Gandhi went for a fast unto death in protesting the Communal Award announced by the British which he felt would alienate the so-called Hindu "Untouchables" (Dalits) – or ‘Harijans’ (sons of God) as he called them – from the other Hindus and consequently divide the Hindus. Supporting the move for a separate electorate was non other than the highly US educated Dr B. R. Ambedkar who was now the leader of the depressed Hindu classes. He questioned why Mahatma Gandhi never objected when the Muslims, Sikhs and the Christians were given their separate electorates, and why he was objecting now when the Dalits have been exploited for ages by the very Hindus of the upper class who consider themselves to be superior "just because they came out of the womb of a so called high class woman".
With Gandhi's resolve to fast unto death on this very issue, the Congress leaders were now in a dilemma, and in order to reach at some compromise and save Gandhi’s life, the Congress despatched a high level delegation to meet Dr Ambedkar in Pune.
On the evening of 23 September 1932 while Gandhi was on the 3rd day of his fast unto death, Pritilata with her young band of revolutionaries decided to strike.
Pritilata went to Kotwali Seaside for arms training and made the plan of their attack there. She was to lead a team of male revolutionaries in the late evening and torch the club.
- Mahatma Gandhi ( - )
- Dr. B. R. Ambedkar ( - )
As the sun went down over the Bay of Bengal, the young school teacher dressed in a soldier’s uniform with her squad of 7 highly motivated and armed young men slowly and carefully made their way to the Pahartali European Club.
Attack on the Pahartali European Club dressed as a Punjabi man
They decided to attack the club with its loathsome sign on 23 September 1932. Members of the team were given potassium cyanide pill and instructed to carry it with them. If they were caught by the police they were to swallow it before the arrest.
When the European Club could not be blasted, Pritilata was asked to blow apart the club in the Railways. Masterda had also asked her to take Potassium Cyanide after she completed her mission. Otherwise, she would be tortured when caught (as was inevitable) and Masterda did not want that.
Binod babu (Bihari Chowdhury),
On the day of the attack, Pritilata disguised and dressed herself as a Punjabi man and set off with her eight fellow fighters on their mission. Her associates Kalishankar Dey, Bireshwar Roy, Prafulla Das, Shanti Chakraborty wore dhoti and shirt. Mahendra Chowdhury, Sushil Dey and Panna Sen wore lungi and shirt.
When the party was a few hundred yards short of the Club, they took cover behind the thick undergrowth to check their weapons and ammunition.
Once that important drill was over, Priti in a hushed tone said: "Remember we have to shoot and kill the Europeans and then destroy the place and it has to be done as quickly as possible. And once the mission is accomplished all of us must quickly fade away in small groups by taking different routes into the countryside, and nobody will wait for me because I was still have yet another mission to fulfill tonight. Therefore now let us kiss the ground that has given us birth and say a prayer for the early freedom of our motherland," added Priti as she closed her eyes to invoke the blessings of Ma Durga for the last and final time.
Repeating silently the words 'Vande Mataram', Priti and her small group consisting of Pannalal Sen, Shanti Chakravarty, Prafulla Das, Bireshwar Roy, Mahindra Chowdhury, Sushil Dey and Kalikinkar Dey now very cautiously and carefully made their way to the Pahartali Club. A few minutes later the sound of their weapons firing in short bursts echoed across the hills of Chittagong.
They reached the club at around 10:45 pm and attacked the club. There were around 40 people inside the club then. The revolutionaries divided themselves into three separate groups for the attack. In the club, a few police officers who had revolvers started shooting. Pritilata incurred a single bullet wound. According to the police report, in this attack, one woman with a surname of Sullivan died and four men and seven women were injured.
Suicide by swallowing potassium cyanide to avoid arrest
Injured by the gunshot, Pritilata took refuge. Badly wounded, she was trapped by the British police within a few yards of the main gate and had no way of escaping on that fateful night. Realising herself trapped, she signaled her men to leave and escape capture. In order to avoid arrest herself and the subsequent harrassment, Pritilata bit into the cyanide capsule that Surya Sen had instructed all to carry and swallowed the cyanide and committed suicide. She was only 21 years old.
British police report slur Pritilata
The next morning police found her body and immediately identified her. On searching her dead body police found a few leaflets, photograph of Ramkrishna Biswas, bullets, whistle and the draft of their plan of attack. After the post-mortem it was found that the bullet injury was not very serious and cyanide was the reason of her death.
The chief secretary of Bengal sent a report of the incident to British authorities in London. The report was packed with slurs and attempted to tarnish the young woman with whom freedom fighters have long been familiar. The chief secretary wrote:
Pritilata had been closely associated with, if not actually the mistress of, the terrorist Biswas who was hanged for the murder of Inspector Tarini Mukherjee, and some reports indicate that she was the wife of Nirmal Sen who was killed while attempting to evade arrest of Dhalghat, where Captain Cameron fell.
Suicide note condemns British and pleas for greater women's right in India
At the scene of the crime police found a suicide note written by Pritilata which was kept on the breast pocket of her uniform.
In the candid letter Pritilata explains her motive for pursuing a violent path to independence and why she felt they've been "compelled to take up arms against the lives of any and every member of the British community, official and non-official". She condemned the British for causing social, political and economic ruin and held them largely responsible for the deterioration of India.
I formally declare that I am a member of the Chittagong Branch of the Indian Republic Army which is inspired by the lofty ideal of uprooting imperialistic British rule in India. It also aims at introducing democratic movement in my Motherland, India after its liberation. I feel myself fortunate for being enrolled as a member of an organisation that is crowned with glory.
I have taken part in the armed struggle for the freedom of my country and the assault today on the European Club at Pahartali is a part of that struggle for freedom. When the highly revered and respected leader of our party, Masterda Surjya Sen called me to lead the assault party today, I really felt proud to have been given that honour. I thought that after a long waiting period the long cherished ambition of my life was finally achieved. I accepted the assigned duty with a full sense of responsibility and I think I am bound to account from my action to my countrymen.
Unfortunately there may yet be many among my dear countrymen who would question this. Nursed in the high ideal of Indian womanhood they may ask, how can a woman engage in such ferocious task of murdering and killing people? I am pained at the distinction being made between a man and woman in the struggle for freedom of the country. Today if our brothers can enlist in the war of independence, we too the women should be allowed to do the same and why not? With this hope in my heart I am proceeding today for self immolation. Vande Mataram.
Within the note Pritilata also lamented the fairly stereotypical division of male-oriented societies which viewed the male as public and political figures whilst female were restricted to being private and personal.
I wonder why there should be any distinction between males and females in a fight for the cause of the country's freedom? If our brothers can join a fight for the cause of the motherland why can't the sisters? Instances are not rare that Rajput ladies of hallowed memory fought bravely in the battlefields and did not hesitate to kill their country's enemies...If sisters can stand side by side with the brothers in a Satyagraha movement, why are they not so entitled in a revolutionary movement.
I earnestly hope that our sisters would no longer nurse the view that they are weak. Armed women of India will demolish a thousand hurdles, disregard a thousand dangers, and join the rebellion and the armed struggle for freedom.
Pritilata felt agency and the right to claim subjecthood, albeit in the most extreme form of violence against the colonizer, was as much hers as it was her male colleagues.
Pritilata, the most celebrated woman martyr of the freedom movement left an impassioned question which could not be answered within the dominant gender ideology of nationalism.
On 26 September 1932, three days after Pritiliata's attack, Mahatma Gandhi gave up his fast unto death in prison. His emissaries had reached a compromise with Dr B. R. Ambedkar at Pune the following evening after Preetilata Waddedar took her own life.
"Bir Kannya" (Brave Daughter) honorary title given for her ultimate sacrifice
Though the raid was partially successful, the impact was huge. News of Pritiliata's heroics in the Pahartoli European Club spread like wildfire. Her martyrdom and sacrifice for the love of her marti bhumi (motherland) created a stir and acted as a source of inspiration for revolutionaries in Bengal and throughout the rest of India.
Pritilata is reckoned to be the first woman to have martyred herself in India's struggle for freedom against the British regime. Her martyrdom provided an enormous stir and acted as a motivation for revolutions in Bengal and India.