Pritilata, the female warrior

Chittagong: a hot bed of revolutionary action

In the 1930s, there were many revolutionary groups all over Bengal and Chittagong was a fertile land for the revolutionary activities. Members of these groups believed that India’s freedom could be achieved only through armed struggle.

There were, throughout Bengal, many well established "resistance" groups dedicated to reformation, or destruction of the British rule.

And it cannot be surprising that in the city that had, by then, already been under the administration of Britain for 170 years, such resistance was amongst the most active.

Not least, of course, because of the racism so readily demonstrated by British residents.

The early nineteenth century had seen the reform of British administration of its Indian territories, bringing to its work far more lower middle class employees who often sought refuge from their alienation in both religion and racism.

And since Chittagong had been, from the beginning, a major base of British activity, there were probably more British residents, and more British-only facilities, than in most other parts of India.

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Joining Surya Sen's revolutionary group

Pritilata believed that the time had come for women to take active role in the armed struggle against the British, sacrifice their lives if necessary, and confront all risks, dangers and tribulations, on the same footing as their male comrades. She was ready to join the Indian independence movement and free her motherland.

During visits home from Calcutta, Pritilata found one of her brothers was already involved in revolutionary politics and was an active member of an anti-British group led by Surya Sen, known as 'Masterda'. Her brother introduced her to the famous revolutionary activist and facilitated her entry into their work. During those days it was very rare for a woman to join in revolutionary politics, nevertheless Masterda accepted Pritilata as a woman member of his revolutionary group. A contemporary revolutionary, Binod Bihari Chowdhury, objected that they did not allow women to join their group. However, Pritalata was allowed to join the group because the revolutionaries reasoned that women transporting weapons would not attract as much suspicion as men.

At first Pritilata was called upon to discharge messages rather than take part in missions. One such assignment would have a profound effect on young Priti.

  • Surya Sen ("Masterda") ( - )
  • Binod Bihari Chowdhury ( - )

Inspiration from Ramkrishna Biswas

In one assignment in 1931 Surya Sen and his revolutionary group decided to kill Craig, Inspector General of Chittagong. Ramakrishna Biswas and Kalipada Chakravarty were assigned for this task. But they mistakenly killed SP of Chandpur and Traini Mukherjee instead of Craig. Ramakrishna Biswas and Kalipada Chakravarty were arrested on 2 December 1931. After the trial Biswas was ordered to be hanged till death and Chakravarty to be exiled to Cellular Jail.

  • Ramakrishna Biswas ( - )
  • Kalipada Chakravarty ( - )

The family and friends lacked the amount of money required to travel to Chittagong to Alipore Jail [Alipur Central Jail] of Calcutta. Since at that time Pritilata was staying in Kolkata (as a student of Bethune College), she was asked by Surya Sen to go to Alipore Jail and meet Ramkrishna Biswas. The political prisoner was put behind the bars under strict observation in complete seclusion. Nevertheless, Pritilata convinced the jail authorities that she was a distant relative of Ram Krishna - allegedly she introduced herself as his sister - and met him a total of 40 times, once every week, prior to his execution. These meetings and their long conversation had a profound effect on 20-year-old Pritilata and deepened her resolve to free her Motherland of British tyranny.

There was another revolutionary, Ramkrishna Bishwas, a brilliant student and a year older than me in school. He was caught and was sentenced to die. Nobody could meet him, not even his relatives.

Pritilata heard about Ram Krishna, managed to convince the jail authorities that she was his distant relative and actually met him 40 times, once every week. I think this was possible because the jailer back then was an Irish. And the Irish by nature are freedom lovers and had to fight for their land, just like we did.

Anyway, Masterda had heard about Pritilata and wanted her to join the group. Pritilata also was very eager to join our group. We, generally, did not allow girls or women to be a part of our group. However, at one point, we realised that it was impossible to work without girls, so as to achieve our goals and complete our missions. Girls could easily transport weapons, even on local transport. That is why we depended on a lot of women who transported a lot of our weapons from one part of the country to another.

Binod Bihari Chowdhury,

Their [i.e. Pritilata's and Ram Krishna Biswas'] long conversation cast a concrete foundation of revolutionary - mentality dormant in her – saturated her with revolutionary dreams which she believed the only way to earn freedom in true sense.

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On her final return to Chittagong, Pritilata became a trusted and respected member of Surya Sen's group.

After she graduated from Dhaka University, Pritilata became a teacher. Her father was a clerk in a municipal office, and the family was not well off. Her father entrusted his salary to Priti, who kept the key to the family cash box. When Surya Sen needed 50 rupees she handed over her father's monthly salary to Sen. Her teacher's salary supported her parents and 4 younger siblings.

She was an articulate revolutionary and wrote many pamphlets used by Sen's IRA. She was aware that her revolutionary lifestyle put her family in financial jeopardy but it was a decision she felt she had to make.

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Masterda and Pritilata narrowly survive police encounter

Along with the revolutionary group of Surya Sen, Pritilata took part in many raids like attacks on the Telephone & Telegraph offices and the capture of the reserve police line. She took part in the Jalalabad battle, in which her responsibility was to supply explosives to the revolutionaries.

On 13 June 1932 Masterda called for a special secret meeting at his hideout in the village of Dhalghat, Patiya Upazila, which wasn't too far from the town. Pritilata was one of the invitees to the secret hideout which ironically was located in her birthplace. The venue for the secret meeting was the house of Savitri Devi, a widower. However, the gathering proved catastrophic as the information of the meeting was somehow leaked to the British authorities and they set out to crackdown on the secret rendezvous.

When the meeting was in place, suddenly the house was surrounded and raided at dusk by British military officers and police officers led by Cameron, Captain of the 218 Gurkha Rifles Regiment. In the violent encounter that subsequently followed Captain Cameroon was shot dead while ascending the staircase. Nirmal Sen is usually attributed with killing Cameron, though some have suggested it may have been Apurba Sen.

The leaders were on the upper floor of the two storied mudhouse. The captain was going up the ladder followed by a havildar when a shot pierced his heart. There is a difference of opinion whether Apurba Sen or Nirmal Sen fired the shot.

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Knowing fully well the risk involved in, harbouring absconders, respectable ladies with family not unoften came forward to provide shelter to those whose heads carried heavy rewards. Shifting from place to place Surya Sen with his two valiant lieutenants, Nirmal Sen and Apurba Sen and another young boy came to Dhalghat, a place about 4 miles north of Patiya Military Camp and 10 miles from the Chittagong town.

About 9 p.m. Master-da (Surya Sen) and his comrades almost finished their dinner. A young girl of the house, and in such matters the youngsters of each family had shown considerable tact and discipline, signalled the arrival of a large number of unknown men in the locality.

The house, a two-storeyed mud-built one was surrounded by the police, and Captain Cameron of the 2/8th Gurkhas and a Havildar, the leader of the party, being almost certain about the presence of the suspects in the second storey went up by outer stairs Surya Sen and his young comrade got on the top of the cornigated roofing of the cook-shed by a bamboo ladder and jumped on the ground and disappeared.

The Havildar was ahead of the Captain and while passing through a narrow door was pushed off the stairs and fell to the ground below. A young man, Apurba Sen, armed with revolvers confronted Cameron at a range of a yard and shot him through. The armed man then dashed down the stairs and was challenged by a rifleman in the compound. As he attempted to escape, the rifleman fired at him killing him outright.

Meanwhile another man, Nirmal, in the upper storey was seen trying to escape by climbing through a window. He was fired at and wounded. He at once got inside the room for protection.

It was late at night when the Havildar thought of bringing in reinforcement from the Patiya Military Camp. He came back with 15 additional riflemen and a Lewis gun. He increased the guard around the house and started his operations against the room that sheltered the fugitive. He aimed his Lewis gun at a window of the room. Three revolver shots were fired from the window but they failed to hit anybody.

The firing from the Lewis gun continued for some time more and all signs of movement in the room ceased. The guards remained at their posts for the rest of the night.

In the morning in the hedge by the side of the house was found the body of a man who had attacked Cameron. There were two revolvers with him, one in his hand and the other in waist belt.

In the upper storey Nirmal Sen lay dead with several wounds on his body.

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  • Nirmal Sen ( - )
  • Apurba Sen ( - )

Sadly for the Bengali revolutionaries, many of the group members courted martyrdom in the exchange of fire including two of Surya Sen's trusted lieutenants Apurba Sen (alias Bhola) and Nirmal Sen, both young men in their 20s. But luckily Surya, Pritilata and Kalpana luckily managed to escape to safety - just.

The police brought a canon that blasted the house in the morning. When the police went inside they found the dead body of Nirmal Sen, but Master-da along with Pritilata Waddedar gave them a slip and escaped. They went to another village named Katani.

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After completing her Bachelors degree, Pritilata had come to join Masterda's forces.

One day, the police had surrounded Masterda's shelter where several from the team were also situated. Immediately, Nirmal Sen, another leader of ours, asked Masterda to move downstairs. Through a pathway, Masterda reached a small pond. Along with him were Pritilata and one of the boys from the team who was suffering from high fever. All three of them, hid under water. They would bring their nose up, breathe and then go down again. At one point, a stray bullet hit the boy suffering from fever and killed him.

After a couple of hours, when everything had cooled down, Masterda and Pritilata climbed out of the water and found dead bodies all over the place. Nirmal da was also dead. They shifted to another shelter.

He asked Priti to change into something else quickly and go to town so that in the morning, the authorities would not suspect her of being involved. But she refused to go. She could not bear the fact that Nirmal da and the boy had died in front of her. Pritilata wanted to work with Masterda and if necessary would take a bullet. Masterda had asked her to wait and would assign her accordingly in a mission.

Binod Bihari Chowdhury

Pritilata came back to her school. But by now she had been identified and the infamous trio were enlisted on the 'most wanted' list by British police. So Masterda instructed the two ladies to go underground just as the male revolutionaries of that time did and await further instruction. As such both Pritilata and Kalpana left their school and went undercover.

For her part the landlady Savitri Devi was arrested on the same day along with her son Ram Krishna Chakraborty, a minor. Ram was sentenced to four years of hard labour and moved to Midnapore Central Jail where he was made to work the oil mills. Ram was also denied permission to meet his mother despite having contracted tuberculosis. He subsequently died in jail in 1934.

Savitri Devi wrote a letter to her brother-in-law but no reply came, nor did anybody turn up. Ultimately Ram Krishna died in jail. When the mother was allowed to have a glimpse of the dead body, she found iron fetters still on the wrists of her son. Her son’s death was extremely shocking for her. Even then she never lost courage and strength of mind.

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Savitri Devi was not treated well by her relatives when she went back to her own village after release from jail. She faced countless hardship to make a living. To date, Savitri Devi remains just another unsung hero of Bangladesh's rich and turbulent history.