In the 1930s, Gandhi was advocating for women to be the face of his nationalist movement because of their propensity for non-violence and passiveness. Revolutionary women who took up arms against the British proved this generalising, reductive statement wrong. In fact, the story of two Bengali women, Pritilata Waddedar and Kalpana Datta, who took part in the dangerous Chittagong armoury raid showed India that gallantry and boldness were not exclusively male attributes.
Whether violence was the best way to achieve nationalist goals is still being debated by scholars today. The important thing to note is that these women decided for themselves in spite of the societal pressure to conform to traditional femininity. Their lives are a constant reminder to never underestimate the strength of manhood.
Chittagong Armoury Raid
The Chittagong armoury raid took place on 18 April 1930 and was an attempt at raiding the armoury of police and auxiliary forces, led by freedom fighter Surya Sen. The volunteers he gathered were part of a revolutionary group of nationalists who believed in using force to fight the British. The original plan was to capture two armouries in Chittagong, subsequently destroying the telegraph and telephone office. The group would then take hostages from the European Club, as most of its members were involved in the colonial government in some form. Amongst these volunteers were two incredible women: Pritilata Waddedar and Kalpana Datta.
Pritilata Waddedar boldly approached Surya Sen to request to join the Chittagong raid, knowing that it was unusual for women to be involved in dangerous revolutionary activity. A surge in anti-colonial sentiments first occurred in her when her degree in philosophy was held back by the British authorities in Calcutta University, and since then, she had become increasingly involved in anti-colonial groups.
Surya Sen decided that it would be useful to have Pritilata onboard, but even he could not have predicted how much she would contribute to the Chittagong raiders. Pritilata became one of the main masterminds of the raid and created elaborate strategies in preparation for the raid, impressing her comrades with her knowledge and incredible resolve to overthrow the British.
Unfortunately, the raid did not go exactly as they had planned. While they managed to cut some of the telegraph and telephone wires, but they could not locate the ammunition. Furthermore, they had surrounded the European Club, but they were not many members in the building because it had been Good Friday. The Europeans alerted the British troops, who caught the revolutionaries hiding in the hills four days later. 12 died in the fight, but Pritilata and Sen to regroup and reorganise the remaining people.
Pritilata was then given the most important task of her life – to lead 40 men in marching to the Pahartali European club to torch it. This action was taken partly to avenge the massacre in the hills, but also because this particular club had a racist sign that said “Dogs and Indians are not allowed” on it. Pritilata eagerly took up this assignment, and she led the men to the European Club with immense determination and skill.
Pritilata was then given the most important task of her life – to lead 40 men in marching to the Pahartali European club to torch it.
While she and her team managed to torch the club, British troops arrived soon after they had done the deed, and an intense gunfight broke out. Eventually, Pritilata and her team were ambushed by the British soldiers. She and her team fell victim to the troops’ guns, and she was fatally wounded. But Pritilata was not about to surrender to the British. She chose to commit suicide instead of giving herself over to the British, ingesting cyanide at the last moment.
Pritilata exercised agency over her own life up to her very last breath. She was the first Bengali woman to take up arms against the British, and true to her fighting spirit, she wanted to die on her own terms. Pritilata is still known today as the iron lady of Bengal who gave up her life for her country.
Kalpana’s story is one of resilience, strength and survival. She was heavily involved in a semi-revolutionary student organisation called the Chhatri Sangha. It was through this group that she met Pritilata, who later introduced her to Sen. Kalpana was strong-willed and extremely passionate about her country, and signed up to be part of the Chittagong raid. These two women had a strong bond which helped them get through the struggles they faced as part of Sen’s army of teenage revolutionaries.
Kalpana was given the responsibility of transporting explosives and other supplies, but she particularly excelled in preparing gun cotton, a certain type of explosive agent. In a way, she was able to use her scientific knowledge to help the cause. Kalpana also assisted Pritilata in planning the raid itself. However, she was captured by the British a week before the raid was carried out. When she was released on bail, she went underground to aid in Pritilata’s plans for torching the European Club. Unfortunately, she was caught together with the rest of the rebels.
Kalpana’s story is one of resilience, strength and survival. She was given the responsibility of transporting explosives and other supplies and she particularly excelled in preparing gun cotton.
Even after being arrested twice, Kalpana had not lost her sense of resilience. She successfully escaped from prison and was on the run from the British until they caught her months later. She was sentenced to prison for but was released six years later when the British were losing control over India.
Although she lived a relatively quiet life afterwards, Kalpana’s spirit manifested in what she passed on to her daughter, Manini Chatterjee. She recounted the entire story of the Chittagong armoury raid to Manini, who was so inspired by her mother that she wrote a non-fiction book called Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising (1930-34). It is thanks to Manini Chatterjee, another incredible woman, that we know about Kalpana and Pritilata’s legacies today.
Also read: 6 Indian Queens Who Fought Colonialism
In modern society, a man joining the army is seen as chivalrous, almost as if violence in men is expected. These two women were not afraid to put themselves in very real danger, and their choice to do so proves that women are never what society make us out to be.
- The Better India
- The Voice of Justice
- 1930: Turning Point in the Participation of Women in the Freedom Struggle
Featured Image Source: The Better India