At a time when women were not allowed into the internal meetings of the armed revolutionary group “Jugantar” in Bengal, Pritilata Waddedar not only participated in armed attacks against the oppressors but also led them. After the failure of the raid, Waddedar consumed cyanide, preferring death over capture by the British, setting a fiery example and inspiring young girls and women throughout the Eastern part of India with her bravery and dedication towards freeing India from colonial rule.
Born to Jagadbandhu Waddedar and Pratibhamayi Devi in Chittagong (presently, in Bangladesh) on 5th May 1911, one of their six children, from an early age, Pritilata was a meritorious student. Having grown up hearing about Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi and other brave women who had given up their lives for the country, Pritilata passed out from Dr. Khastagir Government Girl’s School in Chittagong in 1928 and enrolled in Eden College in Dhaka in 1929.
When she was a student of class VIII, she witnessed Masterda Surya Sen being imprisoned by the British Police on the charge of looting Railway money. On witnessing the oppression unleashed by the British Police on the revolutionary activists, her patriotic spirit rose up. Gradually she started collecting books on revolutionary philosophy and biographies of great revolutionary leaders.
As a student in Eden College, she joined and partook in various social activities after having joined the group, “Stree Sangha” under Leela Nag. She joined the Sangha under the banner of ‘Dipali Sangha’ which was a secret revolutionary group comprising of women. She also stood first in the intermediate Board exam that year. Arts and literature being her favorite subjects, Pritilata went to Calcutta to pursue higher studies from Bethune College and after two years, graduated in Philosophy with a distinction as well. However, her degree was withheld by the British in the administration of Calcutta University along with fellow revolutionary, Bina Das.
After completing her education, Pritilata returned to Chittagong where she took up the post of a headmistress at a local girls’ school called Nandankaran Aparnacharan School.
Initiation into Revolutionary Activities
While in Chittagong, Pritilata met with the famous revolutionary leader of that time, Masterda Surya Sen and Nirmal Sen in the Dhalghat camp of Jugantar group. Although, Binod Bihari Choudhury, a member of the group, objected to her presence in the group, Pritilata was selected because it was easier for women to transport arms and weapons as they did not arouse as much suspicion as men revolutionaries would.
Although allowed to join the group at first simply to throw the British off, Pritilata and many other women revolutionaries of that time would soon prove their worth and indispensability to the entire group as not just decoys but actual equal revolutionaries who were experts in fighting just as men, and could also plan and lead attacks.
As a part of the group, Pritilata also drew inspiration from fellow revolutionary Ramakrishna Biswas, who was jailed in Alipore Central Jail for mistakenly killing rail officer Tarini Mukherjee instead of Chittagong’s General Inspector of Police, Mr. Craig. As his friends and family could not gather enough money to go to Alipore Central Jail and meet him, Pritilata who was in Calcutta at that time, introduced herself as his sister and went and met him. In 1931, Biswas was executed as he was sentenced after his trial. His martyrdom inspired Pritilata even more.
Pritilata was not just a passive arms transporter but actively trained in the martial arts that the revolutionaries of Bengal were trained in at that time. She was herself trained in “lathi khela” and gun fighting and trained other girls to take up arms against the colonial rulers too.
Under Masterda, Pritilata was not just a passive arms transporter but actively trained in the martial arts that the revolutionaries of Bengal were trained in at that time. She was herself trained in “lathi khela” and gun fighting and trained other girls to take up arms against the colonial rulers too.
By 1930, Surya Sen, Waddedar and more than 60 others set out to capture the two main armouries in Chittagong, take hostages from the European Club, and cut off rail and communications contact with Calcutta. Despite failing to locate the British stockpile of ammunition, the revolutionaries managed to cut telephone and telegraph wires and disrupt the rail network and even captured the Reserve Police Line.
She also supplied explosives, wrote nationalist pamphlets and had earned a spot at the “Bengal’s Most Wanted List” by the age of 21.
Attack on the Pahartali European Club
In 1932, in what would be Pritilata’s last revolutionary activity, she was the leader of the Pahartali European Club attack mission.
The Pahartali European Club in Chittagong was a symbol of colonialism and racism, which portrayed and glorified British superiority over Indians as the club had a board on its door that read, “No Dogs or Indians allowed”. This was immensely insulting to all the revolutionaries and they decided to attack the club as a symbol of resistance and defiance.
Masterda had planned to appoint a woman as the leader of the mission but Kalpana Datta was arrested seven days before the mission. Due to this, Pritilata took up the leadership and went to the Kotowali sea side where she and the others in the mission, trained for the attack and also planned it.
23rd September, 1932 was chosen as the day of the attack with all the members being given potassium cyanide pills. The members had strict instructions to swallow the pills if they were caught by any chance.
Pritilata was dressed as a Punjabi male to disguise herself while her associates Kalishankar Dey, Bireshwar Roy, Prafulla Das, Shanti Chakraborty wore dhoti and shirt with Mahendra Chowdhury, Sushil Dey and Panna Sen opting for a lungi. They reached the club around 10:45 PM and launched their attack while the club had near about 40 people inside. One woman died while seven other women and four men were injured.
The police officers inside the club had revolvers and were shooting the revolutionaries with it. Pritilata was injured by a single bullet wound. Due to this, she was easily captured by the British. To avoid being arrested, she immediately swallowed her Cyanide pill and died with the post-mortem revealing that the cyanide was the main reason behind her death and not the bullet wound. On searching her dead body, the police found a few leaflets, photograph of Ramkrishna Biswas, bullets, whistle and the draft of their plan of attack.
In such a male-dominated community of armed revolutionaries, the activities of Pritilata Waddedar along with her contemporaries, Kalpana Datta, Santi Ghose and Suniti Choudhury are often ignored by history textbooks and the dominant narrative that runs in Bengali society about these armed revolutionaries.
Waddedar’s attack on the club as well as her death at such a tender age ignited a fire in the entire Eastern side of India. Her bravery and audacity at a time when women were still kept in the “andarmahal” and not thought fit enough to be educated or participate in political protests, astounded everyone. More and more women were inspired, motivated and awed by her struggle and fight against the oppressive rule of the British.
A trust named “Birkannya Pritilata Trust” has been founded after her that celebrates her birthday every year in Bangladesh and India. A road has been named after her in Chittagong. A bronze statue of Pritilata was erected in 1920, adjacent to the historical European Club. Schools, colleges and halls have been named after her in Bangladesh as well as India (primarily in West Bengal). A “Pritilata Shaheed Minar” has also been constructed to commemorate her sacrifice for the country.
In Popular Culture
Two Bollywood films were made on Masterda Surya Sen’s life and revolving around his activities, “Chittagong” and “Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey”. Pritilata’s character was portrayed in both of those films by Vega Tamotia and Vishakha Singh.
Pritilata Waddedar is also the great-great aunt of Ash Sarkar, a British journalist and political activist and senior editor at Novorra Media.
Also read: Tracing The Colonial Past Of Modern Indian Regressive Laws
Pritilata Waddedar stands out as a beacon in the field of women revolutionaries who took up arms against the British rule and torture that was meted out every day. Conflicting with Gandhi’s ideology of non-violence, the Anushilan Samiti was founded as a “suburban bodybuilding society” but soon became an organization based on nationalist ideas as propounded by Swami Vivekananda and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay which were hugely read in Bengal during that time.
Anushilan Samiti was one of such many secret societies which were founded in Bengal during that time to plan and carry out armed attacks on the agents of the British government on a local level and soon leading to state level. At such a point of time, Aurobindo Ghose wrote nationalist publications like ‘Jugantar’ and ‘Bande Mataram’. Many men from the middle and lower classes came up to join these societies and participated in these attacks. They trained together and worked to chase the British out of India.
In such a male-dominated community of armed revolutionaries, the activities of Pritilata Waddedar along with her contemporaries, Kalpana Datta, Santi Ghose and Suniti Choudhury are often ignored by history textbooks and the dominant narrative that runs in Bengali society about these armed revolutionaries. It would be a grave injustice to overlook the part Pritilata played at this juncture of time. Not only at that time but also the everlasting impact her actions would have on the generations of women to come, inspiring them to get out of the patriarchal society that confined them to their houses, to come out and actively break the gender roles that prevailed in society that set aside women as the weaker sex.
According to Ash Sarkar, “For Pritilata Waddedar and other female participants in the freedom struggle, armed anticolonial insurrection was the only means by which women could achieve their liberation.” In what transpired to be her final documented words, Waddedar wrote ,“I earnestly hope that my sisters will no more think themselves weaker and will get themselves ready to face all dangers and difficulties and join the revolutionary movement in their thousands.”
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