We don’t generally find references of Ila Mitra in our history textbooks; she rarely seeps into academic debates in the university. But she is present, in the way we envision or understand a feminist icon. Her non recognition is perhaps because she is most prominently associated with “radical left politics” in the 1940s, which is more remembered for the aggressive national movement, Independence and Partition of India. I first learnt about Mitra in passing, when I was reading about the Tebhaga Andolon of Bengal (1946) in my undergraduate course. She only re-emerged in my journey as an anxious M.Phil student working on women political prisoners in West Bengal. Mitra was brutally tortured in custody and was the first to recount incidents of custodial rape publicly. Her biography is filled with vivid descriptions about violence she faced in prison, in one instance she recounted: “Then at night there was even more severe torture on me. Beating me up, stripping me and then beating up……then at night I was stripped nude and beaten up severely …raped by the police…the details are here…”
Ila Mitra’s story was both horrific and powerful and piqued my interest quite a bit. It is as if, she had assumed an iconic status in my mind for having borne so much pain and suffering. I needed to learn about her former life, as if to find clues for her resilience.
Early Engagements: Sports and Politics
Ila Mitra was a dynamic girl. She was a talented athlete, who won many accolades in her early years and ultimately received an invitation to participate in the Olympic games of 1940. But she could not participate as the Olympics got cancelled due to the ongoing World War. Sohini Chattopadhyay wrote that, “She had become a household name in Bengal, several local newspapers and journals described her as the first Bengali woman to get an Olympic call.” Prior to this, “In 1937 and 1938, the sports club, Jatiya Juba Sangha awarded her successive junior championship titles for girls in Bengal.”
But a missed opportunity in the Olympics only took her to a different quest: towards a more pronounced political career. She was involved both with the SFI (Student Federation of India) and the Mahila Atma Raksha Samiti (Women’s Self Defence Association) in her early years, especially as a college student in Calcutta. In 1945, Ila Mitra was married to Ramendra Nath Mitra, who belonged to a zamindari family of Ramchandrapur in eastern Bengal. Soon after, with her strong association with the CPI, she become more involved in peasant movements and ultimately became a prominent leader of the Tebhaga Andolon (a sharecropper’s movement that demanded that the peasants retained two thirds of the produce themselves. The movement was backed by the CPI and AIKS. The movement also saw a large participation of women and is also one of the important women’s political movements in South Asian History).
Choices, Convictions and Political Career
Evidently, her personal convictions and choices made her more of a feminist example. Sohini Chattopadhyay further mentions that “she agreed to marriage possibly for the groom’s political affiliation”. Her husband was also a CPI party worker and thus always supported her political work. Ila Mitra and Ramen worked with their peasant tenants and even lived amongst the community. Soon after her son’s birth in 1948, Mitra rejoined her political work leaving the child under the care of her mother-in-law. Always being actively supported by her husband, she was embedded in the community she served, and soon after, emerged as a more celebrated political leader than Ramen. She was a devoted CPI activist and extensively travelled from village to village to organise peasants for the Tebhaga cause. She addressed public meetings and worked tirelessly among the members of the village community, most significant of which was the Santal community in Nachole (a village in East Bengal, present day Bangladesh).
Curiously, it is at this phase of her political career that Ila Mitra transformed into a leader and achieved somewhat of a venerated status among the people of Nachole. She came to be known as “Rani-Ma” (Queen Mother). Kavita Panjabi observed that, “in addition to being a communist, Ila Mitra was also the leader of the Santals.” She would teach the young girls of the village and also ensured a large participation of peasant women in the Tebhaga movement. The Santal villagers and their Rani-Ma had a special relationship. They were devoted to her as a leader. This can be understood from a later episode when sixty locals succumbed to brutal police torture in order to prevent her arrest, rather than “betray their Rani-ma”. She had attained a certain cult status that remained untarnished through the years. Kavita Panjabi describes this as a “deep-rooted political loyalty” that continued beyond her years of active political work.
Ila Mitra came to be a source of inspiration for many younger women who joined the left movement in the 1970s. During my M.Phil fieldwork, several former women activists I spoke to, mentioned how they looked up to her as an icon or role model. Often Mitra’s story would inspire them to continue their own political work against many odds. In Kavita Panjabi’s account, Rani-Ma’s aura remained amongst the Santal’s even after fifty years of the Tebhaga Movement. This was well evident in the fantastical event of Ila’s return to Nachole in 1996, when she was greeted by 1,00,000 Santals. Panjabi wrote: Tribal women had dressed in their best clothes. They had decked themselves with flowers in their hair – to them it was like a festival; and they had come to pay homage to Rani ma, whom they looked upon as the goddess of their dreams. She was a formidable presence in her family, her son remembered her as woman who “remained unfazed” till the end.
The paradox however lies in the fact that though her legacy continues to thrive in personal anecdotes, she has found little mention in Indian history. I believe the reasons for this to be the tragic reality of Partition, wherein Ila Mitra transformed into a more celebrated figure in Bangladesh (where Nachole is located now) while receding in our own memory and history. Alternatively, it could also be due to the patriarchal traditions of larger historiography, due to which her life story like many other women political leaders remains subsumed in the larger male-centric political histories of India. But whatever be her fate in history, her indomitable spirit makes her a feminist icon who continues to inspire many of us.
- “Athlete Ila Mitra missed the 1940 Olympics, but became an indomitable peasant leader” by Sohini Chattopadhyay, Hindu, July 30, 2021
- “Ila Mitra – Revolutionary, Trailblazer”, The Daily Star, January 17, 2022
- Panjabi, Kavita. “Otiter Jed or Times of Revolution: Ila Mitra, the Santals and the Tebhaga Movement”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 45, No. 33, August, 2010
Madhulagna Halder is a Doctoral Candidate of History at McGill University, Canada. Her research is on gender history and prisoner’s rights in South Asia. When, not sifting through historical sources and reading, she likes to tend to her indoor plants and engage in debates and loud arguments with patriarchal voices around her.