She was just 21. But Bina Das still opened fire on Bengal Governor Stanley Jackson in the convocation hall at Calcutta University. She was supposed to get her graduation degree the same day in 1932, at the same venue. Das served nine years of hard labour for her act which stemmed from a deep desire to see her homeland free from British occupation. But then not many know of Bina Das, one of the many women who were at the forefront of the freedom movement in Bengal.
Das’ parents, Beni Madhab Das and Sarala Devi, both of whom were social workers and educationists, were deeply involved with the Brahmo Samaj. The duo believed in giving their children, especially their daughters, freedom, education and instilling a quest for learning. Uncommon traits in the early 1900s. Das’ mother Sarala Devi also ran a women’s hostel named Punya Ashram in Calcutta that doubled as storage space for bombs and weapons the revolutionaries used. Several occupants of this hostel were revolutionaries themselves, belonging to various underground groups.
Her parents’ involvement in the freedom struggle was indirect and they focused on the upliftment of women and women’s rights in Bengal. But Beni Madhab Das, as a professor, served to inspire many of his students for the cause of India’s freedom, the most notable being Subhas Chandra Bose.
In her own memoir, translated from Bengali by Dhira Dhar, Das mentions how deeply “Subhas babu” was inspired by her father and was a regular visitor to her parents’ home. Das’ first meeting with Bose stands out in the memoir. She remembers her mother saying: “Subhas, my daughter is a great admirer of yours.” Bose’s political beliefs appealed to a young Das, serving to further her anti-British stance.
In her memoir, Das “vividly” recalls an incident that occured when she was still a school student. “One day we heard… that the British Viceroy’s wife was coming to visit our school. The day before that we were called from class to rehearse the programme of welcome,” wrote Das. “We would have to carry baskets of flowers and scatter the flowers at her feet as she entered the premises. I was revolted by the idea and walked out of the rehearsal. The plan was so insulting. I sat quietly in the corner of the classroom with tears in my eyes. Two other girls also walked out and joined me.”
According to Das’ own writings, this incident held more significance than may appear. “Much perturbed, we took a vow that we would sacrifice our lives for the freedom of the motherland. Later in life I often remembered this childish vow, and in moments of weakness it gave me strength and hardened my resolve.”
Bose continued to play the role of a mentor in Das’ life, especially when she joined Bethune College, under Calcutta University as a college student. The college library and books that urged theories of revolution and freedom further encouraged Das’ beliefs and hopes for an independent India. Das, along with her group of fellow students, organised their first student protests against the Simon Commission that arrived in 1928 and faced threats from the college administration and the English principal if they did not apologise.
In what may be called Das’ first taste of victory against British oppression, the students’ protests against the Simon Commission and refusal to submit to the college’s demands, led to the “overbearing Englishwoman” resigning from service and leaving the institution.
This revolt laid the foundations of what came to be known as the Chhatri Sangha, a women student society that was semi-revolutionary in its activities. Das’ sister Kalyani, was the secretary of this organisation. Like other revolutionary groups that came up across Bengal during the time, the members of the Chhatri Sangha were taught basic self-defence including lathi lekha, where the women were taught to use batons. This student group also served to recruit other members and was helmed by noted revolutionaries like Dinesh Majumdar.
The full extent of Bose’ role as a mentor and individual who deeply inspired Das can only be understood through readings of her memoir. Their conversations and meetings when Das was a college student involved reflection of their beliefs and discussions between the mentor and mentee on the future of their beloved motherland. “How do you think our country will get freedom? Through violence or non-violence?” asked the student. The teacher replied: “You must want something madly before you can achieve it. Our nation must want freedom passionately. Then the question of violence or non-violence will not be important.”
As the struggle for freedom adopted secrecy and began operation underground, Das along with her contemporaries, women like Suhasini Ganguly, sisters Shanti and Neena Dasgupta, found themselves driven by slogans like, “karenge ya marenge”; we will do or die, one that finds specific mention in her memoir. “The mantra….inspired the boys and girls of Bengal long before it became a slogan in 1942.”
In the spring of 1932, Das learned that the Governor of Bengal, Stanley Jackson, would attend the convocation ceremony at Calcutta University. Explaining her motivations in her memoir, Das states quite simply, that it “would be a great occasion to register (her) protest against the empire”. Das approached her friend Kamala Dasgupta, a revolutionary associated with the Jugantar, another revolutionary group, for weapons. After a volley of questions and answers, including attempts to enlighten Das of the serious consequences of opening fire on the governor, Dasgupta agreed to supply the weapons Das needed to carry out her plans.
At the convocation, Bina Das fired five shots at Jackson at close range, but was tackled and disarmed by Hassan Suhrawardy, the first Muslim Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University. Das was imprisoned and the British, having been so impressed by Suhrawardy’s noble deed, awarded him a knighthood for the trouble. Newspaper back in England, devoted columns to the incident with headlines like “Calcutta Outrage; Stanley Jackson’s Narrow Escape” in the Glasgow Herald.
Feminist author Radha Kumar, in her book ‘The History of Doing’, writes that Dasgupta collected funds from other group members and engaged a male comarade to purchase the gun. In her memoir, Das explains the anxiety and hesitations she felt before the event that changed her life and the fears her parents had when she told them of her plans to open fire on the governor. Freedom fighters themselves who had instilled these very values in her from a young age, they understood her desire to devote her life to the cause of the freedom of the country. “They knew their daughter would do anything for the country.”
After Das’ release from prison, she returned to a world she felt was different from one that she had been made to leave nearly a decade ago. She met her mentor, Bose, for the last time, only to never see him again.
In the early 1940s, her work for the freedom movement once again led to her imprisonment in Presidency jail, till she was released in 1945. Continuing her fight against the British, Das witnessed more despair and bloodshed in the run-up to independence. In 1947, she married a fellow revolutionary, Jatish Chandra Bhaumik, a member of the Jugantar group.
Not much is known about Das’s life after India attained independence. In 1960, the Government of India awarded her the Padma Shri for her contributions in social work. According to some reports, she died in destitution and poverty in December 1986, her body having been recovered from a ditch in Rishikesh, decomposed so severely that it took authorities weeks to identify.
Due to her revolutionary activities, the British authorities of Calcutta University had denied Bina Das her graduation degree, in a futile attempt to penalise and pressure her for her anti-British stance. About 81 years later, in 2012, the University of Calcutta posthumously awarded Das her pending Bachelor of Arts degree with second class Honours in English for the year 1931.
“A second class Honours degree is very prestigious because marks were allotted differently during that time,” said Dr Soumitra Sarkar, Librarian of Calcutta University, who oversees university archives told indianexpress.com. “Many freedom fighters graduated with similar marks from the university, but that is not a reflection of their academic abilities because the system was different then.”
The various pressures that Das and her contemporaries were subjected to by the British failed to dissuade them in their cause and the withholding of her academic degree would possibly not have been of much concern to a woman who had dedicated her life to a nation and people who forgot her towards the end of her life. But her hopes for her nation are clear in the opening sentences of her memoir.
“The fifteenth of August is drawing near. Though our minds are filled with despair and heavy with despondency, though dark shades of doubt loom large, the thought that we are becoming free at last….flashes like lightning through our thrilled souls. We have attained freedom. The British are leaving this country forever.”
“Maybe, today we are unable to appreciate the significance of this event; but, in the course of time…true realisation will dawn upon those, our future progeny, who will build a golden future for our nation on the foundation of this hard-earned freedom.”
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