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Commemorating Leela Roy

The Girl of Fire during of the British regime in the Indian Sub-continent

by Anwar A. Khan

The compassionate face of Leela Roy looks like kindness, forgiveness, patience, empathy, generosity, respect, service. Compassion grants us a sense of belonging, a feeling of connection to all life. It is a practice of mindfulness and gratitude. When in the presence of pain and suffering, compassion is the face of love. But she was a revolutionary lady during fiery times of the British regime in the Indian Sub-continent.

The story of the Indian revolutionaries is a story of the ideologies, of the growth of the objective from mere anti-British feeling to socialism, of the hundreds of youths marching to the gallows and of thousands of people wasting the best part of their lives in jails.

During Leela Roy’s time a number of women joined the populist revolutionary movement that was gathering momentum in the British India. Many of the women were from noble or bureaucratic families and they had formed and participated in women’s study circles. Calling for social justice and political change, these women took advantage of the revolutionary mood sparked by Leela’s reforms to education and many othersocial fields.

The history of women in the-then Indian politics is just as long as that of the nation as a whole. And, of course, that history is still being written by many women who have yet to make it to the history books.

Leela Roy was born 2 October 1900. She was a radical leftist Indian politician and reformer, and a close associate of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose.

She was born into an upper middle class Bengali Hindu Kayastha family in Sylhet in Bengal (now in Bangladesh) and educated at the Bethune College in Kolkata, graduating with a gold medal in English, she fought with university authorities and became the first woman to be admitted to the University of Dhaka and earned her M.A. degree. Co-education was not permitted in Dhaka University; the-then Vice Chancellor Philip Hartog gave a special permission for her admission.

She threw herself into social work and education for girls, starting the second girls school in Dhaka, she encouraged girls learning skills and receiving vocational training and emphasised the need for girls to learn martial arts to defend themselves. Over the years, she set up a number of schools and institutes for women.

She contacted Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose when he was leading the relief action after the 1921 Bengal floods, she, then a student of the Dhaka University, was instrumental in forming the Dhaka Women's Committee and, in that capacity, raised donations and relief goods to help Netaji.

In 1931, she began publishing Jayasree, the first magazine edited, managed, and wholly contributed by women writers, it received the blessings of many eminent personalities including Rabindranath Tagore, who suggested its name.

Leela formed a rebellion organisation in December 1923 called Deepali Sangha in Dhaka where combat training was given. Pritilata Waddedar, another famed revolutionary lady took courses from there, she took part in the Civil Disobedience Movement and was imprisoned for six years. In 1938, Leela was nominated by Congress President, Subhas Chandra Bose to the National Planning Committee of the Congress. In 1939 she married Anil Chandra Roy. On Bose's resignation from the Congress, the couple joined him in the Forward Bloc.

In 1941, when there was a serious outburst of communal rioting in Dhaka, she along with Sarat Chandra Bose formed the Unity Board and National Service Brigade. In 1942, during the Quit India Movement both she and her husband were arrested and her magazine was forced to cease. On her release in 1946, she was elected to the Constituent Assembly of India.

During the India partition violence, she met Gandhiji in Noakhali, Bangladesh. Even before Gandhiji reached there, she opened a relief centre and rescued 400 women after touring on foot 90 miles in just six days. After the Partition of India, she ran homes in Calcutta for destitute and abandoned women and tried to help refugees from East Bengal.

In 1947 she founded the Jatiya Mahila Sanghati, a women's organisation in West Bengal. In 1960, she became the chairwoman of the new party formed with the merger of the Forward Bloc (Subhasist) and the Praja Socialist Party but was disappointed with its working. After two years, she retired from active politics.

Both male and female revolutionaries printed and distributed propaganda, and carried out political and economic terrorist acts. They went to the countryside to live among peasants in the hope of improving living standards and raising socialist consciousness.

The heroism of the females of the Revolution has gone from memory with the generation that witnessed it, and nothing, absolutely nothing remains upon the ear of the young of the present day. While much ink has been spilled on the men, the experiences, influences, and contributions of women during this momentous period have been little noticed by history.

The women of the Indian Revolution were a motley crew of various combinations of class, colour, age, and education, and their experiences during the struggles to drive away the British rulers from the Indian soil were as diverse and varied as the women themselves. Without them, the new countries that emerged after end of the British Empire from the Indian Sub-continent, may not have survived. People should get to know some of the women who were critical to the nations’ birth. And Leela Roy is one of the towering figures of them.

Highly energetic and always on the go, she was an independent-minded person, with a secure sense of values and a deep sense of humanism; and a true internationalist who believed in the harmony of multiple cultures.

There are many women who have performed numerous forms of social reforms in the British India which led them to become an example for other women living in the society. Leela always took the question of revolutionary work among women workers very seriously for their betterment of lives.

Leela Roy like spectacular women leaders laid the basis for the social emancipation of women, and it is undeniable that they made colossal strides forward in the struggle for equality. Women were no longer obliged to live with their husbands or accompany them if a change of job meant a change of house. They were given equal rights to be head of the household and received equal pay. Attention was paid to the women's childbearing role and special maternity laws were introduced banning long hours and night work and establishing paid leave at childbirth, family allowances and child-care centres.
Material advances were made to facilitate the full involvement of women in all spheres of social, economic and political life - the provision of free school meals, milk for children, special food and cloth allowances for children in need, pregnancy consultation centres, maternity homes, creches and other facilities.

Leela fight for the sacred unity of the proletariat, irrespective of sex, race, colour, religion or nationality. Thus, her fight for the cause of women necessarily presupposes an implacable struggle against all kinds of bourgeois and petty bourgeois feminism. Such tendencies, where they gain influence in the labour movement, invariably play into the hands of the most reactionary elements, play a divisive role and sow confusion among those women who are moving in the direction of socialism. As we have seen, she always spoke of working women and not women in general. It goes without saying that the struggle for the rights of women includes all women proletarians, including housewives, female unemployed, school-students, etc. But the key element is the working women who today represent a large and growing section of the working class.

If we are to deal seriously with the question of the enslavement of women, it is not sufficient merely to deal with the most obvious manifestations of this. Of course, as we have said, it is necessary to fight against all kinds of discrimination and inequality. But unless and until the root cause of the oppression of women is eradicated, the essence of the problem will not be overcome. Women will only be free when men are free. That is to say, when humanity begins to live a genuinely human existence.

When the old primitive, inhuman psychology born of misery finally recedes into the past, the material conditions have been established for a new social order in which the last vestiges of external compulsion and coercion have disappeared and men and women have then finally found to be able to relate to each other as free human beings.

Leela Roy died on 11 June 1970 at 70, after a prolonged illness. She seems to write her own epitaph:

When to be asleep in the deep night
Is the starlit end of a sunlit life
And death is adventure to me
I will seek these stars.

-The End –

The writer is a senior citizen of Bangladesh, writes on politics, political and human-centred figures, current and international affairs.

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