The women of Orissa played a significant role in all phases of national movement. They had made momentous contribution to the freedom struggle by demonstrating their indomitable courage and unflinching patriotism. But Gandhiji was the chief architect of women’s participation in the National Movement. Because he, for the first time, involved women in the freedom struggle which gave a new dimension to the movement.
During pre-Gandhian era, barring a few ladies of royal, aristocratic and political families, Oriya women in general were not taking part in politics. But Gandhiji’s leadership aroused self-reliance and self-confidence amongst them and they came out of their seclusion to join the movement despite opposition from the family. This mass participation of women in the freedom struggle provided renewed impetus and vigor to the movement.
Gandhiji visited Orissa, for the first time, on 23rd March 1921. Before addressing a public meeting in Cuttack City on that day, he spoke to a small gathering of Oriya women at Vinod Vihari. That was the first public meeting Oriya women had ever attended and that was also the first occasion where a great political leader of Gandhiji’s stature addressed them separately. Never before Oriya women had this kind of experience nor had they been given so much importance by any other leader earlier.
The Gaya session of Indian National Congress was held in 1922. Prominent Oriya women luminaries like Rama Devi (wife of Gopabandhu Choudhury who resigned from the post of deputy magistrate to dedicate himself to the nationalist movement), Hiramani Devi (mother of Niranjan Pattanaik, the prominent Congress leader of Ganjam district) attended the same.
Likewise, Calcutta session of National Congress in December 1928 was represented by Rama Devi, Sarala Devi (wife of Bhagirathi Mohapatra, the first Secretary of Utkal Pradesh Congress Committee), Sarojini Choudhury (daughter of Fakir Mohan Senapati and wife of Munsif Gagan Bihari Choudhury), Janhavi Devi and Kokila Devi (daughter of Choudhury Bhagabat Prasad Mohapatra, M.L.C., Bhadrak and sister of Kantakavi Lakshmikanta Mohapatra) and Rasamani Devi. On the other hand, Karachi Congress held in March 1931, was attended by fourteen women delegates from Orissa.
The Salt March
The Salt Satyagraha marked the beginning of a true political career for Oriya women, bringing into limelight a large number of lady luminaries. Inchudi of Balasore district and Kujanga of Jagatsinghpur district were the two important centre of salt satyagraha when women played a vital role.
Women leaders like Rama Devi, Sarala Devi, Malati Devi (wife of former Chief Minister Nabakrushna Choudhury), Janhavi Devi, Kokila Devi, Kiranbala Sen, Bhagyabati Pata Mahadei (Rani of Kujang), Sarojini Choudhury, Laxmi Devi, Arnapurna Devi, Binapani Devi, Sunamani Devi, Chandramani Devi, Subhadra Mahatab, Maina Devi and Prafulla Kumari Devi made immense effort for the active participation of women in the Satyagraha. They organized women’s gatherings and enlightened them about various progresses of the movement.
The first batch of women satyagrahi led by Rama Devi, Malati Devi, Kironbala Sen joined Inchudi Satyagraha on 20th April 1930. Thousands of women followed them in a long procession defying government law. The women leaders persuaded the rural women folk to break the salt law. The response was so overwhelming that, socially oppressed women of the society came out of their static indoor life resisting the opposition of the family. Hence the mass participation of women in the freedom struggle provided a new dimension to the movement.
A large number of women collected salt in places like Kasaba, Basta, Bhadrak, Astaranga, Marichpur, Rusulpur, Laxmipur, Pallibondha, Ganjam and Humma. More than fifteen hundred women took part in the salt satyagraha at Inchudi on 20th April 1930 under the leadership of Rama Devi. Towards the middle of May 1930, more than five hundred women joined the Salt Satyagraha of Kujang at the call of Bhagyabati Pata Mahadei (Rani of Kujanga), Rama Devi and others.
While Rama Devi, Malati Devi, Kiranbala Sen, Binapani Devi, Sarojini Choudhury and Arnapurna Devi mostly worked for the movement in Cuttack district, Janhavi Devi, Kokila Devi, Subhadra Mahatab (wife of former Chief Minister H.K. Mahatab) mobilized women for the civil disobedience movement in Balasore district.
In 1931 Janhavi Devi and Kokila Devi organized a well-attended meeting of women at Balasore over which nationalist poetess Dr. Kuntala Kumari Sabat presided.
Sarala Devi strenuously worked in Ganjam district for mobilizing both men and women for the Satyagraha. Besides, Sunamani Devi (Krupasindhu Hota’s younger brother’s wife), who spent some months in Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram, actively mobilized women for the civil disobedience movement in Puri district. Moreover, Malati Devi played a conspicuous role in boycott and bonfires of foreign clothes.
In Sambalpur district, Jambubati Devi, wife of noted freedom fighter Bhagirathi Pattanaik led a procession during Quit India Movement despite her illness. In addition to breaking salt law, women were also engaged in delivering fiery speeches, felicitating the law-breakers, criticizing the government, spinning cotton, anti-untouchability work during different phases of movement.
Harijan movement began towards the end of 1932. Rama Devi played a pioneering role in the Harijan movement and about fifteen ladies carried out the anti-untouchability work under her leadership. During this phase Rama Devi realized that as mother, woman has a great role to play in the society, and awakening of the country was impossible without arousing the maternal force.
Rama Devi along with eleven ladies took part in Gandhiji’s Harijan Padayatra which began from Puri on 9th May 1934. Gandhiji highly appreciated the activities of the Women Padayatris and said,
I have marveled at the manner in which Smt. Rama Devi and her girls have discharged themselves during the tour. These ladies have not known what fatigue is. There was a naturalness about all they did which show that they have been trained to bear hardship life simply. As soon as the party reached its destination, these ladies allowed themselves no rest. They immediately went out among the Harijans fearlessly with great freedom. I have had the privilege of mixing with tens and thousands of Indian women. But nowhere I have seen anything quite like what Smt. Rama Devi and her little band have been found to do so gracefully and so naturally.
The sense of commitment among Oriya women was so strong that they were not scared or discouraged by fines, summons, trials, arrests, imprisonment and atrocities by British police in different programs of the movement. About twenty Oriya women undertook constructive work in the rural area responding to Gandhiji’s “Back to the villages” program.
Rama Devi took up rural reconstruction work at Bari, and Malati Devi carried on Congress socialist movement at Baji Rout Hostel of Dhenkanal. Sarala Devi became a member of first Orissa Legislative Assembly from 1937-44. A Laxmibai who was also elected to this assembly from Berhampur women constituency became the first lady Deputy Speaker of the House.
While Malati Devi was elected to constituent Assembly of India in 1946, after independence, Rama Devi, Malati Devi, Sunamani Devi, Arnapurna Devi (Moharana) joined Sarvodaya movement started by Vinoba Bhave.
Odia women, by and large, exhibited greater determination and courage during different phases of freedom struggle as expected by Gandhiji.
Discover Bhubaneswar pays tributes to these inspiring and iconic women who tirelessly and passionately fought for the freedom of our country and state. Their stories shall continue to inspire thousands of people across the state for the years to come.