Words: Jeevan Kaur Sanghera
On the 23rd of September 1932, 21-year-old member of the Indian Republican Army (IRA) Pritilata Waddedar led an anticolonial attack on the Pahartali European Club in Chittagong, Bengal. The following day, she was found dead outside the club by British police, having swallowed a cyanide pill.
The attack itself was unremarkable. The late 1920s and 30s saw the growth of a complex spectrum of anticolonial political activity in Bengal, within which violent revolutionary action was prominent. That Pritilata was a woman revolutionary was also not exceptional. To name a few, her contemporaries and recognised comrades-in-arms included Sunita Chowdhury, Bina Das and Shanti Ghosh. As the first and only woman of the Bengali revolutionaries to die under the orders of attack, though, it was the distinctly gendered discourse around the contested territory and afterlives of Pritilata’s body that proclaims her story extraordinary.
Pritilata’s body was lodged as evidence a year after her death by colonial authorities in order to prosecute her comrades. Most notably, her diaries contributed to the conviction and hanging of IRA leader Surya Sen, best known for his involvement in the 1930 Chittagong Armoury Raid in which 80 British troops (and 12 revolutionaries) were killed. Pritilata was painted by the state as a terrorist and charged for her actions, but was also dubbed a victim.
Sen was condemned with intent, making him out as the one responsible for her actions and her death. Newspapers – and movies since – began to churn rumours of a romantic relationship between the pair. That a woman could participate in intimacy with anybody that was not her husband was taboo, but worse was the insult against traditional womanhood that her participation in revolutionary violence had been. The implication was that Pritilata had been a victim of Sen’s criminal influence, and the colonial state attempted to prove revolutionary identity to be antithetical to the psychological make-up of women. She was appropriated as a ward of the very colonial state she resisted.
Nevertheless, when she was found by police, pinned to her chest was a manifesto which began: ‘I boldly declare myself a revolutionary, whose ideal is to liberate mother India from the British Rule.’ In her pockets were her self-authored pamphlets titled with slogans ‘Long live the revolution’ and ‘An appeal to women.’ Through her writing and her body, Pritilata preemptively undermined the way in which she knew her death would be exploited by the colonial state. She was profoundly aware that she was both participating in and fighting against two hegemonic structures – the colonial state and the masculine revolutionary movement itself. Through her writing and her suicide, she insisted she would not be subsumed by either, demanding the recognition of her agency as a revolutionary woman. Pritilata proclaims in her pamphlets: ‘why should we, the women of present-day India, not join the great war for liberating the country from the chains of slavery imposed by foreigners?’
In her writing Pritilata referred to herself by the name of the goddess Sati, a term which also refers to the action of a widow’s sacrificial self-immolation. It’s important here to note that she was part of the Bengali progressive middle class: she was well-educated, a philosophy graduate from Bethune Women’s College and, at the time of her death, a headteacher of a Calcutta girls school. Amongst her community, the practice of sati (widow immolation) was renounced and seen as archaic.
But having been banned in Bengal in 1829 under East India Company rule, sati was a pivotal area of both social and legal contestation for colonial authorities. The history of its prohibition was often seen as a direct incursion into ‘native’ domestic space, defining the conditions in which a woman could and could not give her consent to her death. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak writes in her iconic essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?‘, the colonial state took on a rhetoric of ‘saving brown women from brown men’ while simultaneously delimiting what it meant to be a woman under colonial law. As such, Pritilata’s historically-conscious and direct reference to the discourse around sati intentionally made her self-destruction distinctly political.
Pritilata was not a widow. She did not herself ablaze, nor was she an advocate of the practice of sati. Her invocation of sati was, however, intended as an allegory and a protest, drawing on issues of agency, consent and modernity. Pritilata reasserted how a woman’s choice to die could be understood and redefined the relationship between protest and self-annihilation. As Pouloumi Saha states, she created a new kind of public womanhood: ‘a rebirth on the pyre.’
Pritilata refers to the sacrificial act of sati according to ancient Vedic Hindu tradition, with a focus on the sacrifice of the self beyond the body. It is here we find the connection between the immolated widow and the revolutionary terrorist – through the urge to sacrificially destroy the mortal body in allegiance to a higher purpose. Pritilata made herself a sati to the cause of India’s freedom. In the last letter she wrote to her mother, she begged forgiveness for the actions she was about to commit: ‘Pardon me, mother, I have given you great pain. I offer my blood to wipe the tears of the motherland.’
In modern Bengal, Pritilata Waddedar’s name is often accompanied by the heroic epithet Agnikanya, or ‘firebrand daughter,’ but the nature of her death refused easy narratives of revolutionary martyrdom. This act was as an anticolonial symbol, but also commented loudly on the limited role and place of the agency of the colonised woman within the anticolonial discourse in which she participated. Pritilata’s decision to die was her own. She denied the colonial state the chance to take this agency from her, or to let herself be subsumed by masculinist perceptions of the revolution.
- ARTICLE: ‘Imagining the Indian Nationalist Movement: Revolutionary Metaphors in Imagery of the Freedom Struggle’ – Kama Maclean, Journal of Material Culture 19 (2014)
- BOOK: Debating Gandhi – A. Raghuramaraju (ed.)
- ARTICLE: ‘Women as Activists, Women as Symbols – a Study of the Indian Nationalist Movement’ – Suruchi Thapar, Feminist Review 44 (1993)
Jeevan Sanghera is a fourth-year history student at the University of Edinburgh with specific interests in South Asian and colonial history.