Indian Railways break tradition to honor freedom fighter
IIt is interesting how almost all cities and towns in India and abroad have a road named after Mahatma Gandhi. There is more than 60 routes named after him in India only.
The practice of naming a street, park, bus station or train station after a well-known figure is a gesture to honor their work and contribution. What is even more common is that most of these names belong to famous men who have made significant contributions in their respective fields. For example, the railways of the East, for a very long time, continued to follow a custom of dedicating station names in homage to the sons of the soil.
However, something changed in 1958 when Indian Railways decided to honor a girl from India and named a train station in Howrah district of West Bengal, Belanagar Station, after her name. Bela Mitra became the first woman in Indian history to receive such an honor.
The woman behind the name
Born in 1920 to a wealthy family in Kodalia, 24 undivided Parganas of colonial India, Bela Mitra was known as Amita or Bela Bose. Her father Surendra Chandra Bose was the older brother of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, making her the niece of the prominent freedom fighter.
Growing up, Netaji continued to be a constant inspiration to Bela and her younger sister, Ila Bose, who had played a leading role in Netaji’s escape from house arrest in 1941.
From an early age, Bela devoted herself to the struggle for freedom and decided to join Netaji after leaving the Congress Assembly in Ramgarh in 1940. When the Indian National Army (INA) was formed, Bela joined the legendary Jhansi Rani Brigade while her husband, Haridas Mitra, a revolutionary like her, joined the INA as a member of the secret service and was subsequently promoted to chief of intelligence.
Bela, meanwhile, was sent to Calcutta to oversee INA special operations. She was responsible for all covert communications under the radar between nationalist groups and individuals. One of these operations involved, the INA deploying the East Asian Secret Service team to India, via the northeastern part of the country.
In the middle of this operation, Haridas, one of the main members of the secret service, was captured by the British. It was then that Bela assumed leadership of the operation and played a central role in its success. She supervised communication with members, securing their deployment and hosting. She even sold her wedding jewelry to pay for the transportation of many prominent revolutionaries to shelters.
In 1944, with his help, a secret transmission service was set up. She led a team of skilled radio operators and spies, who set up their own transmitters and receivers to establish covert communication between India and Singapore. This channel enabled the exchange of vital information via messages between the two countries for almost a year. All the operations of this service were single-handedly directed by Bela from Calcutta (now known as Kolkata). One of the unsung heroes of the Indian freedom struggle, Bela was the much needed support system and an important part of the INA, who risked their life for a larger cause.
After World War II, her husband Haridas along with three revolutionaries, Pabitra Roy, Jyotish Chandra Bose and Amar Singh were accused of treason and called anti-nationals. After the arbitrary trial, in 1945, they were sentenced to death. To help them, Bela traveled to Pune ask Mahatma Gandhi for help. He wrote a letter to the Viceroy of India, Lord Wavell to reduce the sentence and succeeded in bringing her back to life imprisonment instead of the death penalty, which was ultimately null and void after the independence of India.
Bengal’s ‘Jhansi Rani’
After India’s independence, Bela’s husband, along with many revolutionaries, was released from prison. While Haridas joined the Congress Party to become Vidhan Sabha’s vice president, Bela decided to stay away from politics.
Instead, she decided to devote herself to canceling out the impact of the violence caused by the partition. Her goal has always been to selflessly serve the masses, so she decided to create a social organization called Jhansi Rani Relief Team in 1947, to help the refugee crisis in West Bengal. Governed by a bottom-up approach, Jhansi Rani’s rescue team focused on repairing open wounds in the social fabric of India, which had suffered a bloody partition on its path to freedom by working on relocation and the rehabilitation of millions of refugees from East Pakistan.
Bela even set up refugee camps in Abhaynagar, on the Bally-Dankuni line, where she stayed to oversee the rehabilitation of the refugees. As a tribute to his work for the homeless, Eastern Railways decided to rename the station on the same Howrah-Bardhaman line at Abhaynagar, where his refugee camp once stood, in his honor. Having reached hundreds of families, she continued to serve the masses until her last breath in July 1952.
Although her story still remains in the shadows, almost lost in the pages of history, the fact doesn’t change that she risked her life and dedicated the rest of it to ensure that future generations , like ours, can breathe in a free and independent country. .
Edited by Yoshita Rao