Leela Roy, a freedom fighter with a difference
Very few people know that Mahatma Gandhi shared his birthday not only with Lal Bahadur Shastri but also with another phenomenal leader and an exceptionally patriotic and maverick woman of the country who questioned the established idea of her time that women were best suited for spinning and weaving khadi and picketing foreign fabric and liquor stores.
She wanted the role of women in the freedom movement to go far beyond and did not believe in the traditional demarcation norms of male and female roles. Her innovative ideas and valiant exploits were a stark change from most of the female leaders of her generation. This flamboyant woman was Leela Roy, a revolutionary, educator, social and political activist and more than any other indomitable woman.
Leela was born on October 2, 1900 in Goalpara, Assam. His family was originally from Dhaka (Dhaka). She had an extremely successful academic career and turned out to be the first Dhaka University student in her masters class. As the university was not yet co-ed, Leela had to fight to be admitted.
In 1923, young Leela formed an unprecedented women’s group in Dhaka called “Deepali Sangh” with multiple branches to educate and empower women and make them financially independent. It places particular emphasis on the physical training of women. Rabindranath Tagore has already attended a massive “Deepali Sangha” women’s meeting and said he has never seen such a large gathering of women in all of Asia.
In 1926, the fiery Leela became the first woman to enter the nucleus of a former all-male revolutionary party in Dhaka – “Shree Sangha”. Thanks to Leela, a bunch of other women were recruited into “Shree Sangha”, where they were taught how to make bombs and how to use weapons.
Leela Roy formed ‘Deepali Chhatri Sangha’, a revolutionary student group and ‘Mahila Atma Raksha Fund’, one of the first female self-defense martial arts groups. In 1930, after the arrest of Anil Roy, the founder of ‘Sree Sangha’, Leela took charge of the Sangha and devoted herself entirely to the path of revolution.
In 1931, Leela Roy decided to publish a Bengali monthly “Jayasree”, run entirely by women, an inconceivable achievement at the time. She broke the stereotype by keeping “Jayasree” away from typical housewife issues like housekeeping, cooking, sewing, knitting, etc. and focusing on socio-political issues.
Between 1931 and 1937, she was a prisoner because of her revolutionary enterprises. In 1939, Leela and Anil Roy got married. Both joined Subhash Chandra Bose’s “Forward Bloc” as founding members. In 1940, when Bose was arrested, Leela Roy took over as director of ‘Forward Bloc Weekly’.
In 1942, during the August movement, Leela Roy was again arrested due to her strong patriotic editorials in ‘Jayasree’. When Bose formed Azad Hind Fauj in 1943, Leela was still in prison. He missed Leela Roy’s presence in the Far East at this time, which he said would have been beneficial for the regiment of young Indian women “Rani Jhansi”.
By the time Leela Roy was released in 1946, the situation in the country had become appalling due to community riots in Calcutta, Bihar and Noakhali. Leela played an important role during this time in saving lives through rescue work. During this time, she came into close contact with Mahatma Gandhi and was appreciated by him for her work.
Leela Roy became the only woman from West Bengal to be elected to the Indian Constituent Assembly in December 1946. However, a few months later the partition of India took place. It was painful and unacceptable for her to see her home and ‘karmabhoomi’ (Dhaka) being removed from her ‘matrubhoomi’ (India), which is why she resigned from the coveted post in protest and devoted herself entirely to the aid, rescue and rehabilitation of refugees.
Leela Roy died on February 4, 1968. Her portrait now adorns the wall of the central chamber of Parliament. She was a woman who pushed the boundaries of accepted feminism through the kind of life she lived and the works she did. She wanted women to challenge their own abilities by performing tasks that were generally not considered to be their field. Her ideas are of great importance in today’s scenario where the long-awaited entry of women into the fighting streams of the armed forces is now a reality.
(The writer is a post-doctoral researcher, UGC)