Leela Roy, a freedom fighter with a difference

Leela Roy, a freedom fighter with a difference

She did not believe in the norms of traditional demarcation of masculine and feminine roles

Leela Roy. Credit: All India Mahila Congress @MahilaCongress

Very few know that Mahatma Gandhi shared his birthday not only with Lal Bahadur Shastri but also with another phenomenal leader and an exceptionally patriotic and non-conformist woman of the country who challenged the set idea of her era that women were best-suited for spinning and weaving khadi and for picketing of foreign cloth and liquor shops.

She wanted women’s role in the freedom movement to go much beyond that and did not believe in the norms of traditional demarcation of masculine and feminine roles. Her path-breaking ideas and valorous feats were a striking departure from most women leaders of her generation. That flaming woman was Leela Roy, a revolutionary, educationist, social and political activist and more than anything else a woman of an indomitable spirit.

Leela was born on October 2, 1900, at Goalpara, Assam. Her family originally hailed from Dacca (Dhaka). She had an extremely brilliant academic career and happened to be the first girl student of Dacca University in her MA class. As the university was not yet co-educational, Leela had to fight her way to get admission.

In 1923, young Leela formed an unprecedented women’s group in Dacca called ‘Deepali Sangh’ with multiple branches to educate and empower women and to make them financially independent. It specifically laid stress on the physical training of women. Rabindranath Tagore once attended a massive all-ladies meeting of ‘Deepali Sangha’ and said that he had never seen such a large gathering of women in entire Asia.

In 1926 fiery Leela became the first woman to enter the core group of an erstwhile all-male revolutionary party of Dacca — ‘Shree Sangha’. Through Leela, a bunch of more women were recruited in ‘Shree Sangha’, where they were taught to make bombs and handle the arms.

Leela Roy formed ‘Deepali Chhatri Sangha’, a student revolutionary group and ‘Mahila Atma Raksha Fund’, one of the first women self-defence 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 completely to the path of revolution. 

In 1931, Leela Roy decided to publish a Bengali monthly periodical ‘Jayasree’, managed wholly by women, an achievement that was inconceivable at that time. She broke the stereotype by keeping ‘Jayasree’ away from typical housewifely matters like household tips, cooking, sewing, knitting and so on and keeping its focus on socio-political issues.

Between 1931 and 1937, she was a prisoner due to her revolutionary ventures. In 1939, Leela and Anil Roy tied the knot. Both of them joined Subhash Chandra Bose’s ‘Forward Bloc’ as its founder-members. In 1940, when Bose was arrested, Leela Roy took over as the editor of ‘Forward Bloc Weekly’.

In 1942, during the August movement, Leela Roy was again arrested because of her strong patriotic editorials in ‘Jayasree’. When Bose formed Azad Hind Fauj in 1943, Leela was still in jail. He missed Leela Roy’s presence at that time in the Far East which he thought would have been beneficial to the ‘Rani Jhansi’ regiment of young Indian women.

By the time Leela Roy was released in 1946, the situation in the country had become frightful due to the communal riots in Calcutta, Bihar and Noakhali. Leela played an important part at this time in saving lives through the rescue work. During this time, she came in close contact with Mahatma Gandhi and was appreciated by him for her work. 

Leela Roy went on to become 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’ (Dacca) being taken away from her ‘matrubhoomi’ (India), hence she resigned the coveted post in protest against it and dedicated herself completely to the relief, rescue and rehabilitation of refugees.

Leela Roy died on February 4, 1968. Her portrait now adorns the wall of the Central Hall of Parliament House. 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 capabilities by performing tasks that were generally not considered their domain. Her ideas are of great significance in today’s scenario when the much-awaited entry of women into the fighting streams of armed forces is now a reality.

(The writer is a post-doctoral research fellow, UGC)

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