Sepia Stories: Bimala Maji, freedom fighter who helped abolish Zamindari system
Bimala Maji was one of India’s freedom fighters who must get far more credit for her role than she does. She was central to a movement in Bengal that sought to abolish the zamindari (feudal landlord) system. Her name widely features in the Tebhaga Movement of Bengal in 1946. This movement saw large participation of women who sought to fight against feudal landlords. At that time sharecroppers had contracted to give half of their harvest to the landlords. The demand of the Tebhaga (sharing by thirds) movement was to reduce the landlord share to one third.
Bimala was responsible for mobilising women for this movement, one in India women participated in equal measure as men. In fact later when the male peasants were arrested, women led the movement almost entirely. Peter Custers noted in the Economic And Political Weekly that this movement is relevant not just for Bengal or South Asia but all movements around the world. Bimali Maji became a recruitment officer in Nandigram. She mobilised people even more as community party male members were getting arrested, leaving the women to lead. .
The Struggle Itself
In the 1940s, in Nandigram women were not supposed to participate in agricultural tasks were largely “limited” to processing the harvested paddy, but as women had definite stakes in the success of the Tebhaga campaign, nothing could stop them. As is the case often with calamities, more so than their men, rural poor women had suffered much more from the Bengal famine of 1943. For these women, the storing of paddy in their own houses, for the first time in their lives, was a revolutionary event. It evoked a tremendous emotional response. And they were willing to do anything to take on feudal landlords.
In the book Freedom Fighters of India, edited by MG Agarwal, he notes Bimala Maji’s work and her history. “Bimala Maji was a widow from the Midnapore district and she was instrumental in mobilising women.” She had partnered Manikuntala Sen during the famine and had helped families create self help units to abate their situation.
How It Started
Women joined many freedom fighter movements in the mid 1940s including the Quit India Movement. But a surge of women power was witnessed when rural India saw the rise of peasant movement, particularly the one in Bengal. Manikuntala Sen, Rani Mitra DasGupta, Renu Chakravarti set up Women Self Defence Units called Mahila Atma Raksha Samiti. “My political life started during the famine when I was visited by Manikuntola Sen, a leading member of the Women’s Self Defence League. Up to then, only a Congress women’s organisation existed in Midnapur District. Manikuntola came to do relief work, and I took her around everywhere,” cites Custers in his article quoting Bimala Maji.
Their focus of these groups and therefore Bimala was:
- Help people take on the famine by uniting and finding common solutions
- Established a centre for producing mats and also several milk centres
- Visited houses to take stock of the medicines needed by destitute women of the villages
- Providing food for beggars
- Consolidate women and get them to stand up against oppression of the landlord
Her Early Life
Bimala Maji was born to a farmer’s home. She was married in her teens, 13 or 14. “The house of my parents-in-law was a dacoits’ house. Police often used to visit it and were offered big amounts of clarified butter, goat meat, and so on. In other words, they shared in the dacoits’ booty!” she said in an interview documented in Manushi. She was not educated at home and her in-laws also didn’t think it was important. “They did not even allow me to write to my parents. So, repression in the home was enormous. If any outsider saw me and my in-laws noticed this, I would be beaten up badly.” Further in that interview she cites a part of her life that inspired her to turn activist and fight for rights.
So I used to ponder day and night: “I will be able to survive only if this man, my husband, dies.” In fact, my parents-in-law and my husband did die ! As the family was very rich, owning about 100 bighas of land, I inherited a lot of property. But I was so happy about my husband’s death that I did not bother about the properties right away. Coincidentally, I happened to be staying at my parents’ home on the day my husband died. I went back only three days later. My sister-in-law then claimed all the property. When I consulted a lawyer, I was advised : “It is your right to possess the property. If you want, you can let the others share in it.” So I instituted a court case which lasted for nine to 10 years. Meanwhile, widows used to visit me when their fathers-in-law grabbed their property. They used to tell me : “You know the truth. What will you do for us ?”
Bimala Maji’s Activism
Bimala Maji became the last standing woman of this movement as even the communist party slowly withdrew from it. The police got involved and beat up people, threatening communist leaders that they would take away their wives. Bimala to organised women into a militia. “Village women spontaneously set up their Nari Bahini or semimilitia groups, facing rifles with brooms, pestles and knives. It is, therefore, no exaggeration to state that in this towering political event, rural poor women played the leading part,” notes Custers.
Their signature way of taking on the police was to arrive at land holdings with red flags, Armed with Red Flags, spice powder, brooms and their loud voices. They went around villages gathering the harvest and stacking them for the peasants to take. Bimala narrates an incident which is a great reflection of her guts and conviction. “We prepared about 150 small red flags which we planted around the plot that we were going to harvest. We had planned that each woman would bring her own instruments, such as a broom and a small sack containing a mixture of salt and pepper, with which we would repel a police attack.” The police arrived, but were repelled by women and in the commotion they left their rifles on the spot but took the brooms of the women with them. Bimala narrates that incident with a sense of sweet victory. “We sat around the police rifles and refused to depart unless the broomsticks were returned. About 300 bighas of land were harvested that day, by women alone.”