Unsung sisterhood of Odisha’s women freedom fighters

Print edition : December 31, 2021

Sailabala Das questioned Gandhi’s denunciation of machine-made cloth when he himself, she pointed out, was “using motor cars, medicine, and watches etc”. Photo: Courtesy: Sachidananda Mohanty

Kuntala Kumari lived and preached syncretic living beyond caste and religious divides. Photo: Courtesy: Sachidananda Mohanty

Rama Devi, who received no formal education and was married at 14, dedicated her life to the freedom struggle along with her husband.

Malati Choudhury, popularly known as “Numa” in Odisha, was born in a Bengali family.

Sarala Devi. She was influenced by Gandhi, but her literary feminism embraced winds of change regarding women that came from the West. Photo: Courtesy: Laxmi Prakash Mohapatra and the Estate of late Sarala Devi

Annapurna Maharana was a member of the “Banara Sena”, a group of young adolescents who assisted freedom fighters from 1929 onwards.

The Satyagraha movement in Odisha, directly inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, was led, at many places, by women freedom fighters. Their contributions were rich, varied and covered many aspects of public life — political, legal, social and literary.

Although the Satyagraha movement in modern Odisha has been well recorded as part of the national freedom struggle1, the central role of Odia women and their participation in the national independence movement continue to be an area of darkness both in the realm of historiography and public memory2.

My aims in this essay would be the following: the retrieval of women’s role in the Satyagraha movement in modern Odisha, a key endeavour in feminist historiography; tracing the intersection of female creativity and Gandhian thought; and finally, underlining the relevance of this lost narrative to our own times and milieu. I also hope to show the extraordinary and far-sighted manner in which Odia women dealt with their multiple identities while serving the cause of the nation.

Why has this narrative disappeared from public memory despite the rise in digital literacy, growing interest in our past in the postcolonial context, and a greater awareness of women’s issues mandated by society and polity? What could explain this lapse in national memory that goes beyond periodical shifts in sensibility, and institutional amnesia?

Mahatma Gandhi made several trips during the freedom struggle to Odisha. Women were at the forefront in his padayatras; they often led the processions and defied the colonial power structures. Many women from conservative middle-class families who had seldom stepped out from their homes participated widely in the public domain and braved ordeals while fighting against the Raj.

Also read: ‘Daughter of Earth’

Women’s presence in the movement in Odisha was not sporadic, transient or by happenstance. Many of the outstanding Odia women freedom-fighters were self-educated; they and their spouses sacrificed their worldly ambitions and followed the path of Gandhiji selflessly. Some of them had regular correspondence with the Mahatma; they went from door to door, collecting money and jewellery for the Swaraj Fund under the guidance of the Father of the Nation. The participation of Odia women was not confined to any particular region; it encompassed the length and breadth of the entire province barring some remote and inaccessible corners.

Agenda: National reconstruction

Odia women understood that freedom struggle did not mean just the dethronement of colonial rule; they realised that political independence had little meaning without vital social reforms like prohibition, widow remarriage and economic emancipation. They therefore took to the charkha (spinning wheel) and khadi wholeheartedly; campaigned vigorously for adult literacy programmes in urban and rural areas; fought for the rights of Dalits; picketed outside liquor shops; and advocated active participation of widows in social reform movements and political campaigns. Some of them, such as Sailabala Das3, questioned Gandhiji’s denunciation of machine-made cloth when he himself, she pointed out, was “using motor cars, medicine, and watches4 etc”. Others such as Sarala Devi used their own judgment in the participation of electoral politics in the province and defied Gandhiji. In brief, they utilised their agency. They attended public meetings, and some, like Sarala Devi, travelled along with their spouses to Congress sessions at Nagpur and elsewhere and brought back the message of Gandhiji to the remote heartlands of Odisha. Such women were not passive followers. Their thoughts and actions were based on the touchstone of their own conscience, even as they admired the charisma of the Mahatma and accepted his leadership.

Satyagraha and literary feminism

It is hard to list the Odia women who took part in the Satyagraha movement in Odisha. Their numbers run into hundreds. Rama Devi, Sarala Devi, Kuntala Kumari Sabat, Kokila Devi, Nirmala Devi, Jahnavi Devi, Khetramani Devi, Subhadra Mahatab, Puru Bai, Kiranbala Sengupta, Sashibala Kanungo, Kiranlekha Mohanty, Mangala Sengupta, Ratnamali Jema, Bimala Dutta, Hemalata Samanta, Abarti Laxmibai, Sitadevi Khadanga, Rasamani Devi, Chitrabhanu Devi, Saraswati Devi, Nishamani Devi, Prabhabhati Devi, Parbati Giri, Annapurna Maharana and numerous others played an active part. They came from various walks of life and different economic, cultural, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, from the undivided districts of Puri, Balasore, Cuttack, Ganjam, Koraput and Sambalpur. Women from royal and zamindari backgrounds joined hands with commoners in the cause of the nation.

For a number of Odia women, literature became a vital instrument for anti-colonial nationalism. Kuntala Kumari, Sarala Devi, Rama Devi, Malati Choudhury and Annapurna Maharana wrote letters from within and outside prisons. Some of them, Kuntala Kumari and Sarala Devi, for instance, wrote essays, poetry, drama, short stories, novels and literary criticism that were markedly influenced by Gandhian thought and vision. Sarala Devi’s literary feminism went beyond Gandhi’s adage and advice and was informed by winds of change regarding women that came from faraway England, Europe and America. Her essay “Narira Dabi” (The Rights of Women) advocated the participation of women in the public domain and woman’s control over her biological and reproductive self. It spoke against the notion of marital rape, which was yet to be recognised in Indian legislation. It is worth noting that for women freedom fighters in Odisha, social reforms, movements for workers’ rights, indigenous industry, inter-faith dialogue and removal of caste orthodoxies, religious bigotry and sectarianism went hand in hand with the Satyagraha movement, whose cornerstones, as Gandhiji taught, were adherence to truth and non-violence.

I shall underline the work of Kuntala Kumari, Sarala Devi, Rama Devi, Annapurna Maharana and Malati Chowdhury as representative figures.

Poet & patriot: Kuntala Kumari

Kuntala Kumari Sabat (1901-1938), who lived and preached syncretic living beyond caste and religious divides, was born to Christian parents, Daniel and Monika Sabat, and spent her early years in Burma. She became a Brahmo for her love for a married man, Kailash Rao, a medical demonstrator who became her mentor. Thwarted in her desire for a lasting union with him, she got married to Krushna Prasad Brahmachari and spent the last part of her life in Delhi as a writer and a physician. She had an unhappy marriage and her life came to a tragic end in 1938 at the age of 37. She was a publisher and active member of the All-India Women’s Conference.

Also read: Globalisation and cultural memory

Kuntala Sabat addressed Odia workers at Calcutta (now Kolkata) and wrote patriotic poems advocating economic equality and self-rule. Through her writings, she brought self-respect to the Odia people, reminded them of their glorious past and heritage, and urged them to throw off the foreign yoke. She participated in the historic women’s conference at Balasore in 1934 along with other notable women like Rama Devi, Sarala Devi, Jahnavi Devi, Kokila Devi and Purubai. (Purubai had accompanied Gandhiji to Odisha and stayed back for the Gandhian mission in the province.)

Kuntala Sabat had many literary works to her credit. They include Bhranti , Natundi, Kalibohu, Parashamani and deeply moving lyrics like “Shefali Prati” and “Taraprati”. Her patriotic poem “Ahwana”5 was inspirational for the Salt Satyagraha6 movement in Odisha. Another poem, written in English, reflects her indignation at foreign rule and hope for emancipation:

Oh, land of famine, fury and flood.

Thou home of pain and misery.

In all her veins flows warm thy blood.

We sigh and shed our tears for thee.

Weep no more, Oh! weep no more.

Hail the coming happy morn.

Welcome with love at thy door,

Children from thy lap long torn.

In the battlefield of life,

Let us firmly take our stand.

Lift our heads in strong strife,

With faith in God and Motherland.7

Social Activism: Rama Devi

Kuntala Sabat’s achievements in the freedom struggle were well matched by those of Rama Devi (1899-1985), daughter of Gopal Ballabh Das, younger brother of Madhusudan Das, the architect of modern Odia nationalism. Her mother was Basanta Kumari Devi.

Rama Devi, received no formal schooling. She was married to Gopabandhu Choudhury at the age of 14. Inspired by the Swadeshi movement in Bengal, Gopabandhu resigned from government service and the couple plunged into the freedom struggle. Recognised as one of the most acclaimed freedom fighters of Odisha, she and her husband joined the Sarvodaya movement. In 1930, accompanied by Malati Choudhry, Annapurna Devi and Kiran Bala Sen, she took part in the Salt Satyagraha at Inchudi in Balasore, and in Kujanga. She was imprisoned in 1932. Later in life, she was conferred the Jamunalal Bajaj Award (1981) for outstanding social work. A leading women’s college (now university) has been named after her at Bhubaneswar. Her autobiography, Jeebana Pathe (1985), is a fascinating chronicle of her life and time. On March 23, 1921, Rama Devi participated in a political meeting of 40 Odia women inside the Binod Bihari temple at Cuttack. During the Quit India Movement, she was imprisoned for two years in the Cuttack Jail and was released in July 1944.8

Unlike the others in the sisterhood, Malati Choudhury (1904-1998) was born in a distinguished Bengali family of eastern Bengal to Kumudnath Sen and Snehalata Devi. After her matriculation, she was drawn to Santiniketan. She was married to the Odia freedom fighter and Gandhian Nabakrushna Choudhury in 1927, and the couple dedicated themselves to the national freedom and social reform movements. She took part in the Salt Satyagraha at Inchundi and Kujanga in 1930 and was arrested on September 20, 1930, and jailed for six months. In 1934, she joined Gandhiji in his padayatra in Odisha. She took part in the Quit India Movement in 1942 and was jailed until 1945. After Independence, she fought for the rights of the Adivasis and campaigned for prohibition and the elimination of leprosy. She wrote many playlets on socially meaningful themes and staged them at Baji Rout Ashram at Anugul, Odisha. She was popularly known as “Numa” in Odisha.9

Satyagraha and feminism: Sarala Devi

The first Odia woman to court imprisonment was Sarala Devi (1904-1986).10 A versatile and multi-talented personality, Sarala Devi was born on August 19, 1904, at Jagatsinghpur in the undivided Cuttack district to Basudev Kanungo and Padmavati Devi. She received her early education at the Ravenshaw Girls’ School, Cuttack, and Crawford Girls School, Sambalpur. Inspired by her cousin Rama Devi, Sarala educated herself and was married at the age of 14 to Bhagirathi Mohapatra, a lawyer with nationalist sympathies. The couple embraced the freedom movement under Gandhiji’s direction and guidance.

Sarala Devi was a unique personality. She combined a role in the freedom struggle and social reform movement with an active literary life that went beyond borders and boundaries. She carved out a path for herself in many genres including prose, poetry, essay, novel, short story, drama, biography, autobiography and letter writing. She has left behind a corpus of outstanding work that would rival the work of the best of her counterparts at the national level. They include Kuntala Kumari Kabi Pratibha (The Poetic Talent of Kuntala Kumari), Sarala Mahabharatare Nari Charitra (Women characters in Sarala Mahabharata), Beera Ramani (Women of Valour) Biswa Biplabini (Women Revolutionaries of the World), Narira Dabi (The Rights of Women), Rabindra Puja (Homage to Rabindranath), Nari Jagata (The World of Women) and Odia Bohu (The World of Odia Daughter-in-Law).

It must be noted that most of Sarala’s literary works were informed by her political vision and affinity to the Gandhian world view. She was attracted to socialism and communism as the primary means of ensuring equality among men and women, but she preferred the Gandhian approach based on non-violence and peaceful resistance to tyranny, be it patriarchy or colonialism. She was closely associated with the leading Odia poet Annada Shankar Ray and modelled herself as the New Woman who believed in her own agency to shape her life and destiny, both within and outside marriage. This was undoubtedly a bold and iconoclastic step in her time. She wrote female-centric chapters in a novel called Basanti.11

Also read: Culture wars & claims of multiculturalism

From Presidency Jail for Women, Vellore, Sarala Devi wrote to her husband, Bhagirathi Mohapatra, about her jail experience in a letter dated June 23, 1930. Addressing her husband by his first name (“Dear Bhagu Babu”), unusual then and later, she narrated how she was keeping herself engaged in self-improvement and was following a disciplined life so that she could serve the cause of national freedom better. She wrote:

“You may perhaps be under the notion that I am idling much of my time. I am busy with the study of English. The others also are as busy like me with the study of Hindi and English. Some also spin and others practise music. Regular classes in both English and Hindi are being conducted, the former by my friend Mrs Lakshmipati B.A., and the latter by dearest friend Durgabai12 who is very clever, pretty and an active young Andhra lady and who was dictator of the Satyagraha campaign in Madras.”13 It is worth noting that Sarala Devi had studied up to class 7 and wrote the letter in English. While procuring freedom for the nation remained a sacred task, Sarala Devi also fought steadfastly for the rights of women, including her bodily self, as an essential requisite for the new national imaginary. In her pioneering essay “Narira Dabi”, she quotes Justice Meccard’s judgement:

“I maintain that the wife’s body can never be owned by the husband. It is her property and not her husband’s. She can leave her husband at her will; she can choose her business or join the political party of her choice. She has full right to decide whether or not she is going to have a child and at what point of time. No one can keep a woman under his control on the basis of the fact that he is married to her. The women of this country have won independence; they are citizens and not slaves. They can turn their wishes into action. One does not get the pleasures of married life from the codes of rules and regulations. The success of marriage depends on mutual compassion, mutual consideration, mutual forgiveness, mutual sacrifice, and above all, a mutually shared morality.”14

Influence of Gandhi

It is amazing to see the number of essays Sarala Devi wrote that showed the direct influence of Gandhiji.15 Indeed, for Sarala Devi, no influence seemed greater than that of Mahama Gandhi. The approach may be summed up in the essay entitled “Mahatma Gandhi’s Message for Indian Women” written originally in Odia. Sarala Devi declared:

“If someone were to document the process of awakening of women during the period from 1921 to 1947, he would give Mahatma Gandhi the credit for whatever progress women made in the field of education and economic development. At the root of whatever these women do lay Gandhi’s thoughts, ideas and work. For this reason, he would always be revered as the great mentor of the women of India. I cannot think of any other leader in the world whose views of women are as liberal and brave as those expressed in Gandhi’s writings. The solutions to women’s problems, he has suggested, apply not only to women in India, but to their counterparts all over the world. In responding to his call to take part in the Satyagraha, countless unlettered and neglected women languishing in the villages of India have come out and brought glory to their country.”16

The younger members of the community were not left behind. Rama Devi and Gopabandhu Choudhury’s spirited daughter, Annapurna Maharana (1917-2012), was a member of what was known as “Banara Sena”, a group of young adolescents called “the army of monkeys” who actively assisted the freedom fighters from 1929 onwards. She accompanied Gandhiji on his Harijan Padayatra in 1934. Unsuspected by the police, they carried letters and messages. Annapurna participated in the Salt Satyagraha movement at Inchudi, Balasore, and was arrested in 1934. Her portrayal of the travails and turbulations of the women activists during the Satyagraha movement in Odisha makes poignant reading. She took part in the Quit India Movement in 1942 and was jailed until 1945.17

Salt satyagraha at Inchudi

The highlight of the Satyagraha movement was undoubtedly the Salt Satyagraha witnessed at Inchudi, on the coast of Balasore. Here is a graphic account of the event as narrated by Annapurna Maharana18, written originally in Odia:

“The Salt Satyagraha at Inchudi began on April 13, 1930. Sambhu Satpathy displayed great courage by giving shelter to the Satyagrahis in the backyard. Earlier, Sri Jeevram Kalyanji had brought back with him a lump of salty earth after attending the All-India Congress Committee. He had observed the harvesting of salt in Gujarat. He began the art of the salt-making in the open area by using the lump of salty earth. As a result, he and Surendranath Das were arrested on 11-April-1930.

“Every day from morning till 12.00 noon and then from 3.00 p.m. to 6.00 p.m., a campaign relentlessly carried out to collect the salty earth. Grabbing the hands of the Satyagrahis violently, the police would scatter the collected earth while mouthing curses and obscenities. They destroyed the salt-laden earthen pots and arrested the protesters. Thousands of villagers witnessed such scenes. Batches of Satyagrahis from distant Sambalpur to Calcutta gathered at Inchudi, defiant, singing the national anthem all along. The villagers were infected by the courage and patience of the Satyagrahis.”19

Lasting legacy

It would thus be seen that the Satyagraha movement in Odisha, directly inspired by Gandhiji, was led, at many places, by women freedom fighters. Leaders like Kuntala Kumari, Sarala Devi, Rama Devi, Malati Choudhury, Annapurna Maharana and others were at the forefront of the struggle. Their contributions were rich, varied and covered many aspects of public life—political, legal, social and literary. While dethronement of colonial rule was the primary goal, they linked this aim with the larger goals of building a new province and nation on the basis of political, economic and cultural emancipation.

Also read: Reclaiming the indigenous

The memory of this struggle by the unsung sisterhood needs to be remembered in today’s cynical times. It has correctly been stated that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. The legacy left behind by valiant Odia women like Sarala Devi and Kuntala Kumari represents an extraordinary vision of the self and the world. It is hoped that by reclaiming the lost story of the Satyagraha, we can hope to rebuild the nation on a new imaginary.

Sachidananda Mohanty is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, University of Hyderabad. He has authored, among others, Early Women’s Writing in Orissa: A Lost Tradition, New Delhi: Sage Publication,2005; Gender and Cultural Identity in Colonial Orissa, Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2008 and The Lost World of Sarala Devi, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016. He is the former Vice Chancellor of the Central University of Odisha.

(Parts of this essay were earlier presented at the national webinar organised by All India Women’s Conference, New Delhi, on November 22, 2021. Sincere thanks to the AIWC for their kind invitation.)


1. Unlike the neighbouring province of Bengal, which gave birth to militant nationalism, Odisha largely followed the Gandhian path to national liberation, barring the Paika rebellion, the tribal uprisings and similar revolts. It did not produce a Bina Das or a Kalpana Dutta. However, Odia women freedom fighters, whose life and work are commemorated here, are second to none in their courage of conviction, their unflinching dedication to the cause of the nation, and the steadfast manner in which they performed great sacrifices and underwent incarceration for freedom from British Rule.

2. A good account of the Satyagraha Movement is offered by noted historian Jagannath Patnaik, Swadhinata Sangram (in Odia), Cuttack: Bidyapuri (2001). The book includes the profile of women freedom fighters of Odisha in Appendix 4.

3. See Sailabala Das: Literature and Social Reform in Colonial Orissa, Ed. Mohanty, Sachidananda (2006), New Delhi, Sahitya Akademi.

4. Ibid. page 131.

5. See Patnaik, op. cit., pages 577-78.

6. See Patnaik, op. cit., page 578.

7. See Mohapatra, Chakradhar (1972), Kunatala Kumari Jibana Charita (in Odia), Cuttack, Grantha Mandir, pages 116-17. Also see, Mohanty, Sachidananda, “Kuntala Kumari and the Early Women’s Rhetoric in Orissa”, Ed. Lal, Malashri and Paul Kumar, Sukrita (2002), Women’s Studies in India, Shimla: IIAS.

8. See Patnaik, op. cit., page 578.

9. See Patnaik, op. cit., pages 580-581.

10. See Sarala Devi Rachanabali (in Odia), Ed. Rout, Bholanath (2017), Cuttack. Sarala Bhavan, Laxmi Prakash Mohapatra; Bismruta Parampara Odia Sahityare Nari Pratibha (in Odia), Ed. Mohanty, Sachidananda (2000), Kolkata, Sahitya Akademi; Sarala Devi: Lekhika, Samskarita, Biplabini (in Odia), Ed. Mohanty, Sachidananda (2004), Cuttack, Agraduta.

11. See The Lost World of Sarala Devi, Ed. Mohanty, Sachidananda (2016), New Delhi, Oxford University Press, pages 35-43; Basanti: Writing the New Woman: Nine Authors, One Novel, translated from Odia, Mohapatra Himanshu S. and St. Pierre, Paul (2019), New Delhi: OUP; Also see Mohanty, Sachidananda (1994), “Rebati’s Sisters: Search for Identity through Education”, India International Centre Quarterly, Volume 21, No. 4, Winter.

12. Later known as Durgabai Deshmukh.

13. See The Lost World of Sarala Devi, op. cit., page 76.

14. See “The Rights of Women” by Sarala Devi, translated into English by Sachidananda Mohanty in The Lost World of Sarala Devi, op. cit., page 9. Originally published as “Narira Dabi” (in Odia), 1934, Cuttack, Hindustan Granthamala.

15. Prominent among them are “Mo Biplabi Jeebanara Katha”, “Jail Anubhuti”, “Mo Katha”, “Mo Jeebanare Gandhinka Abadana”, “Congress Jeebanara Puruna Smruti”, “Mo Jeebanare Mahatma Gandhinka Abadana”, “Jailru Chithi”, “Kara Mukti Pare”, “Satyagraha O Lokaseba”, “Swadhinata Samgramare Odianinka Bhumika O Tara Parinati”, “Adhunika Sabhyata Sambadhe”, “Gandhinka Bani”, “Mahatma Gandhinka Jeebanara Abalambana”, “Bharata Pain Gandhinjinka Swapna”, “Bharata Bershare Gandhibadara Adhunika Bhumika”, “Bharata Narinku Mahatma Gandhijinka Swapna”. All in Odia.

16. See Mohanty, Sachidananda, Ed. (2005), Early Women’s Writings in Orissa, 1898-1950: A Lost Tradition, New Delhi; Oxford University Press, page 164. Translated from the original Odia by Anil Pradhan (From Nababharata), February, 1948, pages 22-24.

17. See Patnaik, op. cit., pages 581-582.

18. English translation by Sachidananda Mohanty

19. See Maharana, Annapurna (2005), Amruta Anubhava (in Odia), Bhubaneswar: Sikhya Sadhan, pages 462-463.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor