India’s Unsung Women Freedom Fighters – Rama Devi Choudhury

M Venkaiah Naidu

Rama Devi Choudhury

Rama Devi Choudhury

Smt.Rama Devi Choudhury, the freedom fighter, who led the Inchudi Salt Satyagrah in Balasore

We know that in March 1930 Mahatma Gandhi began his famous Dandi March from Sabarmati Aashram to Dandi coast in Navsari district in Southern Gujarat, against the repressive salt laws of the British government.

But many may not be aware that similar marches were held in Balasore and Jagatsinghpur districts of Odisha. And these protest marches were organized mainly by a group of women committed to Gandhian ways.

The Dandi March was a major event in India’s freedom movement and Gandhi ji’s call to break the salt laws stirred the imagination of the people across the country.

In continuation of my Facebook posts on forgotten women freedom fighters, today, I recall the role played by Smt Rama Devi Choudhury who was affectionately called Maa (Mother) by the people of Odisha.

She was born on 3rd December 1899 in a very rich zamindar family to Smt Basanta Kumari Devi and Shri Gopal Vallabh Das. During her childhood, she was deeply influenced by her uncle, Utkal Gaurab Madhusudan Das, a prominent lawyer, social reformer and a tall public figure in Odisha. At a young age of 15, she was married to Shri Gopabandhu Choudhury, who was a senior government officer.

In the year 1921, she met Gandhi Ji and Kasturba at Binod Bihari temple of Cuttack and presented them with a bundle of handwoven cotton. This interaction changed the course of her life completely. She decided to give up the life of comfort and plunge into the freedom movement. Her husband also quit his high-ranking government job. Rama Devi along with her husband and other family members joined the Non-Cooperation movement.

In 1930, she took an active part in organizing Salt Satyagrah in different parts of Odisha. She led hundreds of women at Inchudi and Srijang areas of Balasore district, in what is known as Inchudi Salt Satyagrah. Smt Rama Devi began touring villages and motivated thousands of women to join the freedom struggle.

Thus, Salt Satyagrah spread from Arabian Sea in the West, where Bapu himself made salt, to Bay of Bengal in the East, where Rama Devi and her followers defied salt laws. She and her fellow Satyagrahis were arrested and were released later as part of the Gandhi Irwin Pact in 1931.

In 1932, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s call to eradicate the social evil of untouchability, she established Asprishyta Nibaran Samiti to work for the welfare of Harijan brethren. Later this institution was rechristened as Harijan Seva Sangh. When Mahatma Gandhi launched his movement from Puri in 1934, she went from village to village to mobilize people in support of eradicating untouchability, promoting prohibition, and other Gandhian ideals. She also used to collect donations and mobilize volunteers for the movement. After Kasturba ji’s death, Gandhi ji asked her to be representative of the Odisha chapter of Kasturba’s Trust.

A day after Mahatma Gandhi launched the Quit India movement on 8th August 1942, Smt. Rama Devi was imprisoned along with the entire family consisting of her husband, son, daughter, and her in-laws. Upon her release from prison, she established an ashram which was named Sewaghar by Gandhi ji. Volunteers used to impart training in khadi weaving, rural trades like dairy and bee-keeping and provide basic education. They used to create awareness on issues such as eradication of untouchability, women’s empowerment, uplift of the downtrodden and sanitation, among others. Sewaghar functioned on the self-sustaining model with expenses being met with woven cotton and other village products.

A vast number of lesser-known freedom fighters like Smt Rama Devi have played a significant role in India’s attainment of freedom. After Independence, Rama Devi ji continued her work of spreading Gandhian ideals in various capacities. She is known to be one of the pioneers of khadi movement in Utkal region. She worked relentlessly in providing help to people during floods and other natural calamities in that region.

Inspired by the ideals of Sarvodaya, she joined Vinoba ji’s Bhoodan and Gramdan movements in 1952. Along with her husband, she undertook padayatra in different districts of Odisha. They were instrumental in distributing about 1,000 acres among the landless. Even during the 1962 Indo- China war, she had mobilized money and material for our forces.

During the Emergency, she along with other leaders protested against the curtailment of democratic rights and began to publish a newspaper from her Gram Sevak Press to protest against Press censorship. The Government of the day impounded the Press.

Rama Devi ji was a true Gandhian, who dedicated her life in the service of the nation and people. Even after her death, she left behind her legacy in the form of Shishu Vihar and Cancer Care Center at Cuttack.

As the nation approaches 75th year of its Independence, we have to remember and honour the unsung freedom fighters for their extraordinary grit in the fight against the colonial rule and for their contribution towards achieving India’s independence. The stories of their courage and sacrifice must find a place in our history books.

Jai Hind!