Around a year before the tragic incident at Jallianwala Bagh, as World War I was nearing its end, India’s fight for independence was gaining momentum. The flames of resistance had recently burned bright in Bengal, where the entire society had rallied against the partition of the region. This fiery spirit continued to blaze within people’s hearts. By the year 1918, and amidst this backdrop, a frail widow was transferred from Kashi’s punitive cell to Calcutta’s Presidency Jail, her health hanging by a thread. She faced accusations such as withholding information and obstructing a police officer, with the authorities invoking the provisions of Regulation Number 3 of 1818 to prosecute her.
She endured unspeakable torture under the guise of interrogation, with the authorities subjecting her to relentless suffering day after day. Despite their relentless efforts, the relentless tiger-like determination of this woman prevented the police from extracting any valuable information from her. Do you recognize this resolute individual? This indomitable Bengali widow none other than Nanibala Devi, who earned the distinction of being Bengal’s first female royal prisoner.
Nanibala devi was born in 1888 in Bali, Howrah. Father’s name was Suryakanta Banerjee, mother Giribala Devi. Following the social norms of that time she got married in 1899 at the age of 11. Nanibala lost her husband in 1904 after five years of marriage. After that she did not find a place in-law’ house and she was forced to return to her father. She wanted to continue her studies on her own, but was blocked by her conservative father’s house. All in all, her relationship with her father gradually became bitter. There is no love, no respect, it is meaningless to lie there, Nanibala understood that at that young age. She left her ancestral home and went on the road.
It is a fire age. With the mantra of liberating the country, the armed revolutionaries have jumped into the battle. They are not reluctant to give their lives for the country. The ‘Gupta Revolutionary Association’ is gradually being formed. Nanibala Devi also decided to join the armed revolution. Amarendra Chattopadhyay who was Nanibala Devi’s nephew and leader of the famous revolutionary of ‘Jugantar Dal’ which was one of the main secret revolutionary trends operating in Bengal for Indian Independence. Nanibala was initiated into the mantra of freedom by his hand. A new chapter of her life has begun. Within a few months, Nanibala became a reliable and active associate of the ‘Gupta Revolutionary Society’. In 1915, after being involved in the work of the country, she was entrusted with the responsibility of getting secret information from revolutionary Ramchandra Majumdar imprisoned in Alipore Jail. Ramchandra Majumdar had a ‘Mauser’ pistol with him when he was arrested. He could not tell the team where he hid it. At that time, the revolutionaries needed heavy weapons. And so, to avoid the eyes of the police Nanibala Devi was sent to meet Ramchandra in the identity of his wife. In those days, it was almost unthinkable for a widow of a Hindu house to wear a fake wife with vermilion on her head and go to jail to evade the strict gaze of the police. No one could even think of getting the job done like this. Nanibala Devi did the impossible with her dexterity.
Even after that, she took different disguises for the safe shelter of the fugitive revolutionaries. By 1915, Amarendra Babu decided to secretly rent a house in Chandan Nagar to shelter the revolutionaries, avoiding the attention of the police. At that time, the house owners did not want to rent the house if there was no family due to the fear of police riots. Nanibala Devi appeared in the role of a housewife in this journey. Fugitive revolutionaries like Jadugopal Mukherjee, Amar Chatterjee, Atul Ghosh, Bholanath Chatterjee, Nalinikanta Kar, Vinay Bhushan Dutta, Bijay Chakraborty were chased by the police and took refuge in her shelter day after day. Nanibala Devi also had the responsibility of collecting information or weapons from them and delivering them to the revolutionaries outside and collecting various supplies from outside and delivering them. All her secret activities were carried out in the dark. Even in disguise in Peshawar, police found her after several days. By the time the British police arrived in Peshawar to arrest her, Nanibala Devi was seriously ill with cholera. The police arrested her and took her to jail in bed ridden condition. After being kept in Peshawar jail for a few days, Nanibala Devi was moved to Kashi jail when she recovered a little.
Unbearable torture on Nanibala Devi started in Kashi shortly after she was brought to jail. Despite torture in various ways, the white officers could not find out a single secret about the revolutionaries. At that time, Bengali officer Jiten Banerjee was the Superintendent of Police of Kashi Jail. Unable to gather information from Nanibala Devi, officer Jiten Banerjee finally chose a terrible inhumane path. On a day two Jamadars took Nanibala Devi to a separate cell on Jiten Banerjee’s orders. The jamadars forced her on to the ground, stripped of all her clothes. A supressed roar of a wounded lioness came out of her mouth when the Jamadars rubbed chili powder on different parts of her body. Nanibala Devi began to scream in anger and she tried to kick with all her might as there was no way for her to move as she was held by the Jamadars.
After spending few days in Kashi jail, she was again moved to Presidency jail. Nanibala Devi completely stopped eating upon arrival at the Presidency Jail. Despite the thousands of efforts of the prison officials and even the district magistrate, she could not be fed a single food. She resembled not a woman, but a small blaze speckled with white. Requests, objections, intimidation, cross-examination all failed. Finally, she agreed to eat on one strange condition which was to have meal only in the hands of ‘Maa Sarada Devi’.
By the year 1919, after spending two years in captivity, Nanibala Devi was released. But where will she go? Nanibala Devi, who is sick and in poor health, has no place to rest her head not even in her own house and also her relatives have moved away long ago. However, knowing that there was nowhere else to go, she returned to her ancestral home. But Nanibala didn’t like her parents either. First of all, the fear of the police, besides being a widow and being a polygamist, staying in a room with another man, going to Peshawar, Nanibala became almost untouchable in the society of that time. Even the people of her own house did not accept her.
Nanibala Devi left the house again in anger and sadness. Her acquaintance the revolutionary organizations were also crushed by the British police. Many colleagues are dead and Some are rotting in jail. In this situation, Nanibala started living in Hooghly by renting a hut with the help of an acquaintance. She used to eat half of her days by cutting thread and cooking. She stopped all contact with the society and her relatives in anger, sadness and humiliation. In the end she made herself a sort of exile. Who was engrossed in the work of the country, devoted herself, no one felt the need to inquire about her in last life. In May 1967, she quietly left forever with much shame. History did not remember her lifelong struggle. Even birthdays and death days are not written on the calendar pages. However, this noble woman will remain forever in the heart of history loving Bengalis.
Written by Diptarka Ghosal, M.sc Ag