Basanti Devi

by R. Raghunandan

Basanti Devi (23 March 1880 – 1974) was an Indian independence activist during the British rule in India. She was the wife of activist Chittaranjan Das. After Das’ arrest in 1921 and death in 1925, she took active part in various movements and continued with social work post-independence. She received Padma Vibhushan in 1973.

Life and activities

Basanti Devi was born on 23 March 1880 to Baradanath Haldar, a diwan, financial minister to Assam state under British colonial rule. Basanti studied at the Loreto House, Kolkata, where she met and married Chittaranjan Das at the age of seventeen. The two had three children born between 1898 and 1901.

Following her husband, Basanti Devi took part in various movements like the Civil disobedience movement, Khilafat Movement and also the Nagpur session of Indian National Congress in 1920. The following year she joined Chittaranjan Das’ sisters Urmila Devi and Sunita Devi to establish the “Nari Karma Mandir”, a training centre for women activists.

In 1920–21, she was instrumental in collecting gold ornaments and 2000 gold coins from Jalpaiguri towards the Tilak Swaraj Fund. During the Non-cooperation movement in 1921, the Indian National Congress called for strikes and ban on foreign goods. In Kolkata, small groups of five volunteers were employed to sell khadi, the hand spun clothes, on the streets of Kolkata. Das, who was the leading figure of the local movement decided to make his wife Basanti Devi lead one such group. Devi went on the streets despite Subhash Chandra Bose’s warnings that it would provoke the British to arrest her. Although she was released by midnight her arrest proved to be a major impetus behind widespread agitation. Two prisons in Kolkata were filled with revolutionary volunteers, so detention camps were hastily constructed to hold more suspects. On 10 December 1921 police arrested Das and Bose. This was Bose’s first arrest. In total he was arrested eleven times by the British.

After the arrest of Chittaranjan Das, Basanti Devi became in-charge of his weekly publication Bangalar Katha (The story of Bengal). She was the president of Bengal Provincial Congress in 1921-22. Through her speech at the April 1922 Chittagong conference, she encouraged grass-root agitation. Travelling around India, she supported cultural development of arts in order to oppose colonialism.

As Chittaranjan Das was the political mentor of Subhash Chandra Bose, he had familial relations with Basanti Devi. Upon Chittaranjan Das’s death in 1925, Bose is noted to discuss his personal and political doubts with Basanti Devi. Bose considered her as his “adopted mother” and she is noted to be amongst the four prominent women in Bose’s life; the other three being his mother Prabhabati, his sister-in-law Bibhabati (wife of Sarat Chandra Bose) and his wife/ companion Emilie Schenkl.

Post India’s independence in 1947, Basanti Devi continued with social work. Basanti Devi College, the first women’s college in Kolkata to have been funded by the Government, was established in 1959 and named after her. She was presented with the Padma Vibhushan, the second-highest civilian award of the Republic of India in 1973.

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