On 6th February 1932, in the Convocation Hall of the University of Calcutta, the outgoing British Governor of Bengal Stanley Jackson was delivering a speech to a packed hall of fresh graduates. Unbeknownst to all, a female student had snuck in with a loaded revolver concealed in her graduation gown. Moments into the speech, the student rose from her seat, rushed towards the dais and opened fire.
The student’s name was Bina Das (1911-1986). The daughter of a schoolteacher, Bina was from Chittagong in East Bengal (now Bangladesh). She and her family had moved around a fair bit, before settling in Ekdalia in South Calcutta. In Cuttack, where they had lived earlier, Bina’s father Beni Madhab Das had been a teacher at the Ravenshaw College, and one of his students had been the revolutionary leader Subhas Chandra Bose. So the seeds of revolution were sowed early.
At the time of the attack, Bina was a student of the Diocesan College of Calcutta. Determined to be part of the burgeoning freedom movement, perhaps inspired by her khadi-wearing, Gandhian father, she rebelled every chance she got. For her matriculation examination, for instance, asked to write an essay on her favourite novel, Bina wrote on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Pather Dabi (The Call of the Road; 1926). The novel, about a secret society that wanted to free India from British rule, was banned at the time, and this act of defiance cost Bina her marks.
In 1928, Bina joined the Bengal Volunteer Corps founded by Bose. It was at this point that a college classmate, the revolutionary Suhasini Ganguly, asked if she was interested in doing ‘something real’ for the freedom of her motherland. When Bina answered in the affirmative, Suhasini introduced her to the Bengal Revolutionary Party.
The group was so secretive that many members didn’t know each other’s real names. Bina only found out that Anuja Charan Sen and Dinesh Chandra Mazumdar were part of the group when, on the 25th of August 1930, the duo made a failed attempt to kill Charles Tegart, Calcutta’s police commissioner, notorious for torturing captured revolutionaries.
As colonial law enforcement cracked down in the wake of that assassination attempt, the group scattered. Several members were arrested. It is then that Bina decided to attempt to assassinate the Governor of Bengal. She approached Kamala Dasgupta of the Jugantar Party to get her a gun. Kamala’s fellow revolutionary Sudhir Ghosh purchased an old-fashioned Belgian, five-chambered revolver for the sum of Rs 280.
Bina had almost no experience with firearms. As a child, she had once fired a rifle and the recoil had nearly knocked her off her feet. With the revolver, she had no practice at all. When she expressed these apprehensions to Dasgupta, the latter reassured Bina, telling her that Benoy Basu had had no practice before he attacked the Writers’ Building, to kill N.S. Simpson, the Inspector General of Prisons.
At the convocation hall, Bina’s first shot whizzed past Jackson’s ear while he was still speaking. Jackson, quick on his feet, immediately ducked. Beside him on the dais was Lt Col Hassan Suhrawardy, then vice-chancellor of Calcutta University. Suhrawardy leapt up and grabbed Bina by the throat, attempting to disarm her. She still managed to discharge all the remaining bullets before being wrestled to the ground. Unfortunately none of them found their mark.
British vengeance was swift, and severe. Bina was arrested; a search of her hostel room revealed more bullets. After a trial lasting only a day, she was sentenced to nine years’ rigorous imprisonment. But there was sympathy for this 21-year-old who had risked it all for something she believed in. At the Lalbazar police headquarters, when she had asked for something to eat, an Indian constable served her an elaborate meal of rice, dal, curries and even a wedge of lime. According to her autobiography, when she looked up at the constable in surprise, he whispered, “I cooked this for you myself.”
Before her trial, her distraught parents were brought to Lalbazar to meet Bina. The police told them that if Bina revealed where she got the gun, she would be treated with leniency. But they had already seen their two other children go to prison for their involvement in the freedom movement. They would not crack under such pressure. And to her captors Bina snarled, “My father didn’t raise traitors.”
In court Bina accepted her fate with calm. In her address to the court, she said she bore no ill will towards Jackson. “As a man he is just as good to me as my father, and Lady Jackson just as good as my mother, but the Governor of Bengal represents a system which has kept enslaved three hundred millions of my countrymen and women,” she added.
At the Midnapore prison where she was sent to serve out her term, she started a hunger strike to protest the poor conditions. After seven days, the authorities accepted her demands. It would be seven long years before, in 1939, Mahatma Gandhi was able to secure her release. Upon release, Bina joined the Congress Party and, in 1941, was appointed head of the party’s South Calcutta chapter and organised workers’ agitations.
In 1942 as part of the Quit India Movement, Bina called for a public meeting at Hazra Crossing in South Calcutta, in contravention of police orders. As the meeting progressed, a police force swept in to break it up. When a sergeant attempted to hit one of her colleagues with his baton, Bina tried to stop him. For this, she was sent back to prison, this time for three years.
After her release, from 1946 to 1951, she served in the Bengal state legislature. In 1947, she married fellow freedom fighter Jatish Bhowmick. But even at Independence, for the revolutionary Bina Das, the struggle was far from over. Around 1951-52 the workers’ union of the prominent Kolkata newspaper Amrita Bazar Patrika started an agitation demanding better working conditions and pay. While the much publicized policy of the ruling Congress party was the amelioration of the abject conditions of the working class, the party sided with the management. Meanwhile, Bina was the head of the trade union and sided with the workers.
This wasn’t all. When Partition refugees from East Bengal were sent to far off Dandakaranya in Madhya Pradesh and barred from settling in Calcutta, Bina and Bhowmick both refused their freedom-fighter pensions from the then Congress government at the Centre.
Bina would go on to spend some of her time teaching in schools. After the death of her husband in 1986, her life began to unravel. She isolated herself, refusing to meet even close friends or family. Ultimately, she left Calcutta and settled in Rishikesh (now in Uttarakhand), where she lived in penury.
On 26th December 1986, she was discovered by the side of the road, dead. Her body was in such an advanced state of decomposition that it would take the police more than a month to establish her identity. Bengal’s brave daughter had died homeless.
What we are left with are the echoes of her voice. In her autobiography, Shrinkhal Jhankar (Rattling the Chains) (1947), she wrote of how deeply she felt the suffering of her people. “Even today I hear their cries – the groans of the hungry, the silent suffering of the poor. The journey has not yet ended. In my heart I still hear the drum beats of my God, and it urges me forward, forward, forever forward.”