Kanaklata Barua was not your regular teenager. She was made of much sterner stuff. So when Mahatma Gandhi gave the call to ‘do or die’, the motto of the Quit India Movement he launched in 1942, Kanaklata went all in – and made the ultimate sacrifice.
India’s struggle for freedom from colonial rule was in its last phase and women across the country were playing a pivotal part in the movement. Probably inspired by them, this 17-year-old patriot from Assam realised that there could be no half measures if her country had to be free. So who was this braveheart?
Kanaklata Barua was born on 22nd December 1924, in Barangabari village, in present-day Sonitpur district of Assam. Her father was a farmer and the family was of very modest means. Tragedy struck when Kanaklata’s mother died when she was just five. Kanaklata had two younger sisters to take care of and as she grew older, she took life head-on.
But her troubles mounted when her father died when she was a teenager. She and her sisters were raised by their stepmother and lived with their three step-siblings. Since life was tough and money scarce, Kanaklata was unable to complete her education, having dropped out of school after third grade.
Meanwhile, with the passage of time, the Quit India Movement was gaining momentum across India. The All-India Congress Committee had passed the Quit India Resolution on 8th August 1942 at its Bombay session, demanding complete independence for India.
The arrival of Gandhi in Assam in 1921 had already galvanised the people in the state to participate actively in the freedom movement. And, on 26th January 1930, when the Purna Swaraj (‘complete freedom from the British’) declaration was made by the Congress, it encouraged people to hoist the Indian national flag across Assam. People from across the social spectrum of Assam began participating in the Freedom movement. Assamese social activists like Kiran Bala Bora and Ambika Kakati Aidew, among others, led by example and inspired young Assamese girls to throw themselves into the freedom movement. Kanaklata Barua was thus primed for her heroic journey.
After Gandhi’s Quit India call in 1942, a large camp of revolutionaries was set up in Tezpur district in Assam, 8 km from Kanaklata’s home. When she learnt of this, Kanaklata was determined to join. She was deeply moved by the speeches of Comrade Bishnu Prasad Rabha and the songs of noted Assamese cultural icon, Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, and this fuelled her patriotic feelings.
Kanaklata started secretly attending meetings at the camp. It was her first tryst with nationalism. She was now more intent than ever on joining the revolutionaries. However, the teenager’s grandfather opposed her decision, probably because the loss of his only son and daughter-in-law had been too painful for him and he knew that revolutionary patriotism demanded sacrifice.
But Kanaklata wouldn’t relent. She convinced her stepmother and officially joined the revolutionaries. Following in her footsteps, her younger, step-brother Rajanikanta too became a volunteer with the Quit India Movement.
Movements against the British were quite peaceful in Assam but, as a precautionary measure, the Assam Provincial Congress Committee established the ‘Shanti Bahini’ (Peace force) and tasked it with guarding villages at night and keeping the peace during protests. There were as many as 20,000 members associated with the Shanti Bahini.
Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, writer, songwriter, playwright and filmmaker was one of the main organizers of the political protests in Assam. He instructed Congress volunteers of the ‘Shant Bahini’ to peacefully make their way to police stations in Tezpur district, to hoist the Indian tricolour while raising the ‘Quit India’ slogan. He therefore formed, what was then termed as the Mrityu Bahini (‘Death Army’) for this mission, in line with Gandhi’s ‘Do or Die’ call.
Kanaklata was a part of this brigade, which was aware that death could be imminent and inevitable. They were aware of the martyrdom of Kushal Konwar, a local Congress leader who had been hanged for allegedly derailing a train carrying British soldiers in Assam, and incidents like that only made them more zealous. The ‘Mrityu Bahini’ was indeed a force to reckon with.
It was decided that Kanaklata Barua would hoist the tricolour at the Gohpur police station on 20th September 1942. Several unarmed young men and women, boys and girls, were marching towards the police station, with Kanaklata in the lead. As they approached, the police officer in charge, Rebati Mahan Som, warned of deadly consequences if they did not turn back.
But Kanaklata did not pay any heed and kept on marching. Suddenly, the police opened fire on the procession and Kanaklata Barua, tricolour in her hands, was shot. She died on the spot. A local villager named Mukund Kakoti took the flag from her and he too was shot dead.
The tragic martyrdom of Kanaklata Barua at the tender age of 17, made her a household name in Assam. She has posthumously been given the titles ‘Shaheed’ and ‘Birbala’, meaning ‘martyr’ and ‘brave woman’, the first of many accolades. An Indian Coast Guard Fast Patrol Vessel was named after her in 1997, and a monumental statue of her was unveiled in 2011, in a rock garden called ‘Kanaklata Udyan’, in Gauripur (formerly Gohpur), Tezpur. The teenage patriot’s unusual courage has also been immortalised in the Assamese film Epaah Phulil Epaah Xoril, directed by Chandra Mudoi, and released in Hindi as Purab ki Aawaz. She remains even to this day one of Assam’s icons.
Cover Image: Kanaklata’s life-size statue at Gouripur, Assam- Wikimedia Commons
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vishal Singh is a student of Ramjas College, University of Delhi, and a national level quizzer with a penchant for independent research in history.