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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 32, New Delhi, July 24, 2021

Remembering Parbati Giri: Role in India’s Freedom Struggle | Roul & Raul

Friday 23 July 2021


by Kamalakanta Roul and Bimal Kumar Raul*

Introduction: India’s Freedom Struggle Empowered the Women

The contribution of women to India’s freedom struggle occupies a prominent space in the history and politics. Responding to the clarion call of Mahatma Gandhi, Indian women massively came forward and led the struggle from the front even when male freedom fighters were in prison. In the same process, “Mahatma Gandhi consciously feminised India’s freedom struggle to win against the brute masculinity of British power. Emboldened with their success in the running of ashrams and schools, women during the freedom struggle began to participate in protest politics” (Gupta, 2017). During Salt Satyagraha (1930), large number of women turned up and participated in the freedom movement. Indian women “began to organise public meetings, unionise mill workers, picket liquor shops, boycott foreign goods and court arrest. Each call for a negative action was matched by a call for a positive action making politics a spiritual force for women. Satyagraha swept aside old taboos and customs. Organising public meetings meant stepping out of the boundaries of home, unionising mill workers meant overcoming the purdah, boycotting foreign-made cloth meant spinning your own, going to jail and running ashrams meant overcoming caste restrictions” (ibid). Gandhi’s influence was the most significant cause for the greater participation of women in the national movement. Once Mahatma Gandhi said, “When the history of India’s fight for independence comes to be written, the sacrifice made by the women of India will occupy the foremost place”.

Indian women not only fought against imperialism and colonialism but also against the established social norms of the time. Along with being freedom fighters, they were also social reformers. For achieving freedom, they faced extreme hardship and exploitation. Some noted women freedom fighters who fought with true spirit and undaunted courage were Basanti Devi, Ashalata Sen, Aruna Asaf Ali, Sarojini Naidu, Annie Besant, Bhikaji Cama, Lakshmi Sahgal, Begum Hazrat Mahal, Ramadevi Choudhury, Malati Choudhury and many more. Along with these women freedom fighters, Parbati Giri (1926-1995) was also a well-known name in the freedom struggle of India. Like the pioneer women freedom fighters Ramadevi Choudhury, Malati Choudury, Annapurna Moharana, Prabhabati Devi of Odisha, Parbati Giri was also highly influenced by Gandhi during her childhood. At the minor age, she left home to join India’s freedom struggle. Since her childhood, she followed the path of Ahimsa and self-reliance till the end of her life.

The paper explores three important roles played by Parbati Giri during India’s freedom struggle under Mahatma Gandhi. First, Parbati was a fierce freedom fighter joined in national freedom movement at the tender age of twelve. Second, she was a social reformer who fought against the rigid social norms of the society. Finally, Parbati’s participation in India’s freedom struggle had empowered the rural women community and feminised the national independence movement in western Odisha. She successfully mobilised the hinterland society and lower classes of western Odisha.

Life and Time 

The birth of Parbati Giri was coincided with many economic and political developments of India. The Praja Mandal movement was vigorously started in the Gadajata of Odisha (Princely states) under the leadership of Malati Choudhury. In 1938, a popular nationalist movement gained momentum in Gadajatas against the “unprecedented feudal oppression and undemocratic rule of the native Odia princes”. The Haripura Congress session in February, 1938 extended support and sympathy to the movements of people in feudatory states and demanded responsible government and civil liberty in these regions. Praja Mandal mobilised popular support for establishment of democratic government and civil liberties. It firmly stood against the oppressive feudal rule in princely Odisha. In Dhenkanal, agitators were arrested by the King Sankar Pratap Singhdeo. The King adopted brutal measures to suppress the Praja Mandal agitation. Consequently, discontent arouse against the Dhenkanal King Sankar Pratap (Roul, 2021). Baji Rout (1926-1938) was an active member of Praja Mandal movement in Dhenkanal district of Odisha against the misrule of colonial sponsored Gadajata rulers. He courageously fought to make his village free from colonial exploitation and wanted to uproot their feudal political agents. At the tender age of twelve, the boat boy Baji Rout bravely faced imperialist bullets and became the first child martyr of India. The terrible killing of Baji Rout fuelled the fire of India’s freedom struggle and the movement was intensified in princely states of India. (Roul, 2021). On the other hand, the Indian Great Depression 1930 severely impacted over the industrial growth and economy. It also badly affected the agrarian sector. As a result, the British government levied heavy tax. In 1928, Salt Satyagraha was started in opposition to the levied and collection of multiples taxes over farmers including salt. Mahatma Gandhi had visited Sambalpur twice on December 22, 1928 and May 5, 1934. Both the time, he had addressed public meetings on the Mahanadi River bed near the Brahmapura temple ghat of Mahanadi. During his December, 1928 visit, he was warmly received by a group of women from the region. On December 19, 1929, the historic ‘Purna Swaraj’ resolution was passed in the Lahore session of the Congress. On December 31, 1929, Nehru hoisted the tricolour on the banks of the Ravi River and demanded ‘Purna Swaraj’ or complete self-rule. In late September 1932, B.R. Ambedkar negotiated the Poona Pact with Mahatma Gandhi. In a settlement negotiated with Gandhi, Ambedkar agreed for depressed class candidates to be elected by a joint electorate (Balakrishnan, 2020). The Pact concluded the longstanding debate between Gandhi and Ambedkar on separate electorate vs. joint electorate and it paved the way for the making of the Constitution. Gandhi led Harijan movement in May 1934 on padayatra from Puri to Bhadrak but refused to enter the Jagannath temple as it had no access to untouchables (Roul, 2021: 223). However, decolonization from the below was the most challenging political agenda of the modern nationalists participated in this Swaraj movement (Roul, 2021). The most crucial work was mobilizing the hinterland society and lower classes of these societies which were affected by modern political systems in colonial period (Duara, 2004: 5). “By the time Parbati Giri was born, the spirit of freedom had found its way into the hinterlands of the state, and she was often witness to many meetings, discussions and debates about the freedom movement”.

Parbati Giri was born on January 19, 1926 in Samleipadar village in Bijepur block of Bargarh district, Odisha. She was popularly known as “Jakhai” in the village. Her father Dhananjay Giri was village gantia (head) and her uncle Ramachandra Giri was a freedom fighter. “Her father Dhananjaya Giri was an austere man of Sankaracharya Sanyasi family of Odisha. Parvati’s mother Srimati Giri was a loving mother who showered all her love on Parbati”. The motivation to join the freedom struggle and the inspiration to fight for the country came to Parbati from her family as her uncle, Ramchandra Giri, was also a freedom fighter. She dropped out her school education after Class III “to campaign for the Indian National Congress and used to travel all across Odisha to campaign for the political party”. Parbati’s village Samleipadar was politically very active in Bijepur region. Freedom fighters like Laxminarayan Mishra, Durga Prasad Guru, Bhagirathi Pattanayak and his wife Jambobati Pattanaik and Fakira Behera were regularly used to meet her uncle Ramachandra at her home and had discussions about the plan and programmes of the Congress. Parbati was inspired by the local freedom fighters and their commitment for the independence of the country. Parbati heard about Mahatma Gandhi and national freedom movement from her school teacher when she was studying in class three. The exploitative colonial rule propelled her to join India’s freedom movement at a very early age.

A Fierce Freedom Fighter 

In 1937, a meeting of the Congress was held in Samleipadar village to discuss the strategy for furthering the freedom movement in the locality. At that time, Parbati was a minor school girl. She showed interest in the meeting and speeches of the freedom fighters. Looking at Parbati’s interest, local freedom fighters requested her father to allow her to join in Congress. She was assigned to look after the organizational work of the Congress (Panda, 2008: 40). Just after one year, in 1938, a great assembly of Congress was held at Samleipadar village. Great freedom fighters such as Malati Choudury and Pranakrushna Padhiary had participated in the assemble. Both of them gave inspiring speeches and provoked local people to participate in the freedom movement for ending the brutal colonial rule. Parbati was influenced by their speeches. At the end of the meeting, Parbati requested Malati Choudury to go along with her to take part in freedom struggle. Looking at the curiosity and determination of the child, Malati Devi very politely responded, “I am moving here and there for the cause of freedom movement and not staying at one place. You should go to Bari Ashram. Meet my sister-in-law Rama Devi. She will certainly help you”. Parbati’s parents and family members were very reluctant and rigid to send their little girl to Bari Ashram. They tried every possible way to convince Parbati not to go to the Ashram but she was determined and decisive. On January 14, 1938, Parbati left home along with Prabhabati Devi to join in Bari Ashram.

In Bari Ashram, Parbati came in close contact with Rama Devi and Gapabandhu Choudhury. While living in the Ashram, Parbati was inspired by their works and ideologies. She was properly trained as Satyagrahi in Ashram in the span of two years. She learnt and practiced Gandhian principles of Ahimsha and self-reliance. She returned to her village after two years and was engaged in the organisational works of the Congress in Bargarh, Sambalpur, Padampur, Panimara, Ghens. Parbati dedicated herself to the social work and freedom movement. She propagated Gandhi’s Swaraj message from village to village and organised people against the British rule. She gave training to many people for weaving and thread making in villages nearby Sambalpur town.

On August 8, 1942, Gandhi gave a call for Quit India Movement at the Bombay session of the AICC to end the British rule in India. “The British realized it was an alarming situation and they tried to suppress the movement. A day after the Do or Die call by Gandhi, all the national leaders of the Congress were immediately arrested on August 9. Public meetings were prohibited and over 100,000 people were arrested. Gandhi’s arrest infuriated the Indians which led to mass demonstration across the country, protests, strikes and also violence. Many people died in the violence as the British detained thousands of people”. The movement was intensified in every village and city of Odisha. The minor girl Parbati mobilised lower class people for the movement and led many rallies against the British rule. She along with her friends gave anti-British slogans. Like other freedom fighters, Parbati Giri was also imprisoned by the British but was later released as she was just 16 years old.

Parbati was a courageous and daring freedom fighter. She demonstrated against colonial rule in various non-violent methods. Parbati along with two boys (Purna Chandra Giri and Biranchi Pradhan) went to the sub-divisional office of Bargarh during the Quit India Movement. Parbati occupied the chair of the sub-divisional officer and behaved like a judge. Among the boys, one acted as an advocate and another became peon. When the SDO entered in the office, Parbati ordered the peon to bring the culprit tied with a rope but the police impediment their dramatic attempt and arrested all of them. Parbati was jailed for two years. Similar kind of anti-colonial protest was also organised by Parbati at Bargarh court. She went to the office of Bargarh Bar Association along with other protestors. The minor girl requested the lawyers not to cooperate with British India’s judicial proceedings and to vacate the court. Some lawyers left the court and those who did not vacate were given two bangles each as presentation (Debata, 2019). In 1944, she intensified her activism against the British government as active member of the Congress and again joined back in Bari Ashram. From 1946-47, she lived in Wardha Ashram and trained herself for practicing Gandhian socio-economic ideas.

A Social Reformer

Parbati was an independent minded girl since her childhood. She opposed the practice of untouchability at her home. Four agricultural labourers were working at her home regularly. Out of four, two labourers belonged to untouchable community. They were behaved very differently by her family members. Parbati did not like this and requested her father not to behave differently with these two labourers. She was inspired by Gandhi’s Harijan Padyatra in Odisha to eradicate untouchability. Parbati spread Gandhi’s message in villages. Most of the time she used to live in Dalit homes and served them. The upper caste people ostracised her several times but she did not stop her service the lower caste people. A Dalit woman of Rasamunda village was died and she was not cremated by local people. The dead body was lying several days. Parbati carried the dead body over her shoulder and cremated the Dalit woman alone. She fought to eradicate untouchability and also organised people against this exploitative social system. Parbati also mobilised people against purdah system. She was picketing before wine shops along with her women supporters. She stressed upon universal education for all and also believed that only education could change the Indian society.

Parbati Giri dedicated her entire life for the orphans, poor and lower cast people of the society. When Odisha was hit by a famine, she took the responsibility of running from village to village to distribute relief to people who were struggling for food. Parbati founded the Rukmini Lath Balniketan at Paikmal village, Bargaon for orphans and children. She also participated in the Bhudaan movement of Binoba Bhave. Parbati Giri was offered an assembly ticket and a Rajya Sabha seat but she humbly denied the offer and devoted her life for the welfare of the poor and the downtrodden. She followed the path of Ahimsa and self-reliance all through her life. Due to her kindness towards the poor, she is hailed as the “ Mother Teresa of Western Odisha” (India Today, August 18, 2018).

Feminised India’s Freedom Struggle in Western Odisha 

Parbati Giri established herself as the symbol of women empowerment. She played two significant roles at a time: first, she mobilised women to participate in Gandhi’s Khadi Andolan and also organised them for anti-colonial movement. Second, Parbati oriented village women of Sardapali, Barpali and Panimura towards cottage industry, Khadi and Harijan welfare. She gave the training for weaving and thread making in villages. She advised the women to use hand spin cloth, to use charkha and to boycott foreign goods.

Parbati had three folds contribution to the rural women of western Odisha. During her visits to villages, she inculcated nationalist spirit in the mind of rural women, oriented them to make themselves self-reliant, and trained rural women as the crusader against social discrimination. In fact, she taught the principles of a Satyagraha to the women. Parbati asked rural women to be tolerant enough and follow the Gandhian principles of suffering love. She believed that only through love, the heart of an evil person can be changed. Parbati challenged the patriarchy in rural India. She organised women against women exploitation, wife beating and related violence. Large number of women supported Parbati Giri and joined the movement for women rights. Parbati emphasized over women education and taught alphabets to several women such as Rukmini Bai, Lila Bai and Rupa Bai of Nawapara. During her imprisonment in Sambalpur jail, Parbati educated and trained many women criminals in Gandhian principles.

Conclusion: Mobilised the Hinterland Society and Lower Classes against British Colonialism and Imperialism  

When Parbati was a minor girl, she said “I will serve the country by leaving my father, unless I will jump into a well”. Truly, she fought for the freedom of the nation and served the countryside with utmost commitment. She joined India’s freedom struggle at the tender age of twelve. Following the principles of Gandhi, she became a true Gandhian and kept herself away from power politics. Parbati Giri was offered an assembly ticket and a Rajya Sabha seat but she humbly denied the offer and devoted her life for the welfare of the poor and the downtrodden. Parbati played three significant roles in Indian society. As a fierce freedom fighter, Parbati immensely mobilised lower classes, lower castes, women communities, labourers and peasants of rural Odisha against the British colonialism and imperialism. Mobilising the hinterland society against British rule was a challenging affair for the freedom fighters although, the rural society was also affected by the colonial system. Gandhi successfully mobilised rural India and integrated with the urban for greater participation in freedom struggle. Parbati carried forward this mission of Gandhi in western Odisha. She made people aware about the exploitative nature of the British administration and inculcated a nationalist sentiment in the minds of poor, illiterate, labourers, peasants, lower caste people and women communities. Like Gandhi, she was also successful in mobilising rural society for freedom movement. In the same process, Parbati worked for women empowerment and became an icon for them. The greatest contribution of Parbati is that she feminised the freedom struggle by organising rural women against the alien rule. Similarly, her mobilisation for anti-colonial struggle had also feminised the male society in western Odisha. She led several women movement against women violence and exploitation. She wanted to make women self-dependent in Gandhian way and demanded for women education. Parbati was not only a freedom fighter but also a crusader against the social discrimination, a social reformer. Her contribution to eradicate untouchability, purdah system and poverty was remarkable and relevant even today. Parbati Giri passed away on August 17, 1995. Giri’s contribution to Indian society will be remembered and beneficial all the time.


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(Authors: Kamalakanta Roul teaches political science at the University of Delhi. He can be contacted at kamalakantroul[at] | Bimal Kumar Raul is pursuing Ph.D on “Interpreting Odia Nationalism: Role of Odia Literature and Press, 1866-1936” at the Department of Odia Language and Literature, Utkal University, Bhubaneswar, Odisha. He can be contacted at kumar.bimal09[at]

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