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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 16, April 15, 2023

The Forgotten Workers’ leader – Santosh Kumari Devi — A tribute | Jayanta Kumar Ghosal

Saturday 15 April 2023


by Jayanta Kumar Ghosal *

19th century Bengal witnessed many events leading to the rise of nationalist sentiment. In 1878 the country saw the massive protest against Vernacular Press Act. Radical Bengali nationalists began organising peasantry and workers of various industries. Bramho reformers took important role in this respect. Two persons Ramkumar Vidyaratna and Dwarakanath Ganguly are the names worth mentioning who vividly described and exposed the oppression of tea garden labours in Assam. Two journals ‘Sulav Samachar’ edited by the Bramho reformer Keshab Chandra Sen and ‘Bharat Sramajibi’ edited by Sasipada Banerjee helped in uplifting the working men’s condition. ‘Bharat Sramajibi Sangha’ – the workingmen’s organisation also played an important role then.

In 1920 All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) was formed with Lala Lajpat Rai as its president in Bombay. In Bengal also the followers of Chittaranjan Das became active in organising the workers. Santosh Kumari Devi (1897-1989), a follower of CR Das, was the first woman leading activist of the workers movement in Bengal.

Santosh Kumari was born on 13 January, 1897 at Kanthi, now in the district of Purba Medinipur, West Bengal at her maternal uncle’s house. Her father Prasanna Kumar Roy was an eminent lawyer and mother Nagendra Kumari was a lady with a strong patriotic sense who roused the sense of patriotism in Santosh Kumari. Santosh Kumari spent her childhood in Moulamein in Burma. At the age of 12 as a student of a missionary school she refused to sing ‘Britannia rules the waves’. Later she joined the national activities and therefore faced internment and arrest when she was only a girl.

Santosh Kumari was deeply involved in politics in 1918. When she was a teacher of a school she came in contact with Gandhiji and Desh Bandhu Chittaranjan Das. She joined AICC’s Delhi session that year and also came in contact with Annie Besant and many other stalwarts of our freedom movement. CR Das impressed her much and Santosh Kumari became an ardent follower of him.

Santosh Kumari returned from Burma to her paternal house at Garifa, West Bengal. She resided near Gouripur close to Garifa and got involved in a strike of Gouripur jute mill workers. Gradually she formed Gouripur Jute Workers’ Union which led many glorious struggles of the workers. And she was one of the pioneers of labour movement of undivided Bengal from 1918 to 1928.

From 1903-1908 Bengal witnessed militant Swadeshi Movement which left a lasting impression upon the labour movement. These movement mainly were of nationalist motives. Santosh Kumari was also driven by the nationalist sentiments. She actively involved herself in labour movement particularly among the jute workers. She began organising the jute workers from Naihati, Kankinara to Alambazar. After the first world war the number of various industrial factories as well as the number of workers increased. The capitalists made huge profits but they did not care for improvement of the living condition of the workers.

In the meantime the news of the Great October Revolution reached India. Some periodicals like ‘Atmashakti’, ‘Bijoli’ and ‘Sankha’ carried the message of the revolution to working masses. As a result in 1919 nearly 150000 workers of different sectors took part in a strike demanding the wage increase. Demands for reduction of working hours, recognition of trade union rights etc. also came to the forefront. Working class movements and activities spread up. Emphasis was given upon building working class organisations.

Santosh kumari joined the movements whole heartedly. According to her she was living then with her mother at Garifa very close to Gouripur Jute Mill. She learnt how the labourers were being exploited in an inhuman way and decided to join the agitation launched by the workers of the mill. Under her leadership the workers placed a charter of demands to the mill management and succeeded to have their demands fulfilled. It was a major victory for the Jute workers which inspired the workers of other mills to raise their voice against oppression. Santosh kumari set up Bengal Workers’ Association which led a glorious strike of Gouripur Mill workers for over 3 months. During this strike 3000 workers were fed and housed on Santoshkumari’s mother’s estate. It was a turning point as its victory inspired workers of other factories to be united and build their own organisation.

The labour party MPs Thomas Johnson and John F Syme after visiting some Jute mills around Calcutta openly admitted that Gouripur workers had the best working condition and getting highest pay. The workers fought under the banner of Gouripur Labour Union set up by Santosh kumari. Santosh kumari also stood by the side of tea garden workers. She along with CR Das’ wife Mrs. Basanti Devi even went to Chandrapur, where the British Gorkha soldiers fired upon the tea garden workers.

British Government and even the nationalist leaders did not fail to notice the growing militancy of the working class. Only a small number of radicals supported the role of the workers. Santosh kumari admitted that the national leaders did not pay any attention to the masses. She strongly said that Congress should come forward to organise the working class.

Santosh kumari was very active in trade union works during 1922-1925. She strongly advocated for building workers’ own organisations in different factories and to build unity with the anti-imperialist nationalist movement. She became the president of the reception committee for the 1924 session of AITUC in Calcutta where CR Das presided.

She wrote a number of articles in various progressive journals like ‘Samhati’ and ‘Atmshakti’, where her views were clearly reflected. In such an article Santosh kumari clearly stated -A great conflict is going on to-day all over the world between the capitalists and the workers. In another article she wrote – “The Capitalists of the world are trying their best to suppress the working class by any means, fair and foul. This is totally unjust and unfair, but not at all surprising.” These comments show that though she did not possess any clear cut socialist outlook and she openly declared that she did not believe in any ‘ism’, but the articles appeared in such journals clearly indicate that she was gradually being pushed towards the politics of class struggle by her own bitter experience. Perhaps her association with communist leaders like Bankim Mukherjee, Kalipada Bhattacharya and others led her this way.

She felt the necessity to publish a journal and in 1924, a weekly organ in Bengali then appeared. The name of the Bengali organ was ‘Sramik’ and she was the editor. The cost was one paisa. The organ became very popular particularly among the jute workers. She had to sell her gold ornaments to continue the regular publication of the journal. Rasbehari Bose, the noted revolutionary leader from Japan greeted Santosh Kumari for her attempt to the cause of the workers.

In an article of ‘Sramik’ Santosh kumari clearly declared, “The whole world has become sensitive to-day by the heart rending sighs and desperate cries of the country of long oppressed peasants and workers. If we want to liberate them then many of the laws of the present society shall have to be destroyed and society shall have to be fundamentally restructured according to new ideals. The upper classes must be compelled to give equal status to the downtrodden.”

No doubt ‘Sramik’ and the articles appeared in it were a turning point and acted as a bridge between our nationalist movement and the budding workers’ movement. Apart from organising Jute workers Santosh Kumari took part in the movements of tea garden workers, port and dock workers. She could speak fluently in Bengali Urdu and English. Side by side led some unique struggles of the workers in different factories which made her a ‘Legend’. Various news of her activities were published in different news papers then.

In 1924, the Swarajists won the Calcutta Corporation election and Chitta Rajnan Das became the Mayor. CR Das appointed Subhash Chandra Bose as the Chief Executive Officer and a new post of education officer was created for spreading primary education among the people. Bose selected Santosh Kumari as a member of the primary education advisory committee. Her attempt to open primary schools in the working class areas of Calcutta received great support from Khitish Prasad Chattopadhyay, the noted anthropologist and the then education officer of CMC, who was also very much eager for Universalisation of compulsory primary education in Calcutta. As a result, within a span of ten years only the number of primary schools jumped from 3 in 1924 to 229 in 1935. Santosh Kumari also set up a primary school at Gouripur for the workers which still exists. She genuinely realised the urgency of education among the workers.

At that time British imperialists took stern steps against Bolshevik activities. Many labour and communist leaders were arrested. In 1923 Kanpur Bolshevik Conspiracy case started. In Bengal many Swarajists, revolutionaries and Subhash Chandra Bose were arrested. Protests aroused. Santosh Kumari along with her leader CR Das were in the forefront of the protests.

Many labour leaders of Britain knew her activities. Mr. Sapurji Saklatwala, British labour party MP called her ‘Bahinji’ and was accompanied by her while visiting many factories in Calcutta, Kharagpur and Tatanagar. The workers of the factories affectionately called her ‘Mairam’ as she really stood by them in well and woe. She was also lovingly called ‘Khilafat Memsab’ by the Muslim workers for her role during Khilafat movement.

This firebrand lady after only a period of ten years’ activities in the trade union suddenly disappeared from the political arena forever. But remained active in various social and humanitarian works till her death (19.09.1989). Her 125th birth anniversary passed silently.

Source: 1. Santosh Kumari Devi – Manju Chattopadhyay, ‘Social Scientist’ – issue 128 January 1984
2. Bengali biography of Santosh Kumari – Diptimoy Roy

* (Author: Jayanta Kumar Ghosal is a Literacy Activist)

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