Dear Muktomonas, 

With due respect I remember the great peasant leader of Bangladesh of 50's- Comrade Ila Mitra. Here is my tributes to her memory. 

Ajoy Roy

18. 10. 02.


Comrade Ila Mitra: A tribute [Part I]

-Ajoy Roy

Pic: The legendary Ila Mitra (1971), peasant leader of 50s

Ila Mitra, the legendary peasant leader of undivided Bengal, a veteran leader of the communist movement in the sub-continent, a dedicated friend to the cause of our war of liberation in 1971, breathed her last in Kolakata (Calcutta) on Sunday, 13th October afternoon at PG hospital, Kolkata (Calcutta), West Bengal. It was learnt from ETV-Calcutta TV channel that following a severe heart attack some time back she had been under treatment in the PG hospital. She was 77. I remember her today with due respect and solemnity. 

In Rajshahi district, Nachol, a police station at that time of greater Rajshahi became the centre of peasant movement, known as Tebhaga Andolan in the district. Ila Mitra, an athlete of no mean calibre before she was married to a zaminder son of that locality, deeply got involved in the movement encouraged by his husband and ultimately became 'Rani Ma' (queen-mother) of the peasants of the locality. But who is Ila Mitra to the present generation, particularly of Bangladesh ? Is the name bear any significance to them ? Perhaps not. 

 Who is Ila Mitra ?

Ila Sen, her maiden, was a daughter of a simple middle class government service holder. Their original home was at the village named Bagutia in the then Jenidah Subdivision of Jessore district. Her father, Nagendra Nath Sen was an accountant of AGB office, Calcutta when Ila was born on 18th October in 1925. She completed her education at Calcutta- studying at Bethun School & College under Calcutta University. She passed BA with honours in Bengali literature in 1944. She finally obtained her MA degree in Bangla literature and Culture from Calcutta University as a private candidate in 1958 after long 13 years of passing BA. Why? That is part of her story. 

It might appear strange to many of us such a political personal was a champion athlete in her school and college days. In the decade of thirties she was a star woman in the world of sports in Bengal. She was junior champion athlete in Bengal Presidency from 1935  1938. She was a good basketball player too. She was selected to represent India in athletics in Olympic games scheduled to be held in 1940 in Japan, which however could not be held because of World War II. In 1944, she got married with Ramendra Nath Mitra, son of a Zemindar family of Ramchandrapur, then under Maldah district of British Bengal adjacent to present district of Nawabganj in Bangladesh. Ramendra however not only a son of a Zemindar family, but himself an organizer of the communist movement in Maldah. He was a district president of Peasant Association.

Ila Mitra's Political association

Through marriage she first became aware of the peasant movement in northern region of undivided Bengal. But even before her marriage she got involved with politics of left through Students Federation, a left oriented students' organization and Women Self Defense Association (Mahila Atama Raksha Samity). She became very much active in communist movement in early forties, as a result of which she got the membership of Communist Party of India (CPI) at the age of only 18 years. After marriage she moved to Ramchandrapur as a newly married bride of a conservative traditional Hindu family. The couple had their only son born in 1948, while Ila Mitra was organizing peasant movement in the locality of Nachol under the directives of CPI.  


 Tebhaga Movement

Ila Mitra came to prominence during 1948, just after partition of Bengal in 1947 for her revolutionary leadership to peasant movement, popularly known as 'Tebhaga Andolan', as we mentioned earlier.

The Bengali word 'Tebhaga' means division in three parts. The objective of the movement among the peasant class was that a cultivating peasant must get two-third share of the total yield divided into three and rest one third would go to the owner of the land. The necessary political leadership to the movement came from the Bengal Peasant Association, a front organization of the peasants and landless agriculture laborer of CPI. The movement took serious turn and reached its peak in 1946. It became very popular in north Bengal particularly in the districts of Jalpaiguri, Dinajpur, Maldah, Rajshahi, Rangpur, Bogra and adjacent part of Pabna.

In order to understand tebhaga movement we have to understand the land distribution system in that area. At the top of the land owning system was the class of zeminders who got lease of lands through permanent settlement of the British law. These zemindars have no direct link with the cultivation of lands owned by them. The link between the zemindars and the British government was that zemindars would pay a yearly tax fixed by the government depending on quantity and quality of the lands owned by the zemindars. How these lands would be cultivated, developed and what income would be generated was left to the zemindars. At the next bottom of etalon was the class jotdars to whom the zemindars distributed lands through a system called 'Pattani'. The pattani was achieved through negotiation on the basis of fixed taxes to be renewed and reviewed time to time. The jotdars class was the real people directly connected with lands and cultivation. Although outside the 'jotdari system' there were many land owning individuals, small and big who directly pay their land taxes to the zemindars through the 'Nayebi  Tahsildari' system of the zemindars, the jotdars in north Bengal used own vast lands to the tune of hundreds and thousands of acres and they were the real class of people whose fortune and fate were directly land linked. Therefore these people who had to look after cultivation and development of lands so far its yield were concerned. Thus the fate of the farmers were linked intricately with jotdari system. Now, jotdars used two system of cultivation:

(i). employ agricultural laborers to cultivate lands under the direct supervision of the jotdar himself.

(ii). give lease of lands to individual farmers, a small land owning class of people who directly cultivate lands of their own or taken lease from a jotdar for a particular period of time which depended on the sweet will of the jotdar. The terms of conditions of such arrangement were: All investing cost of cultivation of leased land had to be borne by the farmer; the total yield of corps must be shared equally between the cultivator and the owner of the land i.e. jotdar. This system of cultivation of land was commonly known as 'Adhiary Pratha' (half-half system), mostly prevalent in north Bengal. This class of cultivating farmers was known as 'Adhiar' (half sharer). Through this mechanism, just because a jotdar owned a piece of land he used to derive benefit without investing any thing in the land. More over he used to exploit the labor of a cultivator in various form- the poor man becoming almost a slave of the landowner. There was always a constant threat over his head that if he did not listen to the jotdar he would take away the land and he would have to starve. This was surely a system of exploitation to extreme limit.

Thus zemindari-jotdari system used to be a instrument of exploitation that had been agitating the people belonging to small peasant class. Their grievances grew as the economic situation in the country getting worse in the post war period that immediately followed a terrible famine (1942) throughout Bengal, at that time being governed by Muslim league with Mr. Shaheed Surwardy as chief minister. The economic situation, political unrest, and unbearable social conditions of the peasants led to the movement later known as Tebhaga Andolan. The communist leaders and Krishak samity leaders took full advantage of the unrest prevailing among the poor peasants and land less agricultural laborers.

The movement sparked off in an area under Ps Chirirbandar in the district of Dinajpur. The area had a local communist leader, Shri Rupnarayan Roy, himself a small land owning farmer & local organizer of Krishak Samity, first and only MLA (member of the legislative assembly) of Bengal assembly elected from CPI ticket in 1946 election. He, together with other peasant leaders of the locality led a movement in and around his locality & organized the peasants mostly Hindus belonging to Kshatriya caste & some Muslim cultivators in a grand assembly on the day when jotdars men would come to collect 50% share of the corps. The assembled farmers refused to give 50% , instead they offered 33 % out of total yield. A serious fight flared up between the jotdars' armed men and the adamant peasants resulting several injuries to both parties. Police came to the rescue of the jotards' men and in doing so a peasant was killed in police fire. The event took serious turn; local villagers came on the side of the peasants and police had to retreat. But couple of days later reinforced police force set a reign of terrors in village after village in Chirirbandar police station- the leaders were haunted out, even common villagers including women were not spared from their physical torture and repressive action. Common methodology used by the police for physical torture were divestiture of clothe of womenfolk followed by beating with lathes and for men putting the man in between two hard bamboos and the sliding those bamboos over the body from feet to head apart from kicking with boots and charging with lathes and iron rods. Hundreds of villagers were arrested.

This was the ignition that sparked the tebhaga movement and spread throughout north Bengal and in some parts of southwest Bengal including Jessore, Khulna and 24 Parganas within a year. I myself saw, as a boy of class vi in those days, hundreds and thousands of peasants, men and women from different villages were being arrested and brought to the Kotwali Police station in Dinajpur district town, not far from our residence. They were harassed, tortured and physically beaten. My father got involved in the movement, not as communist or peasant leader, but as a lawyer & as a humanist. He tried his best with others to defend the cases of tebhaga accused poor people and used to move numbers of bail petitions every day. I saw him how he spent his hectic days at that time.

The political change because of partition of Bengal in 1947 brought the end of Tebhaga Andolan, at least its intensity dwindled down in northern districts those were included in East Pakistan. The new Muslim League government subdued the movement with stern hand. The veteran communist leaders mostly belonging to Hindu community and activists of the movement, being termed as enemies of the baby state Pakistan, were put behind the bar or repulsed out of the country.

What happened at Nachol    

In 1946 Ila Mitra was just a housewife in a conservative Hindu zemindar family at Ramchandrapur. But slowly, together with her husband, she was taking part in the peasant movement of the locality. Ramen Mitra wanted her wife to take part in communist movement as she did in the past as a student in Calcutta. Encouraged by her husband Ila Mitra gradually came out of the family boundary. When riot broke out in Calcutta, Bihar and some parts of East Bengal, Ila Mitra came down to Noakhali under the directives of CPI, extensively toured affected areas together with Mahatma Gandhi and other Hindu-Muslim leaders and took part in rehabilitation work among the distressed people. This was the first time, being a house of a conservative Hindu family, she came out of the forbidden boundary of the family came directly in contact with common mass.

Then came the partition of Bengal in 1947 and Zemindari of Mitra family of Maldah fell within the territory of East Bengal, then a province of Pakistan. The family, particularly at the insistence of mother in law of Ila Mitra decided to stay back in Pakistan. The geographical area of the Zemindari was included in the district of greater Rajshahi. The partition created an unsteady state in the minds of the local people mostly inhabited by Hindus and so called Adibasis, the Saontal community. The decision of Zemindar family to stay back created a sense of relief to the non-muslim population. 

On the day of 14th August, 1947 in an assembly of villagers in Ramchandrapur, Ramen Mitra, the CPI local leader hoisted the Pakistani flag. The event acted as a reassuring antidote in the mind of the minority community. At the initiative of local peasant leader Altaf Hosain a school was established at the village Krishna-Govindapur, about five minutes walk from residence of Zemindar family. The villagers demanded that to educate their sons and daughters, the Badhumata i.e. Ila Mitra must become teacher of the school to which Ila Mitra agreed. The school started with 3 students, which rose to 55 within a year. She took it as a challenge and dedicated her life in removing illiteracy from the village- she gradually, centering the school, build up a movement of 'education for all'. This gave her a unique opportunity to mix with peasants and their problems, their aspiration and needs. She became their 'Rani Ma'. As I said locality is a non-Muslim dominated area of which Adibashis form an important component in the local population. The Adibashis belonged to cultivating class having no land of their own  most of them are adhiars. Apart from Adibashis other Hindu cultivators were from Kshatriya, Bhuindas & Kaibartas castes.

After partition of Bengal in 1947, five police stations of Maldah district came under Rajshahi district in Pakistan. These five police stations were Nababganj, Bholahat, Shibganj, Nachol and Gomostapur.  The Saontals of these areas had the great tradition of fighting against Britishers for their independent homeland under the leadership of Jitu Sardar. The Nachol Bidroha (Nachol rebellion) of 1950 against the Pakistanis was the legacy of that tradition.

Because of stern attitude and repression on the communist party in Pakistan, the party leadership decided to work in East Pakistan from within under ground- all the leaders, including Ila Mitra,  were asked to go underground. This was in 1948- Ila Mitra was then carrying. She silently crossed over to Calcutta where she gave birth her son Mohan. The child was left under the care of her mother in law at Ramchandrapur. Ila returned to  peasant movement after 3 4 weeks.   

Ila Mitra under cover returned to Nachol to give leadership to peasant movement at Nachol with her husband. But where is Nachol. As I said Nachol is a police station now in Nawabganj district. It is an inaccessible area even for today. It is about 35 km from Rajshahi town. It is better to approach Nachol from Rajshahi via Tanore ( about 15 km north from Rajshahi) crossing the border between Rajshahi and Nawabganj about 10 km from Tanore directly westward.

The local peasant leaders with the help of the under ground communist and Kishan Samity leaders worked relentless preparing the ground of tebhaga movement in those locality for two years from 1948-1950. In popularizing the movement among the peasants, apart from Ila Mitra and Ramen Mitra, the  organizing leadership on the surface were provided by the local leaders those included among others were: Sibu Koramudi, a Saontal communist leader in the district of Rajshahi, Matla Majhi, Tutu Hembram, Chitor Majhi, Sagaram Majhi, Sukra Madang, Chutar Majhi, Sukhbilas Barman, Bhagirath Karmakar etc. It may be remembered that at this time when Tebhaga Andolan was getting momentum under the fiery leadership of Ila Mitra the movement in other districts of East Bengal had been crushed by the Muslim league government.

In the area of Nachol of which Chandipur, Krishnapur, Kendua, Ghamura, Shibnagar, Manda, Golappara, Mallikpur, Kalupur, and Mahipur were the most sensitive area of the movement the jotdars used to get two-third share and one-third went to the cultivator instead of half-half as in other districts of north Bengal. For husking rice from paddy the laborers used to get 3 Aras (katha/dhama) only out of 20 Aras. Ila made her head quarter of the movement in the village of Chandipur at the house of veteran Saontal communist leader Matla Majhi.

The objective of the movement was straightened out in very simple terms:

  • two-third share will be for the cultivator and one-third will be for the jotdar, out of the total yield.
  • for rice husking from paddy, out of 20 Aras of husked rice, the laborer would get  seven Aras and the owner would get rest i.e. 13 Aras.

In local dialect the slogan was raised : ' Sat Ari jin o Fasaler tebhaga' ( for husking seven Ara and three share for cultivation ). In order to make the demand popular Ila Mitra extensively toured village after village, met the Khet majurs, common cultivators, small farmers and publicly addressed the peasant meetings in the remote corners of the villages giving bluff to the police administration. In this way she earned the title 'Rani Ma'. A song was composed by village poet :


'Lila Maitri Nari,
Ain Karlo jari
Adhi Jami  Tekuti Bhag
Jin holo Sat Arire Bhai

Jin holo Sat Ari'


Thus a ground was ripe for launching the final phase of the movement to get their demand materialized. The leaders also organized a defense force from among the revolutionary peasants in which Hindus, Muslims and Saontals took part, although Saontal community provided the main element of force. The force was equipped with bow with arrow, spears, lathe and home made different types of choppers with haft etc... The force was trained how to repulse the attacking police force and to make defence formidable. The force was also taught how to retreat safely. Another popular slogan among the peasants was


'Whoever possesses plough, land belongs to him' (Langal yar Jami tar).


The movement took violent form.          

As the movement gained momentum leaders thought that that time was ripe to give effect of the tebhaga doctrine. The implementation of the principle began with Mitra zemindar family of Ramchandrapur. It was not an easy task. By persuasion and negotiation by the leaders including Mitra couple the family accepted tebhaga doctrine of distribution of yield. This happened in autumn of 1949 at the time of major harvesting season. The zemindar family had over 500 bighas of corps yielding lands.  Encouraged by the initial success the leaders imposed the principle on other zemindars and jotdars one by one sometimes through persuasion, some times using threat and sometimes using force. By 1950 almost all landowners in and around Nachol were forced to accept the 'Sat Ari & Tebhaga doctrine'.

The method, the peasant leaders adopted for implementing the doctrine was a very simple but effective one. After harvesting the corps of particular field the owner of the land was invited to be present on the day in presence of the leaders of the movement, common villagers and the cultivator. In his presence or absence of the land owner total corps of the field was divided in three parts- keeping two-third for the cultivator, rest one-third was sent to the owner carried by cow driven cart. The landowners were forced to accept the distribution.

But to the eye of the administration and the landowners this was looked upon as illegal and 'looting of yields' by force. In most cases the process of implementation had been smooth except in one or two cases force had to be employed. One such case was the zemindars of Mahipur who refused to yield to the pressure of the leaders and used firearms to repulse the assembled peasants and leaders. But ultimately the zemindar had accepted the demand.

But the government could not sit idle particularly when the landowners, jotdars, and zemindars both collectively and individually appealed to the administration to end this 'terrorism' of the peasants. The zemindars and jotdars now with help of the police force started to take revenge. The police let loose reign of terror and oppression village after village to subdue the movement. Many peasant activists and innocent people were tortured and taken to police custody. The police also started combing operation after surrounding a locality. The life of underground leaders gradually became unbearable and unsafe. The movement reached its peak. A showdown became evident.

Date line January 5, 1950

On 5th January, 1950 a group of constables led by an officer in charge (OC) of Nachol Ps arrived in village Chandipur, the nerve center of the movement. They arrested two activists and started physical torture to extract information of tebhaga movement & its leaders. Some villagers, as per planed method of sending message of danger raised a red flag on top of a long bamboo and started beating tom-tom (madal), a kind of drums usually played by Saontal community. Hearing the message of danger thousands of villagers assembled at Chandipur equipped with native weapons described earlier. The small police force was gheraoed and 5 constables with the OC got killed as a result of fighting as police opened fire to disperse the armed mob. This created panic at Nachol police station and among other police force deployed at different places under Nachol Ps. The precarious position of the police was signaled to higher authority.    

After two days i.e. on 7th January about 2000 soldiers arrive at Amnura Railway station. The army surrounded all villages of Nachol,  set fire 12 villages, ransacked houses after houses and killed many villagers as they moved in towards Chandipur village.  The army was supported by armed police and ansars. They moved in door to door in search of the wanted leaders, as usual looted and set fire on the houses, tortured the male members of each and every family of the village, women were sexually violated, even children were not shown any mercy.

An unequal fighting started- on the one side thousands of Saontals-Hindus and Muslim peasants comprising the defense force of tebhaga and on other side were army, police and ansars armed with modern fire arms. The defense force could not resist any more- they had to give in. Hundreds of saontals members were killed. Bow & arrow could not be a match to facing against sophisticated guns. Group by group they retreated and finally crossed over to India. Villagers were forced to leave the country to escape inhuman repression at the hands of law enforcing agencies.

As the villagers leaving the locality, underground leaders had no shelter- they were exposed for arrest. Comrade in arm Matla Majhi asked Ila Mitra to accompany his team for safe place, which she declined as Matla himself was not in a good condition to move. The peasant comrades suggested to their Rani Ma that they would safely take her to other side of the border under cover of rice paddy in a cow-driven cart. But Ila Mitra did not agree till all her comrades in arm and volunteers of her defense force could move to relatively safer zones from Nachol.

Other tebhaga leaders of Nachol including Azahar Hosain, Animesh Lahiri and Chitta Chkraborty were arrested while trying to escape from the locality on 8th January' 50. In the process of escaping and taking shelter in safer places Mitra couple got separated from each other in two groups. The group led by Ramen Mitra could safely cross the border.

The other group with Ila Mitra and Brindaban Saha and hundreds of Saontal followers of the Rani Ma, dressed in Saontal dresses left the last village of Nachol Police station on 7th January towards Indian border westward. They took shelter near Rohanpur Railway station for rest. But unfortunately, even though she was dresses as Saontal woman and were found to speak in Saontali dialect she was detected as non Saontal by the detective police moving around the assembled Saontal people. The police immediately arrested her with all her companions. Hundreds of them were brought to Nachol police station. There began the police torture of inhuman level. The police repeatedly asked the tortured peasants to admit that it was Ila Mitra who led the fight on that day and she ordered to kill five policeman and the OC.  But none confessed- one comrade succumbed to death because of police repression. Several others also died due to police torture at Nachol PS. According to rough estimation the number lies anything between 50  100.

Then came the horror of torture on Ila Mitra herself. She was exposed to various types of physical torture one can think off committed on her fragile delicate body by police for 3-4 days at Nachol PS. Her fault were- she was woman, she was Hindu, she was communist and above all she led the tebhaga rebellion with arms. She was a dangerous element. She survived this inhuman torture probably because once she was an athlete and used to hard life.  

After 4 days of torture at Nachol she was brought to Nawabganj police station in a pathetic condition with high fever and smeared with blood. This story of hers would be the theme of Part II of the series.                                                      


 [ To be continued to Part II ]


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