Mahila Atmaraksa Samiti

Mahila Atmaraksa Samiti meaning the women's self-defence league, was the first mass-based organisation of women in the 1940s mainly under the communist influence. It was formed in a distinctive cultural climate generated by the anti-Fascist movement. The Communist Party of India (CPI) felt the necessity of organising resistance movement at every level of society: students, peasants, labourers, women as well as people engaged in cultural movements. The All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), the all india students federation (AISF) and the Writers and Artists Association - all formed in 1936 - became the main organs of this movement. The Indian Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA) and the Mahila Atmaraksa Samiti (Women Self-defense Association) were formed under this impulse. The first decisive step towards making a formal organisation was the formation of women's self-defence League in 1942. It set up that very year many Mahila Samitis (women's associations) in different Bengal districts which were finally amalgamated in the central organisation known as the Mahila Atmaraksa Samiti (MARS) in April 1943.

The organisers of the MARS became concerned with the problem of 'toiling' women and stressed the 'emancipation of women' who were fighting for their socio-economic and legal equality. They wanted to integrate in its fold women belonging to the families of sharecroppers, landless poor, agricultural and daily labourers and tribals. They also tried to mobilise educated middle class women and urged them to realise the necessity of a combined resistance against all kinds of injustice and exploitation. Above all, the MARS encouraged women of different social strata to overthrow the 'subordinate syndrome' and gain confidence through team spirit and class solidarity.

To make it a common platform of women accommodating all shades of anti-imperialist views its founder members (the most prominent of them were Renu Chakrabarti, Kamala Mukherjee, Ela Reid, Geeta Mullick and Manikuntala Sen) adopted a broad-based programme. A group of enlightend Muslim women like Nazimunnesa Ahmed, Rabeya Begum, Muksuda Begum, Laila Ahmed, Tasmina Khatun also joined it. Sakina Begum, the sole woman advocate in the Calcutta High Court in 1935 and famous as mataji of the Dhangars (scavengers) after successfully leading their strike on 26 March 1940, also participated in the social work of the MARS.

To get the support of all political parties the MARS adopted three basic programmes: i) Defence of the country, ii) Release of political prisoners and formation of a National Government and iii) saving the population from starvation and death. The first two programmes, particularly, the 'Release Gandhi' campaign of the MARS attracted a group of nationalist leaders and leading intellectuals. Indira Devi Chaudhurani and Hazrah Begum presided over its first and second provincial conferences in Calcutta (1943) and Barisal (1944) respectively. Noted writers like Ashapurna Devi, Rani Mahalanabis, Lila Majumdar and many others regularly contributed to Ghare Baire (Home and the World), the organ of the MARS. Many eminent Congress and muslim league leaders like Neilli Sengupta, Jyotirmoyee Ganguli, Santisudha Ghosh, Labanya Prava Mitra, Fulrenu Datta, kalpana dutta, Hamida Momin, Shahjadi Begum, Sabeda Khatun and Rebeka Begum attended these conferences. Political differences, however, prevented effective solidarity with the women wings of the Congress and the League. The role of the Communist party in the quit india movement annoyed the Congress and thenceforward MARS become known as the women branch of the CPI.

The third programme was almost exclusively adopted for saving the people from the effects of the war and the famine. The responsibility for carrying this out was mainly undertaken by the members of the Chhatri Sangha [All Bengal Girl Students Association, (ABGSA)] formed in 1939 as a branch of the AISF. The working committee of the Sangha was almost a 'united front in miniature'. It included representatives from all leftist parties including the Congress Socialist Party. The members of the Sangha formed the core of the MARS activities. With the shifting of the colleges of Calcutta to district towns during the war period, the Sangha set up its branches in many districts by 1941. Their members rendered the most active support to the MARS in organising famine relief works in 1943. They organised gruel kitchens, milk distribution and child care units etc. Their sympathetic and efficient handling of the work earned the confidence of the destitute. Half of the delegates in the first two provincial conferences of the MARS (1943 and 1944) came from the economically depressed and famine stricken areas.

Through its relief works the MARS came to know of the inept handling of the famine situation by the government, and vehemently criticised its food policy. It categorically stated that the famine was not due to shortage of food but to its hoarding and misdistribution. It organised massive protest meetings against government relief policy and demanded food supply at fair price. It also led agitation against black- marketeers and hoarders and in some cases compelled them to market the hoarded food grains. 'Government should provide food for all' - became its main slogan.

The MARS organised hunger processions of women in Calcutta and the districts. The first ever women's hunger procession in India was organised by a college student (Alaka Majumdar, later the Secretary of Chhatri Sangha) at the remote town of Dinajpur on 20 January 1943. A large number of Rajbangshi women participated in it. The next memorable hunger procession of 5,000 starving women to the Assembly House was held on 17 March 1943. The marching women came from different slums of greater Calcutta and North-South suburban villages. They compelled ak fazlul huq, the Chief Minister of Bengal, to distribute 100 maunds of rice among them. The MARS organised similar hunger processions in the districts of Bankura, Chittagong Noakhali, Dhaka, Barisal, Bogra, Khulna and Mymensingh. A large number of Muslim women joined the processions in some places. Such an organised protest against food scarcity caused by administrative bungling was a novel feature in the women's movement in India.

The famine did not overshadow the specific political programme of the MARS - the anti-fascist campaigns among all levels of women highlighting fascism as a major threat to human civilisation. The IPTA and its local squads became the main vehicles for spreading such ideas. Some students (who later became renowned in the fields of music and theatre) such as Suchitra Mitra, Tripti Mitra, Shova Sen, Priti Banerjee, Sadhana Ray Chaudhuri participated in the cultural functions of the IPTA, which attracted common women. The members of the MARS organised those functions along with the local meetings at different urban, industrial slums and rural areas. Whether or not aware of the dangers of fascism, the local women eagerly attended their cultural functions possibly the only source of entertainment in their life. This helped the numerical growth of the branches of the MARS. By mid 1944 it had 390 primary committees in all the 27 districts of Bengal. Two thirds of them were formed in present Bangladesh. The number of its members also rose from 22,000 in 1943 to 43,000 in 1944.

MARS had a leading role in reconstructing the social life of destitute women. Devastated by the famine and deserted by their families a large number of women fell easy prey to the flesh trade. The government medical report of the Department of Venereal Disease revealed that the number of brothel inmates of Bengal increased from twenty thousand to forty five thousand during 1943-44. To save the famine victims from this calamity and to rehabilitate them the MARS set up the Nari Seba Sangha (women service association) in late 1944. It was an apex body of nineteen women and relief organisations. Thus the pressing urge for rebuilding the social life of the destitute transcended sectarian political affiliation. Self-help and self-employment were the main aims of the Sangha. Its branches were set up in Noakhali, Tamluk, Basirhat, Howrah, Falta, Joynagar, 24 Parganas and Barisal. In Barisal, Manorama Basu established Nari Jnana Bhaban (Women Knowledge House) with the same purpose. The work centres of this organisation became the main shelters of the destitute women. Both these organisations tried to make them economically self-reliant by teaching them handiwork and handicraft. The South Calcutta office of the Nari Seba Sangha became the production and sale counter of the handiwork of poor peasant and tribal women. MARS also fought to prohibit polygamy and to give (Hindu) women the right to divorce and inherit paternal property.

Though MARS did not provide leadership in tebhaga movement, yet it had indirectly contributed to the growth of a spirit of resistance and class solidarity among the peasant and tribal women. The movement spread to 19 districts involving a large number of Adhiars, most of who came from the scheduled caste and tribal background. Women from these social groups joined the movement and demonstrated real women power by organising themselves as local leaders when the men folk were arrested or absconding. They often overpowered the police. The participation of Muslim peasant women in the struggle in Dinajpur, Rangpur, Medinipur and 24 Parganas showed that revolutionary women were also born in Muslim houses. The ethnic and communal solidarity of women owed much to the earlier MARS activities among them.

While conducting the famine relief work the MARS made the peasant women conscious of feudal injustice and exploitation. It also tried to re-mould the social outlook of peasant women and link them with the broader movement for social and economic change. During the Tebhaga movement the MARS organised protest meetings and formed committees in Dinajpur to investigate charges of rape there. Rani Mitra and Bina Guha, two MARS local leaders, were most active in this field. The MARS along with the AIKS made the peasant women aware of their own power of collective bargaining which often led to the increasing participation of women surpassing that of men in the most active centres (Dinajpur and 24 Parganas) of the Tebhaga Movement.

The MARS never tried to highlight the gender issues exclusively and be a feminist organisation in the proper sense of the term. But it achieved its main goal - self-defence leading to the 'Empowerment' of women by exploring the revolutionary potentiality of the inarticulate unprivileged women. It also left a precious legacy for the future generation. The Ganatantrik Mahila Samiti (Democratic Women Association- affiliated to the CPI Marxist) and the Mahila Samiti (Women Association- affiliated to the CPI) - the two most prominent women organisations in West Bengal, are the successors of the MARS. [Tripti Chaudhuri]

Bibliography Renu Chakraborty, Communists in Indian Women's Movement; Manikuntala Sen, Sediner Katha; A Cooper, Share Cropping and Share Croppers' movement in Bengal,1930-50, 1988; A Majumdar, Peasant protest in Indian politics:Tebhaga movement in Bengal, 1993.