Sen, Ashalata

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Sen, Ashalata (1894-1986) anti-British activist, poet and social worker, was born on 5 February 1894 in noakhali. Her father, Baglamohan Dasgupta, was a lawyer at the district judge's court. Their ancestral home was in the village of Bidgaon in vikramapura.

Ashalata showed interest in literature from very early life. A nationalistic poem that she had written against the partition of Bengal when she was only 10 was printed in the monthly Antahpur. She made an abridged translation of the war canto of Valmiki's ramayana. Her other books were Uchchhvas, Utsa, Vidyut and Chhotoder Chhada. Towards the end of her life she wrote an autobiography.

Ashalata entered politics at the encouragement and inspiration of her grandmother, Nabashashi Devi. After the partition of bengal in 1905, Nabashashi Devi along with Sushila Sen, Kamalkamini Gupta and others organised women's societies and boycott foreikgn goods. Nabashashi Devi inducted her granddaughter Ashalata into the movement and made her sign the pledge to boycott foreign cloth and patronize local products. Ashalata joined the nationalistic movement and went around persuading village women to also sign the pledge.

Encouraged by her grandmother, Ashalata read many books on the freedom struggles of other countries, drawing inspiration for the freedom struggle at home. In 1921, she was inspired by the non-cooperation movement of Mahatma Gandhi and, with her father-in-law's support, set up a weaving unit for women at her residence in Gandaria in dhaka. In 1922 she attended the Congress session at Gaya as a representative of the women of Dhaka district. In 1924, in association with Sarma Gupta and Sarjubala Gupta, she set up Gandaria Mahila Samiti, to propagate the message of Gandhi.

The members of the society wove khadi, coarse cotton cloth, themselves and market them. In 1925, she became a member of the All India Weavers' Society and helped to promote the sale of locally produced khadi. In 1927 she set up Kalyan Kutir Ashram in Dhaka with the object of training women workers. In 1929, in association with Sarma Gupta, she set up the Judan Shiksa Mandir at Gandaria. Along with Sarma Gupta, she went around trying to inspire people to develop themselves through their own efforts.

In 1930 Ashalata participated in the salt marches launched by Gandhi to defy the 'salt law'. Along with Sarma Gupta, Ushabala and others she went to Noakhali, collected salt water from the coast and, at Coronation Park in Dhaka, demonstrated how to make salt. She and her associates went round the country to organise support for Gandhi's movement. Because of these activities, she and her associates were arrested.

The arrest of Gandhi in 1932 only served to strengthen the civil disobedience movement in Dhaka. The government clamped down upon what it perceived as anti-British activities. Gandaria Mahila Samity was declared illegal and the residence of the workers of Kalyan Kutir sealed. Ashalata protested these excesses and was again arrested and jailed. After her release in 1933 she was made vice president of the Dhaka District Congress. While organising the Congress Mahila Sangha in 1939 she toured many districts of North Bengal and West Bengal. In 1942 she took an active part in Mahatma Gandhi's 'Quit India' movement. She was again arrested while leading a procession in Dhaka protesting against the police killing of a young man. She had to suffer rigorous imprisonment for seven and a half months.

Ashalata wanted to organise women and make them conscious of their rights and capabilities. She knew that unless women were involved no movement could succeed. This is why she set up many women's organisations, among them Jagrata Sebikadal (1930, Dhaka), Rashtrio Mahila Sangha (1931, Vikrampur), Narikarmi Shiksha Kendra (1931, Dhaka) and Congress Mahila Sangha (1939). A number of branches of the Mahila Sangha were set up in Vikrampur. The Congress leader from Manbhum, Nibaran Dasgupta, taught at the Narikarmi Shiksha Kendra in Dhaka. Two such centres were also set up at sylhet and Kanthi in Midnapore.

During the famine of 1943 Ashalata was closely involved in relief activities. In 1946 she was elected unopposed to the Bengal Legislative Assembly. Unlike many Hindus who migrated to India in the wake of partition, she continued to live in Dhaka. In 1947 she was elected to the East Pakistan Assembly. Meanwhile she continued her social welfare activities. In 1965 she went to Delhi to live with her son. During the liberation war of Bangladesh, Ashalata Sen helped the people of Bangladesh in many ways and composed several songs in memory of martyred freedom fighters. After liberation she visited Dhaka at the invitation of Finance Minister tajuddin ahmad and met the members of the Gandaria Mahila Samiti.

Ashalata Sen died in Delhi on 3 February 1986. Her house in Dhaka now houses the Gandaria Muniza Rahman Valika Vidyalay. [Sambaru Chandra Mohanta]