Labanya Prabha Ghosh: Jailed during freedom struggle, Emergency, Bhasha Andolan, now forgotten by govt, people

Neha Banka
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Shilpashram, an organisation in Purulia working for India's freedom struggle, that Ghosh was associated with. (Photo courtesy: Purulia district administration)

Many of Bengal’s revolutionaries, including women, died in abject poverty post Independence, forgotten by the very people whose freedom they fought for. The life of Labanya Prabha Ghosh is one such story.

Not much is known about Ghosh’s early life, including the village she was born in. But available records do state that she was born in 1897 in Purulia district to Nibaran Chandra Dasgupta, a freedom fighter. Despite her father being the headmaster of the Purulia zilla school, Ghosh never received formal education, and was taught by him at home instead. When she was only 11, she was married to Atul Chandra Ghosh, a freedom fighter from Bengal 16 years her senior.

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According to records belonging to the Purulia district authorities, her father was arrested in 1921 for his participation in the non-cooperation movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi. It is not known for how long Dasgupta was imprisoned. After his release, he, along with Ghosh’s husband, founded an organisation called ‘Shilpasharam’ in Telkalpara, Purulia, that served as a meeting place for revolutionaries and members of the Indian National Congress in the region.

Ghosh herself was very much involved in the organisations' work in the freedom movement, for which she was imprisoned by the British at least three times.

District government records show that in 1926, she was elected representative of the District Congress Committee from Manbhum district, which Purulia was then part of. When Gandhi launched the salt satyagraha in March 1930, its ripples were felt across the subcontinent. Ghosh helped organise similar marches locally, including a flag satyagraha in 1945 in Konapara in Purulia.

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The only known image of Labanya Prabha Ghosh is the one available in the archives of the Purulia district administration, which appears to have been taken in the last years of her life. (Photo courtesy: Purulia district administration)

Due to the role Shilpashram played in regional politics against the British, the organisation finds mention in several texts and biographies by leaders of the freedom movement and the Indian National Congress, including Mahatma Gandhi, Subhash Chandra Bose and Dr. Rajendra Prasad, who visited the organisation at least once when in Purulia.

Ghosh’s father was also the founder-editor of Mukti, a bi-weekly Bengali newspaper. Launched in 1925 and published from Manbhum, Mukti was an influential revolutionary publication that played an important role in the independence struggle and later during the Bhasha Andolan (Bengali Language Movement) in the 1940s and 1950s.

Although she had been home-schooled, Ghosh contributed several articles to the newspaper. After her husband’s death in 1969, she served as the paper's editor, and also took over the functioning of Shilpashram. Her children Arun, Amal and Urmila were also revolutionaries, but not much information is available regarding their role.

Between 1941 and 1947, Ghosh was arrested several times for her revolutionary work, including for organising protests during the Quit India Movement of 1942.

Ghosh’s revolutionary work did not stop with India achieving independence in 1947. She was also prominent in the Bhasha Andolan that emerged following Partition and the creation of separate states. This language movement emerged due to the forceful imposition of Hindi on Bengali-speaking populations of Manbhum, a district cut away from Bengal and made part of Bihar after 1947.

With the government of India refusing to heed to the public's pleas against this imposition, an organisation called the Lok Seva Sangha was launched in 1948 to give form to the people’s fight against the Bihar government. Heavy-handed tactics by the state government, which included a ban on public protests and gatherings and the official restriction of the use of Bengali language in the Manbhum district, inflamed the socio-political climate in the region.

Between 1949 and 1956, Ghosh participated in several protests, including the Tusu Satyagraha, and led marches from Purulia to Calcutta, for which she was arrested. The protests became impossible for government authorities to ignore and in November 1956, Purulia was broken away from Bihar and acceded to West Bengal. For her role in the fruition of this accession, Ghosh was made one of the first few MLAs of the new district in 1957, although a few years later, she quit politics.

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During Emergency in 1975, Purulia district records show that she was once again arrested by the West Bengal government, although it was not clear why.

Towards the end of her life, Ghosh faced economic hardships and ill-health, with her eyesight giving her trouble and difficulties in speech. She died in April 2003, when she was 106 years old, mostly forgotten by West Bengal and the country.

There are hardly any photographs available of Ghosh, or those of her family. She has been deprived of commemorative statues and plaques afforded to other revolutionaries, and the only known image of her is one available in the archives of the Purulia district government, which appears to have been taken in the last years of her life.