(March 16 is the birth & death anniversary of Chandraprabha Saikiani)
By Neera Dogra,
Translated by ndarani Choudhury
I offer my respectful tribute to my most adorable Saikiani Baideo as I reminisce upon the bygone days spent with her to present before the readers my persol account of this legendary figure.
Having completed her schooling at gaon Mission School, Saikiani Baideo had come to Tezpur as the principal of Tezpur Girl’s M.E. School. I have a vivid remembrance of how Saikiani Baideo, in her dressing sense and her physical presentation, stood out amongst all other teachers of the school. She brought a novelty to the colourful mekhela chador she would wear to school. I remember how she would neatly pleat the mekhela around her waist and how she would drape her chador orte with lace, stitched on all four sides. Her neatly tied bun would be adorned with flowers tucked on one side. Later on in life, when Saikiani Baideo got embroiled in the movement for India’s independence, she embraced the hand-spun khadi mekhela chador – an attire she donned till the last day of her life. The conservative female society of her time had shown critical response towards her unconventiol ways, however, nothing could dampen the wave of progression that surged within her bosom.
The Agarwala family- which had plunged into the movement for India’s independence launched by Gandhiji- exuded a progressive and uninhibited environment and turally held much attraction for the boundless spirit of Saikiani Baideo. Saikiani had become like a family member to the Agarwala family. The centre of attraction for Saikiani Baideo was my mother Shrimati Kiranmoyee Agarwala. Saikiani Baideo addressed my parents as Ma-Deuta and my parents too, regarded her as their own daughter and extended all possible support towards her activities-whether domestic or political.
I recall how Saikiani Baideo and my mother would often get engrossed in animated and spirited discussions. I remember how my curious mind would try to gauge the content of these discussions. At night my mother would convey the details of the discussion to my father, I could then gather that the same concerned organization of women in Assam towards liberation and development. The seed of Tezpur Mahila Samity – the first forum to have organized women’s movement in Assam- was sown through these discussions that took place between my mother and Saikiani Baideo.
Having come in contact with a woman like Saikiani Baideo, who had committed herself to a relentless and selfless toil to achieve higher education for women, my mother had resolved to actively engage herself in Saikiani Baideo’s activities to bring the latter’s effort to fruition. My father too had lent his complete support to the cause of women empowerment. At Saikiani Baideo’s behest he provided a room, located at our residence Poki… to be used for the activities of the Mahila Samity. Tezpur Mahila Samity was iugurated by Gandhiji in the year 1921, when he had visited Tezpur for the first time. Till today, I bear the memory of the day when Gandhiji had visited Tezpur. In an atmosphere enlivened with the slogans “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”…. “Gandhi Ki Jai” – Gandhiji had arrived at the threshold of Poki.
Gandhiji on his visit to Tezpur was accompanied by his wife, Smt. Kasturba Gandhi and Shaukat Ali. My mother, on that occasion, had introduced Saikiani Baideo as the leader of women’s movement in Assam. I came to learn later that Gandhiji, on being thus introduced to Saikiani Baideo, had imparted to her the invaluable lesson of committed service towards mobilization of women. On the request of Saikiani Baideo- Gandhiji convened a meeting with the members of Tezpur Mahila Samity. On the following day, the meeting was arranged at the Bengali Theatre where Gandhiji, Smt. Kasturba Gandhi and Shaukat Ali had addressed the gathering. Gandhiji began his speech with a line spoken in Hindi “Jo ghar ka aj chor ke bahar ka aj khate hain, unko mein pagal kahu” (those who ignore the indigenous resources available at home and consume foreign goods….I consider them insane). For many days, thereafter, these words would be reiterated by the women folk. My mother had explained to me that the core idea of the independence movement was embedded in those few words.
At the auspicious moment when the entire tion was awakening to the spirit of freedom Saikiani Baideo, in her endeavour towards mobilizing women, had found in Tezpur itself a dymic work environment to which she had committed herself in order to materialize her cherished goal. The contribution of the young men from Chariduar, Chaiduar and other such places, towards Saikiani Baideo’s cause merits attention. Unlike the present times, communication facility was poor back in those days. Nonetheless, under the leadership of Sri Jyotiprasad Agarwala, young Satyagrahis would visit the remotely located villages on foot or on bicycles to spread the ideals of freedom movement and woman empowerment as envisioned by Gandhiji. With the establishment of Tezpur Mahila Samity, Saikiani Baideo had declared the propitious beginning of women’s movement in Assam.
In the year 1933, at Dibrugarh, our mother Shrimati Kiranmoyee Agarwala breathed her last. On his second visit to Tezpur in the year 1934, Gandhiji upon the insistence of the Samity members, had iugurated a big photograph of Kiranmoyee Agarwala- the founder president of Tezpur Mahila Samity. The departed soul of my mother must have experienced a sense of satisfaction that Tezpur Mahila Samity iugurated by the most revered person of the aeon, Gandhiji, would sustain itself through ages and continue to inspire the forthcoming generations.
The blessing of Gandhiji provided Saikiani Baideo with courage, strength and motivation to establish the Assam Pradeshik Mahila Samity and thereafter, overcoming all impediments and criticism to almost single handedly establishing Mahila Samitys at village and zilla levels. Within three decades, these Mahila Samitys had provided women with a platform to engage themselves with the world beyond their ambit of domestic chores, thereby giving them the opportunity to carve their niche in society. This momentous episode shall be forever preserved in the history that documents the development of women’s movement in the twentieth century. In the year 1954, the Assam Pradeshik Mahila Samity and its branches functioning at village level had implemented several schemes on mother and child welfare launched by Central Social Welfare Board. Through the activities and achievements of Mahila Samitys, the memory of Saikiani Baideo shall remain forever alive.
Even a social worker of the stature of Saikiani Baideo had to face the injustices unleashed by the male domited society. Poet and litterateur Shri Dandith Kalita – on the pretext of caste difference – refused to own up to the Gandharva marriage that he and Saikiani had contrived in secrecy. Saikiani, on the contrary, openly acknowledged the propinquity she shared with Dandith Kalita. This courageous act of Saikiani Baideo turned a new leaf in the history of women’s liberation movement. This astounding action of Saikiani Baideo, would continue to inspire the oppressed and exploited women to put up fight against the unjust norms and standards heaped on them by the patriarchal society. Several decades after the initiation of the country wide-movement for women’s liberation (propelled by Gandhiji), oppression and unjust treatment of women continues ubated. Under the prevailing circumstances, only when women of every household raise their voice against social bias and atrocities directed at them...can the female section of the society challenge the inequitable social structure and claim their position of respect in the social hierarchy.
It is because of the women empowerment initiatives undertaken by Saikiani Baideo, that social evils such as dowry could not gain ground in Assam. Under the leadership of Saikiani Baideo- the women of Assam gained courage to fight the social evils operating against them. The immense contribution of Saikiani Baideo towards women’s liberation movement, shall be eterlly etched in the memory of the people of the state. In order to assure that their self-respect is held up, women would have to tread shoulder to shoulder with men in all walks of life. The emerging power of the women would then destroy the pall of social evil that shrouds our society … just as the bright rays of the sun disperses the cloud of darkness and ushers in the light of hope and cheer.
(Short Note on Writer: Smt. Neera Dogra was born into the illustrious Agarwala family of Tezpur, whose involvement in Assam’s cultural, social and political are dates back to over two hundred years. She served as a lecturer of English in Handique Girl’s College of Guwahati for a short period and moved on to dedicate herself to social work. She took charge of the State Social Welfare Advisory Board and continued as the Chairperson till 1968. She was the Chairperson of Central Social Board, Delhi till 1974. She was appointed as the Member of the Committee on the Status of Women in India constituted by the Government of India. She was the Vice- Chairperson of Indian Council of Child Welfare for one term and also held the post of Commissioner for Linguistics Minorities in India from 1975 to 1977. Smt. Dogra was the founder Secretary of State Council of Social Welfare, State Branch of Indian Council of Child Welfare and founder President of Assam Sishu Aru Matri Mangal Santha. She had translated the poems of Jyoti Prasad Agarwala inclined to children from Assamese to English and published them in the form of a book with the title ‘Dreams and Daybreaks.
ndarani Choudhury is Education Officer, EOC-CID, Tezpur University)