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MANIKUNTALA SEN (1910-1987)


Manikuntala Sen was a freedom fighter and one of the first women to join the Communist Party of India. She was brought up in Barishal, of which she writes movingly in her memoir Shediner Katha, translated as In Search of Freedom: An Unfinished Journey. She grew up in a strict and religious household, but came under the influence of the many freethinkers and revolutionaries who were then active in Barishal, among them Ashwinikumar Dutta, Kailash Chandra Sen, Amiya Dasgupta, Amrita Nag and Jagadish Acharya. As a child she witnessed the jatras of the poet Mukunda Das with their anti-British message, and slowly this brought her closer to the communist fold. She met Gandhiji in 1933 and was impressed by how he exhorted a group of prostitutes to work for the liberation of the country. She taught for some time at a girls’ school where she met Shantisudha Ghosh, a member of the extremist Jugantar party. She came under their influence, and became convinced of the need for resistance to the British when she saw Shantisudha Ghosh being harassed by the police. She persuaded her family to allow her to go to Calcutta to study.

She began travelling the countryside on party work. There she found that the men regarded her with suspicion, and the women would not break purdah to talk to her. She had to work with great patience to get the people to overcome their suspicions of her. She worked hard for famine relief in 1942 and 1943, visiting outlying villages and enduring great hardship. She helped found the Mahila Atmaraksha Samiti as she believed in the need for women to defend themselves; she gives a telling account of how she and a friend were caught in an air raid in Dalhousie and rescued by some soldiers who then wanted to molest them as ‘payment’. After Independence she met and married fellow Communist Jolly Kaul, a Kashmiri. She also acted on the stage with Shambhu Mitra and others. She was elected to the West Bengal Legislative Assembly from the Kalighat constituency in 1952, campaigned for the Hindu Code Bill and clashed with rightwing leaders. She soon realized that the Party itself had an inherent bias against women and that she would not be allowed to rise much further in the hierarchy. In 1962 the war with China caused deep rifts to appear in the Communist Party of India, leading to a split. Unable to choose a faction to adhere to, Jolly Kaul resigned, and Manikuntala withdrew from active politics.
 
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