A Woman of Courage
‘Mani Singh la naam kai udi na bhuli (I can never forget the name of Comrade Mani Singh),' she says with a gentle smile in her indigenous Hajong language, a deviation from the standard Bengali as she recollects the memoirs of the great Tonk movement in Susang Durgapur. The movement was launched by the left-leaning forces of the Indian sub-continent to ensure the rights of both Bengali and indigenous (mostly Hajong and Garos) sharecroppers over their agricultural produces from the grasp of feudal landlords in broader Mymensingh region by late British (1938-47) and early Pakistani regimes.
Kumudini comes from Baheratoli village of Susang Durgapur on the banks of the Someshwari river. She is the daughter of the land of 'white clay.' Susang Durgapur is renowned for its production of white clay across the country. Wrapped in a white sari, Kumudini, a widow, has witnessed the ups and downs of history and endeavours to translate it through her naive but pragmatic wisdom. On June 28, Kumudini was awarded the 'Sidhu-Kanu-Fulmani' by Adivasi Odhikar Andolan (Indigenous Rights Movement) at National Planning and Development Academy (Jatiya Parikalpona o Unnayan Academy) auditorium at Nikhet, Dhaka. Professor AHK Arefin presided over the occasion and Chief guest and Minister of Industry Dilip Barua handed over a crest, certificate and a check worth of twenty thousands taka to her. The event was held to commemorate the 155th anniversary of the great Santal rebellion against the British rule and exploitation of country moneylenders in the Indian sub-continent by 1855.
“I was actually an adolescent girl during the Tonk movement” she says. “So, I cannot recollect everything in a lucid way. My parents died soon after my birth and it was my maternal uncle Radha Nath Hajong who was a close alley of Comrade Mani Singh. So far I can remember that often the leader used to come to our house, have lunch or dinner with us and counsel with my uncle and other fellow comrades.” Kumudini speaks her Hajong language while her daughter Anjali Hajong translates in Bengali.
“Comrade Mani Singh was a prince (raj kumar) as he was the youngest son of the Susang-Durgapur zaminder dynasty. But, astonishingly he stood firm against his own father, elder brothers and the entire family lineage to assert the rights of the Hindu-Muslim-indigenous sharecroppers. He abandoned his aristocratic privileges and made friends with millions of poor peasants in the region. Common peasants also returned him their love and honour in such a unique way that he was underground for 20 years and neither the British nor the Pakistani police could arrest him during those years. It was the common people who used to protect him and give shelter in their homes in emergencies,” she adds.
Asked to explain 'Tonk,' she laughs: “The system of Tonk was very hard and rigorous in the Susang-Durgapur region. Every peasant had to pay the zamindars and their middlemen tax worth of seven to fifteen maunds of rice for each 1.25 acres of land. During that period tax for 1.25 acres of land was not more than five to seven takas only while the price of each maund of rice was only two takas. So, each peasant had to pay 11 to 17 taka of additional tax to the zamindar. Thus, the zamindars used to get two lakh maunds of rice as tax from the peasants per year. Rasmoni Hajong died in that movement...I used to call her masi (maternal aunt),” Kumudini says tearing up at the memory.
Western academician Peter Casters in his acclaimed book ‘Women, Poor Women and Revolutionary Leadership in the Share-cropping Movement (1946-47)' offers a succinct but unique tale of Hajong women's participation in the Tonk movement: ' The fire of Tonk movement was spread amongst around 300 indigenous (Hajong, Garo, Dalu, Banai, Koch) and Muslim peasants' villages in the Susang-Durgapur region in the Garo hills, Mymensingh by 1937-38. Rasmani, a rural Hajong woman of undaunted spirit, joined the movement and persisted as an activist in this movement for next ten years. On 31st December of 1946, the then British army suddenly launched attack on innocent women and children of the Hajong villages; men left the villages earlier to save their lives. As a young peasant woman Saraswati was being
With her family.
harassed by the colonial army, the middle-aged Rasmoni, along with her 35 male peasant comrades began fighting with 25 army men in modern arms and ammunitions for next two hours. Rasmoni alone killed two army persons with machete but later died as she was struck with 10 bullets. Near about 150 Hajong peasants poured blood for their land rights including women fighters like Reboti, Nilmoni, Padmamoni and Shankhamoni.'
Comrade Mani Singh recollected in his autobiography ‘Jibon Sangram (Life Struggle, first published in July 1983)' over that fateful day in the following words, ` On 31st December of 1946, police and armed personnel attacked the Baheratoli village. Police was taking away with them an adolescent bride named Kumudini Hajong. She was crying and screaming a lot. Rasmoni, a middle-aged Hajong woman and 40 other Hajong men and women rushed onwards to rescue her. Rasmoni and a man named Surendra died at police firing while trying to save her. Later police fled and Kumudini was saved…'
As I ask Kumudini to relate the incident in her own narrative, she again becomes tearful, “The memoirs are hazy now” she says. “I can just recall there were no men in the entire village on that fateful day. All were hiding over the hills and forests to save themselves as police was on constant vigilance against the sharecropping movement. Only we women were at home. I was a newly married bride in my early teens as it was the custom during those days. My husband was not at home. Suddenly police came and was trying to take me, Saraswati and some other women. But, Rasmoni masi (aunt) and some of her comrades were on the way when police were taking us by force and they resisted. Rasmoni masi died but I was saved. There was blood all around us!'
As bloodshed for a true cause never fails, the existing system gradually eased the rigorous severity of the Tonk system for marginal farmers and sharecroppers. But, thousands of Hajong families were tortured during the movement and they had to fly across the borders. Kumudini later had three sons and two daughters. She is now a proud grandmother of many grand children.
While asked about her ultimate dream, she nods calmly and says “Equal rights for the poor people of any country and no discrimination between men and women, indigenous and the Bengalis. I wish no land of the indigenous people would be grabbed or no indigenous women would be tortured any more.”
(R) thedailystar.net 2010