Malati Chaudhury: A Biographical Sketch

Govt. Of Orissa Activities Report 2004-05

No list of women freedom fighters fighting for India’s independence would be complete without in it the name of Malati Chaudhury. She was born hundred one years ago as Malati (Minu) Sen on 26th July 1904 in a highly anglicised Bengali family.

Her father Kumudnath Sen was a Barrister and her maternal grandfather Biharilal Gupta was an ICS officer. She was the youngest child of her parents but had lost her father when she was only three years old. Her mother Snehalata who took up the job of a teacher in Bethune College at Kolkata and reared her four children with rare grit and courage. Minu was admitted to Bethune school and impressed her teachers as very good at studies. But the call of Mahatma Gandhi, in 1921, for non-cooperation with British administration was too loud to ignore. Minu decided not to appear in the forthcoming Matriculation examination and escaped to one of her uncle’s house.



But strict disciplinarian that her mother Snehalata was, Minu was brought back and was coaxed to appear the examination. She was not prepared for the examination, Minu told her mother. But Snehalata was confident of Minu’s ability. She made her to sit in the examination. Minu passed Matriculation in first division. College education was imminent in Bethune College. But Minu stood her ground; she won't continue in the college managed by foreigners. She wrote to Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore seeking admission to Shantiniketan. Shantiniketan was set up in the year 1901 by Rabindranath Tagore and had emerged as an institution attracting nationalists for their intellectual stimulation and development. Rabindranath had risen in the esteem of the nationalists for abjuring his knighthood conferred by the British Crown in protest against the 1919 Jaliwanabag massacre. Gurudev agreed to admit Minu provided her mother Snehalata would take charge of the ladies’ hostel as the Superintendent. Rabindranath knew Snehalata (affectionately called Lati) as the daughter of his friend Biharilal. Snehalata gladly accepted the offer and Minu joined Shantiniketan.

In no time she emerged as the leader and became affectionate ‘Minu Di’(Minu, the elder sister) for the inmates. These inmates were beholden to her boldness and were convinced that no odd could deter their Minu Di from pursuing her mission. That she was a natural leader was evident in those days according to her contemporary Amita Sen, the mother of Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. Her compatriots were convinced that she loved to tread uncharted route.

In Shantiniketan her opposition to British government grew stronger with the approval from the scholars like CF Andrews and other nationalists. At the same time her interest in music and drama was deepening. In Shantiniketan her personality was blooming into a wondrous mixture of restlessness and serenity; restlessness to see India free of British yoke and serenity to plunge into the world of music.

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Here she chose her life partner, Nabakrushna Chaudhury, an Oriya youth, and took everybody by surprise. They were married in July 1927 but not without opposition from the conservative mother of Nabakrushna. Nabakrushna, though belonged to a feudal family of Zamindars and was son of a renowned lawyer, he along with elder brother Gopabandhu Chaudhury had by then become active in freedom movement; Gopabandhu Chaudhury had joined freedom movement after resigning from the provincial civil service.

Malati Sen became Malati Chaudhury and began a life consistent with her spirit to tread uncharted route. The couple lived in a village Anakhia, twenty two miles away from Cuttack city, on an ancestral farm of Nabakrushna. In this farm began her active political life. She came in direct contact with the common people and got exposure to the social evil like untouchability prevailing around. A conscious fight against it began with the support of the couple to the consternation of the high caste people of the area. The Chaudhury family which was wholly into the freedom movement provided a unique environment to Malati Devi to give expression, on a wider scale, to the spirit of her rejection of any thing that was foreign. She participated along with other members of the Chaudhury family in protests against the British and was jailed. The British even did not spare her from keeping her separated from her two-year-old first child Uttara (b.1928).

In this farm of Anakhia, she was participating in a political formation which was first of its kind in the then India. Under the leadership of Nabakrushna Chaudhury, the Utkal Congress Socialist Workers League was coming into being (February, 1933) to form a cadre of Congress workers believing in socialism under the Marxian influence. Such formation began in Bombay almost a year after (February 1934) under the leadership of Minoo Masani. Bihar, Punjab and a few other states also witnessed such formations subsequently as the support of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru towards such formation within Congress was becoming clear. On 21 & 22 October 1934, the first convention of All India Congress Socialist Party was held. The Utkal Congress socialist Workers League decided to merge itself in this all India Congress Socialist Party and to work as its provincial unit.

Consistent with the Marxian principle of abolition of private property, Nabakrushna had handed over this ancestral farm to the League and Malati Devi all her ornaments. These ornaments were sold to publish the weekly organ of the League, SARATHI. Every issue of this magazine in its first page carried the historic message WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE. On May 1st, 1933, the Cuttack City witnessed unfamiliar sight of some people marching with slogan WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE; the May day was being observed.

Malati Devi’s involvement with the common man’s struggle became deeper. She was in a haste to see the elimination of the sufferings of the people. The condition of farmers had moved her. She along with her husband and colleagues of the League began organising the farmers to raise demands, which if met, they believed, would alleviate their sufferings and end their exploitation. The massive gathering of about fifty five thousand farmers on 1st September 1938 in Jenapur of Cuttack district adjacent to Dhenkanal district is remembered as an evidence of Malati Devi’s organisational ability. That she could arouse in people the spirit of sacrifice for freedom from the exploitation was convincingly established when fifty thousand strong mob gheraoed the palace of the king of Dhenkanal against his misrule and oppression. The King fled the palace. But the oppression of the King was replaced by British police repression. It, however, did not deter people from continuing their struggle rather such struggles in other princely states looked forward to the guidance of Malati Devi.

She had become Joan of Arc in such struggles. Her concern for the children of the oppressed people of the princely states, particularly those of the activists, led her to set up an institution at Angul adjacent to the princely state of Dhenkanal. This institution, which was named as ‘Baji Rout Chhatrabas’ was formally inaugurated on 11th May 1946 to provide appropriate education to those children. Such movements in the princely states, ironically, did not have the approval of the Congress Party. But this never prevented Nabakrushna and Malati Chaudhury from guiding such movements, though they belonged to the Party.
She never thought her involvement in politics as a route to occupy some position of power. She was a member of the Constituent Assembly but she resigned to work among the tribals rather than being a mute spectator to the compilation of the Indian Constitution. She was not comfortable with the manner in which the preparation of the Indian Constitution was undertaken. Her aversion to power was such that she preferred escaping to forest than seeing her husband as the Chief Minister. Her politics was to serve the people not from the position of power but by becoming one with them. She strengthened the newly founded institution, the Utkal Nabajeevan Mandal by training activists and persuading them to work amongst the tribals.

To instill confidence in the workers, she herself moved from village to village and no mountain or forest, it is said, had remained untreaded by peripatetic Malati Devi. She devoted herself in improving the lot of the tribal people by creating opportunities for their appropriate education and making them conscious to fearlessly fight for their rights. Due to her inspiring leadership, the activists of the Utkal Nabajeevan Mandal could successfully stop various feudal practices in the tribal regions that were highly exploitative in character. They could bring about prohibition amongst tribals. A dreaded disease called YAWS prevalent amongst the tribals of Gunupur in Koraput district could be completely eradicated due to sincere efforts by these activists.

She stood against every kind of superstitions and never hesitated to make scathing criticism of the government even if her husband Nabakrushna Chaudhury led it. Her daring role in uprooting Nepali Baba in Rantalei of Dhenkanal district in 1950-51 is fondly remembered by all rationalists. She had defied her husband's refrain and took on the Baba with only one of her colleagues beside her as against the presence of Baba's numerous devotees. Her protest was so loud that Baba fled the place.

She never shied away from fighting the mighty. Be it British government or the kings of the princely states or the communal forces or the mighty regime of Indira Gandhi that imposed emergency in 1975, she was consistent in her opposition. She was jailed for her criticism of emergency. It was an irony that Janata Party, a political formation against Indira Gandhi's Congress, accommodated Nandini Satpathy who was the Chief Minister of Orissa during emergency and responsible for the arrest of Chaudhury couple. Nandini was given ticket to contest Orissa assembly seat from Dhenkanal as a Janata Party Candidate. Malati Devi could not swallow this and she decided to contest her, despite her aversion towards power politics, as a mark of protest against such decision of the Janata Party. Expectedly she lost the election but not without exposing the expediency and opportunism ridden contemporary politics.

For her nothing was more sacrosanct than human freedom. Any attempt to curtail human freedom had agitated her. All those who fought against the oppression of common man earned her support. So despite her commitment to non-violence she did not hesitate to support the assassins of a British officer who had unleashed rein of terror in the princely state of Ranpur. Neither she hesitated to go all out to plead clemency for the Naxal leader Nagabhusan Patnaik, who was sentenced to death. Similarly despite her aversion to power politics she contested in the election to prove her protest against unethical and immoral practices in the contemporary politics.

In pursuing her mission of emancipation of common man from various bondage and superstitions and in upholding what is ethical and moral, she always went beyond the constraints of organisation and ideology; as if service to common man was her only ideology and she was steadfast in commitment towards it.

Malati Devi’s life spanned almost nine and a half decades. She died on 15th March 1998. A succession of personal tragedies had already numbed her. She had already lost two grandsons in the year 1983, her husband in 1984, and her eldest daughter in 1988. The fortitude with which she could bear the death of her only son Binayak (death 12th March 1948) had naturally weakened. She was becoming lonely and her disillusionment, which had set in long since was growing. In 1971, she scribbled the following in her diary:

Twenty-five years have elapsed (since independence). Every educated Indian must think as to if we have progressed or regressed. Every educated Indian knows that despite the prevailing democracy based on the adult franchise, we have not progressed, rather regressed. Now, therefore, it is the time when we should find ways towards the well being of our country. I am confident that poor, uneducated and hungry men of this country would find such ways. Only when these people, on realising the country’s situation, prepare a constitution, we shall get a real constitution


The next twenty-seven years till her death, she could increasingly see wreckage of her dream country strewn all around with imperviousness of the elected government pervading all through.

Honour and award, though, never held any attraction for her, she was honored with Jamanlal Bajaj award for her service to the downtrodden and contributions to the women and child welfare. But she made history by refusing to receive the award from Rajiv Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India. The Secretary of Jamanlal Bajaj foundation came to Bajirout Chhatrabas and presented her the award in a very simple ceremony. She was bestowed Deshikottam, the highest honour of Viswa Bharati, Shantiniketan, her alma mater on 26th February 1998, and only a fortnight before her death.

Both Malati Devi and Nabakrushna Chaudhury had consciously avoided publicity and distanced themselves from any thing that is white collared and elitist. Malati Devi never became part of the power, Nabakruhna Chaudhury, however, became. He was a minister from 1946 to 1948 and then Chief Minister from 1950 to 1956. Yet he goes down in the public memory as the only Chief Minister (till date) to have remained untouched by the arrogance of power and without the trappings of the high office ever flaunted. That Nabakrushna bid adieu to the active politics and engaged himself in constructive work amongst the tribals and downtrodden under the aegis of the Utkal Nabajeevan Mandal is attributed to the influence of Malati Devi. Even Jawaharlal had to grumble against Malati Devi dissuading Nabakrushna from coming into active politics.

They were a rare political couple; the scholarly quietude of Nabakrushna wedded to action packed restlessness of Malati Devi with the singular mission to genuinely empower the poor and down trodden to wrest their claims from the rich and powerful. The problems have not ended. The tribals and downtrodden are still struggling for their existence and remind us the necessity of resurrecting the commitment and boldness of this couple. In contemporary socio-political milieu good examples are under threat of receding from public memory. Not surprisingly, this fate has overtaken the example of Nabakrushna and Malati Chaudhury. This short biographical sketch is an humble attempt to arrest such recession.

Photgraphs : Kasturi Mruga Sama by Manmohan Chaudhury; Numa- A compilation; Smaranika, published by Utkal Navajeevan Mandal; Shradhanjali, published by Bastia Memorial Trust; Adwitiya, published by Nabakrushna Chaudhury Centenary Committee; Ajnanku Abhinandan, published by Banabasi seva Samiti, Baliguda; Ajna by Subhas Chandra Mishra; Pathikrit published by Lohia Academy Trust


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