Leela Roy was sworn in as a member of the constituent assembly from Bengal on 9th December 1946. She was the only woman member from Bengal to be elected to the assembly. She resigned her post a few months later to protest against the partition of India.
Leela Roy’s fleeting appearance in the constituent assembly was a result of her disagreement with the congress party’s acquiescence to the partition plan. A staunch feminist, social activist and political activist, Leela Roy preferred being the driver, and a champion of the kind of social revolution that the constituent assembly would debate and put in writing a full two years later. Her dedication to the cause of women’s education & their upliftment, and her extraordinary commitment to the communist cause made her a force to be reckoned with in undivided Bengal. She was associated with Anil Roy & his band of firebrand revolutionists, & played a central role in Subash Chandra Bose’s Forward bloc.
Born on the 2nd of October, 1900 in Goalpara, Assam, Leela Roy grew up in a Bengal that was carving its own identity in the national freedom struggle movement. Her formal education led to a BA in English from Bethune college, and an MA from the newly minted Dhaka University. She was the first female student at the university. Leela Roy, along with 3 other women joined the masters course in Bengali and Sanskrit at the university prompting the university authorities to conduct evening classes separately for the women.
Completing her studies at a time when the country was navigating the non cooperation movement and the satyagraha movement, Leela Roy’s biggest challenge was in trying to defy the norms of traditional masculine and feminine roles that had steeped into the conversation surrounding the freedom struggle. S.D Gupta, the author of a paper on the Nationalist-Feminist movement, elaborates on the critical role that Leela Roy played in casting away the notion “that women’s role in the struggle against colonial masters had to necessarily be tailored in a way that would complement her roles as ‘mistress of the house’ and the ‘mother of man’, for picketing of liquor or foreign cloth shops and for spinning and weaving of khadi*.”
Her experiences during the flood relief effort she organized in 1922, and her work for women’s suffrage through the All Bengal Association convinced her that true emancipation for women could come only through an education that included every aspect of understanding the world, and training their mind and bodies at a level that would equal or surpass men’s education.
She started Deepali Sangha in 1923, a women’s group that encouraged and taught social, and political awareness to women, alongside leadership training, and physical fitness. Leela Roy’s motivation was to create a generation of women who would embrace politics wholly rather than accept roles that reduced them to role models & subservient activists.
Leela Roy was also the first female member to enter the ‘core group of an all male revolutionary party’, when she joined Shree Sangha in 1926. She joined the party at the behest of its founder Anil Roy whom she would later marry. Revolutionary groups like the Shree Sangha, and its predecessors the ‘Anushilan Samiti’ and ‘Juguntar’ were conceived primarily as all male bastions where men would pledge their lives for violent, nationalist causes. Women started stepping into ancillary roles initially, since they were less likely to attract police attention. They went on to occupy central roles and be part of integral missions in Bengal’s national freedom movement.
Leela Roy’s biggest contribution here, was her ability to attract, educate and empower Bengali women from every walk of life, & provide them with choices in their fight for freedom. Women entering Sree Sangha were taught to make bombs, work with arms & circulate seditious pamphlets. Women were also given a choice to be become part f the various social projects run by Deepali Sangha which included running schools, colleges and vocational training institutions.
In 1931, Leela Roy launched Jayashree Patrika, a magazine targeting women, edited and written by women. The magazine was set to tap into a new found nationalist fervour in Bengal that saw the launch of the Calcutta congress by Subash Chandra Bose, the Chittagong armoury raid, crackdown of press freedom, & a new generation of women revolutionists coming into play.
The editiorial board of Jayashree declared that “Women’s magazines meant household tips, cooking, sewing, knitting and so on. We wanted to stay away from all that. Ours was an endeavour for Indian independence—a journal through which women could express their own views and spread political awareness. Jayashree created space for many such views to be aired. We at ‘Deepali Sangha’ always made it a point to take up projects that would require women to come out of their walled existence and participate in public activities.”
Jayashree, after multiple shutdowns and restarts has been continuously publishing since March 1947.
Leela Roy was one of the key members of the Forward Bloc party, that was started by Subhash Chandra Bose. She and her husband were key in maintaining party unity during Bose’s arrest. She was also responsible for the forward bloc weekly during this period. Bose’s confidence in Leela Roy’s work, and his trust in her organizational capacity pushed her towards assuming greater responsibility within the organization & at many points Bose’s most trusted compatriot. Many of her editorials in the forward bloc weekly take a very scathing view of congress capitulation to British demands. She was severely critical of Congress’s acquiescence to the world war and its inability to forcefully, and violently push back against the British. She risked jail, censorship and alienation by more moderate forward bloc members to stand for the values which she believed to be the ones that Bose would stand by.
Her exit from the constituent assembly came at a time when the country was still reeling from the horrific violence that was set in motion by the division of the subcontinent. She went on work on ground in Noakhali**. Her organization, the National Services Institute worked at setting up relief camps, rescuing women and aiding refugees in and around a fractured Bengal.
Leela Roy was one of the many people who strongly believed that Bose never died in the air crash of 1945. Her personal correspondence, writings, and the official story of Jayashree remained that Bose came back to India.
Leela Roy’s life remains defined by the foundations that she lay for the education of women and for her unparalleled contributions in pushing women to the forefront of the freedom struggle. H.V Kamath, in her obituary wrote ‘her restless dauntless spirit roused the dormant energies of a youthful band of men and women in Bengal ,to whom she imparted her own zeal and spirit of devotion in considerable measure” Her life work pushed the boundaries of accepted feminism, & made significant inroads for women who were not satisfied with fighting for altruistic ideals. The endurance of the institutions she has built both in Bengal and Bangladesh are a testament to her foresight & dedication to see a stronger, more educated generation of women in power.
*Jayashree and the Nationalist Feminist Movement. S.D Gupta, Pakistan Journal of Women’s Studies Alam-e-Niswan Vol.17, No.1, 2010, pp.71-100, ISSN: 1024-1256. This was one of the most comprehensive paper that I could find on Leela Roy and her work.
**One narrative suggests that Leela Roy walked 90 miles, to reach Ramganj on the 9th of December 1946, to rescue abducted girls. The narrative is suspect for the simple reason that she was in Delhi, signing the register for the first constituent assembly session. Her name erroneously noted as Leela Ray is among the list of members who signed & presented their credentials.