Malati Devi Choudhury (1904 – 1998)

Malati Devi Choudhury was sworn in as a constituent assembly member from Orissa, on 9th December 1946. She was serving her term as the President of the Utkal Pradesh Congress Committee when she was nominated. She quit the assembly soon after to work with Gandhi in Noakhali and focus on her own work with minority communities, and with children

In a letter extracted from the pages of her diary, written 25 years after the assembly first met she details the reasons why she thought herself unfit for the duty. She writes “when the eminent jurists like Shri Gopalswamy Ayangar, Shri Ambedkar, Munshiji, Durgaben Desmukh, sitting in the first row, were found busy in writing the Constitution of our country collecting materials from the constitutions of different countries, I, sitting in the last row, was feeling like a helpless school student. The thought crossed my mind that I did not have a place in the Constituent Assembly. The attempt to write the Constitution of our country by borrowing from the constitutions of other countries did not appear to me proper”

Malati Choudhury’s discomfort was not just about the elitist or inorganic nature of the constitution. There was also a strong belief that despite the granting of adult franchise, the “uneducated, poor, & hungry” were not going to be alleviated, and that the constitution would not go far enough in giving them a voice. The long, often contentious discussions & drawn out procedures would not have appealed to the restless nature of a woman who Gandhi nicknamed “toofani”. She stepped away soon after to heed Gandhi’s call for a peace march for Noakhali & to work with the “Namasudras of Tripura”

Born in 1904 in Calcutta, Malati Choudhury’s formative years were shaped by the twin forces of Gandhi and Tagore. A false start in response to the call for non cooperation in 1921, was tempered by the serenity of Shantiniketan. She was sent there at the insistence of her strong willed mother who wanted to see her complete her education. In Shantiniketan, she would meet, and marry her husband Nabakrushna Choudhary. The six years she spent in the company of Tagore & in the hallowed grounds of that school would shape her view of patriotism & give her the means to develop an identity during the freedom movement.

The late 1920’s and 30’s in India saw the rise of two parallel freedom narratives. One was of people fighting the more visible national battles trying to unite the country politically and philosophically. The other was one of people working in the trenches, at a more local level fighting battles on behalf of the Dalits, the tribals, the women and children. Gandhi & non cooperation movement bridged the gap in a significant way between these two narratives. His call for action, inspired political movements that worked at the grassroots & paid greater attention in trying to bridge income, and religious divisions with the Indian society itself.

Malati Choudhury was one women whose action had significant impact on the local narrative more than the national. Her move to Orissa saw her begin a series of measures to aid in rural reconstruction. Along with her husband she started adult education, women and children empowerment programs and dedicated measures to bring attention to the sufferings of the farmers. She, along with her husband and other socialist workers began the Utkal Congress Socialist Workers League in 1933. It was by many accounts the first openly socialist organization in India. The organization identified with Marxism and the idea of uniting the ‘workers of the world’. They rallied against casteism and untouchability. More importantly they declared that they would not own any private property, in keeping with the socialist philosophy. Malati Choudhury and her husband donated their house to the organisation, and Malati sold her jewellery. This was, in essence, the beginning of a life long career built around the ideologies of marxism, and around the idea that India could not be truly free if the masses of people were still subject to laws that oppressed them and their system of life. 

She started the Baji Raut Chhatrabas foundation in 1948. The foundation provided shelter and education to children of political activists. She also was one of the founders of the Utkal Navjeevan Mandal, an organization dedicated to the empowerment of tribal people. On the national stage, she worked closely with Gandhi during the salt satyagraha movement, and was sentenced to six months in prison in 1930 along with her 2 year old daughter. She was arrested again in 1942 for two years as part of the Quit India Movement protests she had organized in Cuttack.

She played a central role in the peasant uprisings in Orissa during the 1930’s. Her speeches and presence proved to be critical in mobilizing people against the government during the Dhenkenal, Bhuban and Nilakanthpur shooting incidents. The shooting was in response to a locally organized people group demanding abolition of forced labour and administrative changes to laws governing land and forest laws and demanding civil liberties.

She organized farmers to fight against systems which sought to oppress them, and brought education to the masses. She extolled the virtues of marxian philosophy, and encouraged citizens to adopt gandhian methods to overthrow capitalistic values. She raised her voice with Gandhi during the salt satyagraha, organized charka spinning protests and civil disobedience marches

She would become the first lady of Orissa when her husband was elected to the office of chief minister in 1951.

Her only direct political involvement came during the 1970’s. She stood as an independent against the Janata Party candidate Nandini Satpathy. The latter, who had previously served as Information and broadcast minister with Indira Gandhi was responsible for imprisoning Malati Devi and her husband during the emergency. She lost, but had made her displeasure known. She remained an activist till the end.

Malati Choudhury in many ways was one of the first and last true woman marxist leader in India. Her work & dedication to the cause of workers pushed Orissa towards socialism long before India became a socialist, republic. Her march against untouchability, tribal feudalism, superstitious beliefs, illiteracy changed the very nature of society in Orissa. Her work with tribals, education, dalits and farmers still resonates in Orissa.

She died in 1998.

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