Sarala Devi: First Odia woman to join Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement

Sarala Devi (9 August 1904–4 October 1986) was an Indian independence activist, feminist, social activist, and writer. She was the first Odia woman to join the Non-cooperation movement in 1921. In independent India, she became the first woman to be elected to the Odisha Legislative Assembly. She was also the first female speaker of the Odisha Legislative Assembly, the first woman Director of Cuttack Co-operative Bank, first female Senate member of Utkal University, and the first Odia woman delegate of the Indian National Congress.

Sarala Devi was born on 9 August 1904 in Narilo village, near Balikuda, in what was then the Orissa Division of the Bengal Presidency (now in Jagatsinghpur district, Odisha) to an affluent Zamindar family. Her father was Basudev Kanungo and her mother was Padmavati Devi. She was adopted and raised by her father’s elder brother Balamukunda Kanungo, a Deputy Collector. Sarala received her primary education in Banki, where her uncle was posted. Women had no access to higher education, at the time, so her uncle hired the services of a home tutor. Sarala learned Bengali, Sanskrit, Odia and basic English from her tutor. She lived with her uncle until the age of 13. While in Banki, Sarala was inspired by stories of Suka Devi, the queen of Banki, to join the independence movement. She married Bhagirathi Mohapatra in 1917, and the latter joined the Indian National Congress in 1918. Sarala herself joined the Congress in 1921, following Mahatma Gandhi’s first visit to Orissa.

She was the Secretary of Utkal Sahitya Samaj at Cuttack from 1943 to 1946.

Lesser known facts:

She was raised by her father’s elder brother named Shri Balamukunda Kanungo. Shri Kanungo was a Deputy Collector. As a child she received her primary education in Banki. Her uncle was posted there as a part of her job.

Sarala devi was the first woman from Odisha who joined the non-cooperation movement during the Indian freedom struggle in 1921. As a part of independent India, she actually became the first woman who became a member of the Odisha Legislative Assembly. Sarala devi was also elected to be the first female speaker of Legislative Assembly and the first Odia woman who was selected as the delegate in the Indian National Congress.
She had joined Indian national congress in 1921. She did it inspired from Mahatma gandhi when he visited Odisha.

She was also a prolific author and she authored 30 books and 300 essays.

A freedom fighter, Sarala Devi also contributed to the making of modern Odisha. She was the first woman to become a part of the Odisha legislative assembly. A feminist and social activist Sarala Devi was way ahead of her time. Even though she came from a modest educational background, she emerged as one of the prolific writers of Orissa. She played an active part in the freedom struggle, however, today her legacy seems to have been neglected.

Early Life:

Sarla Devi was born into an affluent Zamindar family, to Basudev Kanungo and Padmavati Devi on August 9, 1904. It was her father’s elder brother, Balamukunda Kanungo who adopted Sarala Devi and raised her. Since childhood, her uncle who worked as a Deputy Magistrate in the colonial govt inspired her to become a social worker. From a very young age, she rebelled against restrictions. In those days, girls were not allowed to pursue higher studies, however, her uncle hired a home tutor. It was her keen interest in education that she became fluent in Odia, Bengali, Hindi and English.

In 1917, at the age of 14, she was married to the Bhagirathi Mohapatra who was the son of a zamindar at Jagatsingpur in Cuttack district. Bhagirathi, who was an advocate, joined the Indian National Congress in 1918. Without caring about the restrictive social customs and tradition, Sarala Devi worked to uplift women from their downtrodden position.

Role in Freedom Struggle:

Sarala Devi became a part of the ‘Mahila Samaj’. It was an organisation which motivated women to participate in India’s freedom struggle. In 1924, a conference was organised in Cuttack for freedom struggle. Those days women used to sit behind curtains and listen to the speeches, but not only did Sarala Devi came out from behind the barriers, she also gave a fierce speech in that meeting. She participated in the Salt Satyagraha at Inchudi in Balasore and also travelled to various districts of Odisha. She was arrested by the British at the Chhatrapur jail, later she was transferred to Vellore jail from where she was released after six months. She was given a huge public reception on her return to Cuttack on December 8, 1930.

Also Read: Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, the feminist freedom fighter who revived art in Modern India

Death

Sarala Devi breathed her last on 4 October 1986 at the age of 82. In her lifetime she wrote as many as 30 books and 300 essays. She was the first Odia woman to join the Non-cooperation movement in 1921.

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