An article has come to my attention about late Malati Choudhury. The writer laments that Malati Choudhury who was universally known as "Numa"; "remains an unsung hero". This is not true.
Malati Choudhury inspired generations of political activists who later became Parliament members MLAs and ministers. Her followers became organizers in tribal areas and civic leaders. One should read Surendra Dwivedy's biography to know the bravery of Malati Choudhury who was like a mother to him. Malati Devi affectionately used to call him "Suria" - Surendrababu's childhood name.
Whenever Malati Choudhury saw injustice she fought against it. That is why, when Nandini Satpathy was given a ticket by the Janata Dal to contest from the Dhenkanal constituency she stood against Nandini. To her it was unfair because Nandini had whole-heartedly supported the National Emergency. It is interesting to note that George Fernandez, the rising hero of the left front at the time, came to campaign for Nandini on behalf of the Janata Dal. Fernandez's mother in law Shanti Kabir toured Dhenkanal for Malati Devi. Biju Patnaik also contributed money to her election.
Right after the independence Malati Devi became immersed in the upliftment of the tribal people of Orissa. She established Nava Jeevan Mandal and the Mandal sent workers - men and women -to different locations in Keonjhar, Ganjam, Koraput, Sundargarh, Phulbani and Dhenkanal districts to do confidence building works among the tribal people. Naturally, the police, the employees of the excise department, the petty government-officers and the money lenders of these areas did not like the workers as the workers inspired the local tribal folks not to participate in the ongoing process of their own exploitation. At times, both the tribal people and the workers got embroiled in confrontation with local and regional powers that be. Malati Devi often traveled to remote areas of Malkan Giri,Chandrapur, R.Udaya Giri , Gonasika, Tarini Pasi and Banai Garh to stand by her workers . Her presence also energized the local people to stand up against their oppression. Later on in life, Malati Choudhury became a benefactor of the Naxalite group. Her belief in nonviolence was unwavering. She used to quote Rabi Singh,
AINA BANARA PAINA SALARE
SADA TUSARARA JHADA
However, she saw in the Naxalites a kind of bravery and organizational skill that was not available among others. She admired the Naxalites because they were ready to lay down their lives for what they believed in. When scores of them were put in jail she took up on herself to help support their families. One of the Naxalites, Naga Bhusan Pattanayak was to be hanged by the court order . Her husband and she worked hard to save his life and were successful.
In the article it has been said that Malati Choudhury asked her husband to resign from the chief ministership. This again is untrue. Her husband Naba krushna Choudhury for several years had been disenchanted by the Congress party. He saw Bhoodan movement as a medium to help the poor and the downtrodden. It must be noted that Naba babu and Malati Devi were the first socialists in Orissa, way before the socialist movement took place in India. It was Minoo Masani, secretary of the socialist party, while visiting Gandhiji in Orissa in 1934 discovered that there is a socialist group at work in Orissa and that Naba Krushna Choudhury is the brain behind it. Thus, the Orissa group became a part of the larger socialist group. A Congress Socialist Party was formed in the national level and Nehru, JayaPrakash, and Nabababu and many others became its members. Naba Krushna Choudhury , later became the Congress-Chief minister of Orissa. . During his chief ministership and after that the Socialist and Communist camps saw him as their mentor. A lot of reforms to help the poor took place during his tenure.
By traveling far and wide into remote villages Malati Devi brought their plights to the attention of the government. Many of the officers saw this as the meddling of the chief minister's wife in state affairs. Because she was born in Bengal it was easy for many of them to attribute that Malati Choudhury was not sympathetic towards Oriya officers or towards Oriya sentiment .
This brings us to the following incident:
Right after the report of the States Reconstruction Committee was known, a spontaneous protest rally started in Cuttack which spread to other areas also. In Cuttack the protesters marched from Ravenshaw college to the All India Radio station at Baxi bazaar. In those days there was no bridge over Mahanadi or KathJodi. The capital was linked by train only. From Choudwar and west, one had to take a train to Cuttack or travel by boat from Choudwar to the Gadagadia ghata of Cuttack . From Angul Malati Devi was coming to Cuttack and to her husband's official residence on the Cantonment Road. She herself lived mostly in Baji Rout Chhatrabas in Angul. On seeing a vast procession against the unfair decision of the Union Government Malati Devi joined the procession. When the firing took place and a young college student named Sunil Dey got killed in front of AIR the crowd began to disperse. But not Malati Devi. A bullet fell within a few feet from her.
Because of Malati Devi's storm like activities Gandhiji had nick named her " Toophani ".
She had been jailed many times during the freedom movement. The last time she went to jail was in 1975 (thanks to Nandini Satpathy who affectionately used to call her " Numa".)
Malati Choudhury is not an "unsung hero". Two of the women - late Parvati Giri of Sambalpur and Tulasi Munda of Keonjhar - were trained by her.
Parvati , a widow at her teens, got her training for social services by working as a teacher at the newly established Baji Rout Chhatrabas in 1940s. Tulasi, an illiterate girl from the mining area of Barbil got her training at the Kanyashram of Angul and returned to the Barbil area to energize her folks against exploitation . She also built up positive attitude among them. On the last Republic Day Tulasi Munda received PADMASHREE from the Government of India. Late Parvati Giri also received PADMASHREE a few years earlier for her pioneering work among the elderly.
To say that Malati Choudhury remains an unsung hero is far from truth. A lot of people remember Malati Choudhury. Generations of activists are indebted for her contribution to social justice and social upliftment. Unlike many of her contemporaries she did not want any monument in her name. Her works - the Dhenkanal movement, the freedom movement, her efforts to eradicate Yaz among the tribal people of Koraput and Ganjam, Nava Jeevan Mandal, Baji Rout Chhatrabas, her uplifting work among the poor and the helpless - are her monument.
One more thing. While in the Hazaribag jail of Bihar in 1930s both she and her sister in law Rama Devi came into conatct with the older sister of Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the first president of free India. Rajendrababu and Rama Devi's husband Gopabandhu Choudhury knew each other since their student days at the Presidency college of Calcutta. Now in the 1930s the entire Choudhury family was in Hazaribag jail along with Rajenbabu and his sister. A bonding was formed between the Prasads and the Choudhuries. Later on Rajendrababu's niece Prabhabati married Jaya Prakash Narayan . J.P. and Nabababu were early socialists of India. They were freedom fighter. So Malati Devi and Nabababu were close to Prabhabati Devi and Jaya Prakash Narayan. After J.P. joined the Bhoodan movement in 1954, Nababbu started feeling that he was wasting his time in the government. Activities of his friend Hare Krushna Mahatab also enhanced his disenchantment.
In 1959 Malati Devi was coming to Cuttack. She got off the bus at Choudwar. Like Western tourists she was carrying a backpack. From the bus stop she was walking toward the ferry. Chief minister Mahatab too was being driven toward the same ferry. He noticed a woman walking with a backpack. He immediately knew that there is only one woman in Orissa who would carry a backpack like that. The chief minster stopped the car and asked Malati Devi to put his backpack down and join him in the car to the ferry. It was a prime example of the fact that Choudhury-Mahatab controversy never spoiled their personal relationship with each other. Several years later while visiting Orissa, J.P. went to see Mahatabbabu along with Nabababu to Ekamra Nivas. Subhadra Mahatab served everybody Oriya sweets and Oriya food. Taking aside one of the young men to the kitchen Mrs. Mahatab asked about the wellbeing of Malati Devi and sent best wishes to her.
(I have been told that my book on late Naba krushna Choudhury LOKA SHAKTIRA SANDHANE has been published by Grantha Mandira of Cuttack and I am waiting to get a copy of this book. I would urge my young friends to read it to know more about Malati Devi and Nabababu. The book is in Oriya.)
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