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ILA MITRA (1925-2002)

Ila Mitra was an activist for tribal rights, amateur sportsperson and politician. She was born Ila Sarkar on 18 October 1925 to a well known family of Jhenaidah district in East Bengal. Her father, Nagendranath Sarkar, was the Accountant General of Bengal. She was to have represented India in the 1940 Olympics, which was cancelled due to the outbreak of war. Ila came to Kolkata to continue her education, and there she met other young people who were active in the freedom struggle. She passed her Intermediate Arts examination in 1942 and got her bachelor’s degree in 1944. She joined the Mahila Atmaraksha Samiti (Association for Women’s Self-Defence) and the Communist Party.

A year after graduating she married Ramendra Mitra, also a Communist Party member and the son of a rich landowning family of Chapai Nawabganj. In 1946 she began to organize the villagers, who were mostly tribals, to take part in the Tebhaga movement, an agitation for justice for sharecroppers. The movement became a broad-based revolt against oppression, primarily centred in North Bengal. Word of her work spread among the villagers and they soon became fiercely attached to her, affectionately calling her ‘Rani Ma’. Ila Mitra also went to riot-torn Noakhali when Gandhi spoke against communal violence.

The Santal rebellion continued till 1950. In January 1950 hostilities peaked, Ila was arrested while trying to escape and held at Rajshahi Central Jail where she was tortured and raped as police tried to extract the names of the other agitators from her, but she did not give in. She was tried for treason, and at her trial she recounted the brutalities that had been committed on her by the police. She was sentenced to life imprisonment. However, in 1954 her health had broken down under the torture and the harsh conditions, and she was sent to Kolkata for treatment. She did not return, and enrolled for her MA in Bengali at Calcutta University. She also involved herself with the Communist Party of India again, and was elected to the Legislative Assembly four times, from 1962 to 1972. In 1971 she campaigned extensively for support for the Bangladesh War of Independence.

Ila Mitra was also a writer and translator. For her translations she won the Soviet Land Nehru Award. The central government of India awarded her the Tamra Patra for her role in the Independence movement.
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