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Matangini Hazra was a freedom fighter and martyr to British bullets. In tableaux depicting the freedom struggle there is often a representation of an old woman with her white hair streaming, carrying the flag of India and leading a crowd of people. This was Matangini Hazra. She was a child widow eking out a humble existence on the margins of society, yet at the end of her life she felt the call to fight for Independence so strongly that she repeatedly challenged the authority of the British Raj in its name, finally laying down her life for the cause.

She was born Matangini Maity to a poor peasant family in a small village, Hogla, in Tamluk in the Midnapore district of West Bengal. She was unlettered. To secure her future her father got her married off while still a child to Trilochan Hazra, a prosperous 62-year-old widower with a son. Subsequently she became a widow at the age of 18, returning to live with her father but later moving to a hut near her husband’s former home. She lived a pious life, often helping others in distress. On 26 January 1932, which came to be known during the freedom struggle as Independence Day, a procession was taken out in her village, mostly attended by men. When it passed her hut, she came out and joined it, vowing to fight for the freedom of her country. She was then 62. It was a momentous decision to take at such an age, but she stuck to it with total faith and fortitude.

That year she joined the Salt Satyagraha, travelling on foot to attend various Congress meetings, interacting with many Congressmen and clashing with the authorities on several occasions. She managed to slip through a heavy police cordon and hoist the national flag over the Tamluk court before she was caught and severely beaten. She gave up opium, which she took because of her painful gout, saying that she would much rather die for her country than from any drug or disease. Despite her poor eyesight, she regularly spun and wore khadi. She was jailed more than once, but the police were embarrassed to detain her for more than a few hours because of her sex and age. In 1933 Sir John Anderson, then Governor of Bengal, came to Tamluk to address a well-screened gathering, but in spite of security Matangini managed to stage a black flag demonstration in front of the dais. She was sentenced to six months’ rigorous imprisonment, no trifling burden for a woman of her years. Her jail term allowed her to come in contact with many other political prisoners and to learn more about the freedom movement. She was powerfully attracted to Gandhi’s ideas and on her release began to practice them faithfully. This earned her the nickname ‘Gandhi Buri’ or ‘Granny Gandhi’ in Midnapore.

On 29 September 1942, she asked the local leadership to allow her to lead a procession to capture the Tamluk court and police station, but her request was turned down due to her age. Her chance came when, amid the chaos, the villagers were ordered to halt by bayonet-clutching British soldiers. Matangini took the lead and prevailed upon the villagers not to falter or waver. Bullets soon followed and this brave woman, at the age of 72, died with the words ‘Bande Mataram’ on her lips, holding the Indian flag. In 1977 the Government of West Bengal erected a statue to her in Kolkata.
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