History does a remarkable job of downplaying the role of women, so it is no surprise that few people have heard of Anjali Lahiri. While the world was mourning Mandela’s departure, it lost another great champion for freedom.
Lahiri, fierce social activist and Liberation War hero who played a pivotal role in saving countless Bangladeshi refugees in India, passed away on December 4, at a hospital in Shillong, India. She was 91.
When women are portrayed in accounts of the 1971 war, they are usually shown as oppressed victims. But Lahiri, reverently dubbed “Jagat Ma” (Universal Mother) by Bangladeshi freedom fighters, was no victim. She was a savior.
A life of activism
Lahiri was Indian by nationality, but that never detracted from her deep empathy for the Bangladeshi refugees in her country.
She was born in Kolkata in 1922, and raised in Shillong. She studied in Mymensingh from class VI to class IX at Bidyamayee Girls’ School, where she first became engaged in the freedom movement.
Lahiri remained politically active during WWII, Indian independence, and through the 1960s. She even serving one and a half years in jail for her involvement in underground communist movements, according to the Meghalaya Times.
In 1971, seeing the cruelty perpetrated by the Pakistani militias on innocents, India’s then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi opened the borders for ten million people from Bangladesh to take shelter in India.
As refugee camps sprouted along the border, diseases spread like wildfire. Food became scarce, and hunger would haunt the refugees for days on end. Lahiri described in her diaries: “Swarming flies. Dead newborns floating in the water. Nightmare.”
Lahiri worked tirelessly to ease the suffering of refugees in Cherrapunjee and other border areas, sometimes cooking for hundreds. She distributed relief material at the freedom fighters’ camps in Basthala, Tamabil and Mailam.
Lahiri also helped the refugees find employment to support themselves as private tutors. She even organised a cultural function in Shunamganj, the proceeds from which went to the Bangladeshi freedom fighter’s fund.
Later, Lahiri worked at the refugee camps at Pontung near the Dauki border. The camps were set up on a hillock and were pelted with rain day and night. She would ride a military jeep through dense fog, often pushing it through mud when it got stuck, undertaking the risky drive through Cherrapunji where landslides were commonplace.
She not only served the people, but also stayed overnight with them at times to better understand their misery, eating “chicken legs with feet and nails.”
An open door
She and her husband Niren, who worked as a legal aid for the refugees, essentially turned their home into a refugee camp.
Members of the Muktibahini would take shelter in her home. One such freedom fighter, Jagatjoyti, left a lasting mark on Lahiri.
He came to her house for refuge, lungi-clad and covered in splinters. She offered to admit him to a hospital, but he said the army was after his head. Soon after he left her place, the Pakistani army stabbed him to death with a bayonet, and hanged his mutilated body from a tree in Sunamganj Bazar, to strike fear in people’s hearts.
A lady of letters
The incident with Jagatjyoti left a mark on Lahiri, and she decided to pay her tribute to by immortalizing him through her book. The first piece of writing went missing, but she read out the second piece to some Bangladeshis. They had a misconception that only Muslims participated in the war and that there was no participation by Hindus, but Lahiri sought to prove that Hindus such as Suranjit Sengupta, Bidhu Dasgupta and Jagatjyoti also fought alongside the Muslim Bangalis.
Perhaps one of Lahiri’s most lasting contributions was keeping written records of the conditions of the refugees, with vivid and heart wrenching descriptions of their plight.
Heavy rain and humidity worsened the diseases and deaths. In one entry regarding the outbreak of cholera in the camps, she wrote: “I saw a very beautiful young girl lying on the bamboo shaft. She looked up at me and said: ‘Didi please save me I do not want to die.’ Her expressive eyes were so eloquent, they shall remain etched in my memory as long as I live. She could not be saved for want of saline … maybe these two beautiful expressive eyes were pecked by the vultures.”
Lahiri’s story is one that deserves to be told. Bangladesh’s Ain o Shalish Kendra took on that task and documented the nine months Lahiri spent working in the disease and poverty stricken refugee camps, in a publication called “Sriti O Kotha Ekathor” (“Memories and Tales of ‘71”), collected from an interview by Shahin Akhter.
Ahead of her time
At a time when the society was even more conservative about the role of women than it is today, Lahiri braved social stigma, and spent days among strangers in disease stricken refugee camps.
How many people today provide services to the thousands of people in Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camps, or open their doors to strangers who are victims of war in another country?
Such acts can only be performed by exceptional individuals, who place others’ interests above their own and, more importantly, who transcend the artificial borders of countries, and place humanity above nationality.
Fittingly, in October 2012, the government of Bangladesh presented her the “Friends of Liberation War Honour.”