Besides the ongoing independence struggle in the 1900s, this period in Assam also witnessed revolutionary developments with regard to the subject of women’s rights and education. While the country battled division, separation, caste, and religious atrocities, it also faced an issue that would often get sidelined: women’s rights and the need to give their perspectives a voice. The situation was so bad that young girls were barred from getting even basic elementary education.
Chandraprabha Saikiani, born on 16 March 1901 in Doisingari village of Kamrup district in Assam, was the daughter of Ratiram Mazumdar, who was the ‘gaonburha’ (headman) of the village. Ratiram, who had been educated up to the elementary level, urged his daughters to do their schooling from the local MV school. Chandraprabha and her sister went to a boys’ school as their village had no school for girls. The inaccessibility of education for girls perturbed Chandraprabha and prompted her to take up this cause.
At the tender age of 13, she established a school exclusively for girls in Akaya village in a shed. She would travel some distance to study in the all-boys school and then return to her village to teach the girls all she had learnt at school. This noble deed of hers did not go unnoticed by Neelakanta Barua, who happened to be the school inspector. He spotted the spark and the commitment of Chandraprabha, and it amazed him no end to see her pursuing her studies and ensuring that she shared her learning with other girls. In due course, she, and her younger sister Rajniprabha were given scholarships to study in the Nagaon Mission School. Interestingly, Rajniprabha went on to become the first lady doctor of Assam.
While studying in the Nagaon Mission School, Chandraprabha became aware of the stark differences between the Hindu and Christian students. She was taken aback by the forced conversion carried out by the missionaries. In fact, the girl students were not allowed to stay in hostels unless they converted to Christianity. Chandraprabha bravely voiced her opinion about this matter and relentlessly fought with the authorities to permit girls of all faiths to stay in the hostel without conversion.
Her inherent fiery spirit and fearless attitude were evident when at the age of seventeen, she addressed a large crowd to call for a ban on opium: an addiction that was ravaging the state. She also fought against caste and societal evils and opened the ‘Hajo Hayagriva Madhava’ temple for people irrespective of caste, gender, or religion.
Chandraprabha was so inspired by the teachings of Srimanta Sankardev, a Vaishnav Saint of Assam, that she fought any sort of malpractice she encountered. In 1921, she joined the Non-cooperation movement and mobilised the women of Assam to do the same. This eventually culminated in the founding of the Assam Pradeshik Mahila Samity in 1926, which dealt with women-centric issues and emphasized the importance of education, prevention of child marriage, and employment for women. She also highlighted the importance of handloom and handicrafts. This was the first organised women’s movement in Assam, and these ideals are followed even to this date.
Chandraprabha went on to become a prolific writer. In her novel Pririvitha, she describes her own life to shed light on the position of women in Assamese society. She published several books and was the editor of the Abhijaytri magazine for seven years. In 1972, she was awarded the Padma Shri by the Govt. of India. Chandraprabha Saikiani passed away on 13 March 1972. A woman who was much ahead of her time, she spent her entire life striving for the emancipation of women from the clutches of a patriarchal society.