Bishni Devi Shah was born on 12 October 1902 at Bageshwar in present-day Uttarakhand. She is said to be the first woman freedom fighter from Uttarakhand jailed during the freedom struggle. Bishni Devi’s early life was filled with trials and tribulations. She was unable to study after her fourth grade. By the age of thirteen, she was married and tragically widowed by sixteen. Her status as a widow made her an outcast both in her in-laws and parental home. However, this did not dampen Bishni Devi’s spirit.
Bishni Devi devoted her life to the freedom struggle and other social causes. She spent a lot of her time at the Nanda Devi temple in Almora, where she actively participated in meetings related to the freedom movement. She used to motivate those protestors who were about to be jailed by offering them flowers and performing their aarti (a ritual where usually songs are sung in praise of the deity). She also secretly raised funds for the families of the jailed protestors. Bishni Devi was inspired by the poet Kumaoni Gorda, who composed poems about untouchability and superstitions, and sang songs based on his poetry.
On 25 May 1930, it was decided to hoist the Indian National Flag in the Almora Municipality. A procession of volunteers, including women, was stopped by the Gorkha soldiers. In the attack that followed, leaders like Mohanlal Joshi and Shantilal Trivedi were injured. The women regrouped under the leadership of Bishni Devi, Durga Devi Pant, Tulsi Devi Rawat, etc., and then successfully hoisted the flag. Later that year, Bishni Devi Shah was arrested and jailed in the Almora Jail. The pathetic conditions in the jail did not dampen her spirit. She resumed her freedom-fighting activities upon her release from prison.
Meanwhile, the Swadeshi Movement was losing momentum as the indigenous goods lacked volunteers to distribute them. Due to this, the shopkeepers charged exorbitant prices, and locally made products became unaffordable for the common man. On her release from jail, Bishni Devi took the initiative and went from door-to-door selling charkhas (spinning wheels) for Rs 5/-, while the market charged Rs 10/-. She also taught women how to use the wheel, and by doing this, she promoted the use of Khadi.
The Congress committee was set up in Almora under the leadership of Hargovind Pant. Bishni Devi was elected the female executive on the committee. Prominent leaders like Vijaylakshmi Pandit and others were greatly influenced by Bishni Devi’s relentless work. However, in 1931, she was arrested again for her participation in the freedom movement. Upon her release from jail, she continued with her anti-British activities. She took part in Individual Satyagraha, staged protests and dharnas (sit-ins) before liquor shops, and made bonfires of foreign goods and clothes. Her activities highlighted the invaluable contribution of women to the freedom struggle. A woman of indomitable courage and spirit, Bishni Devi Shah passed away in 1972 in penury. In October 2021, the postal department released a Special Cover in her honour.