India’s journey towards freedom was long and arduous. Thousands of people contributed to it in different capacities from across the country, many of whose works and sacrifices are not known or discussed widely today. This is especially true for the women, who joined the struggle and fought relentlessly for the country’s independence. Their achievements and acts of bravery are seldom remembered. The commemoration, if at all, is usually confined to a few prominent names like Rani Lakshmi Bai, Sarojini Naidu and Annie Besant. However, many more names and stories of freedom fighters are hidden in the pages of history, waiting to be discovered. One such unsung name is that of the valiant Bhogeswari Phukanani.
Phukanani was born in the year 1885 in Barhampur, in Nagaon district of Assam. In the 20th century, Nagaon was an important centre of nationalist activities. In places like Phulaguri and Barhampur, anti-colonial sentiments were strongly articulated through protests and demonstrations. Phukanani, a simple homemaker, a wife and a mother of eight, had a strong conviction for the cause of nationalism. She inspired her children to join the movement for India’s independence. She was nearing sixty years of age when the Indian National Congress decided to give the call for the Quit India movement, in 1942. This movement was distinct from the Non-Cooperation and Civil Disobedience movements that took place earlier in the 20th century. In these movements, non-violence was a cornerstone of the actions of the participants. The Quit India Movement, however, was marked by violent eruptions of public protests, often provoked by the British authorities. Many prominent, national-level leaders were promptly jailed by the Government. This left the common people in charge of the movement and gave it a spirit of spontaneity. Nevertheless, their actions were carefully planned and measured.
The Indian National Congress office in Barhampur was seized by the British during the movement. The Congress leaders, activists and supporters were thoroughly tortured. Angered by this, the people of the area fought back and reclaimed the office in September 1942. The victorious public decided to celebrate their achievement with a community feast. However, the colonial authorities were determined to avenge their defeat. They sent a certain Captain ‘Finish’ to crush the jubilant activists and punish them. According to one narrative, it was Bhogeswari Phukanani, who led the people against the British. She is said to have hit the Captain with the flag-pole when he disrespected the National Flag by snatching it from the hands of Ratanmala, another leader at the forefront with Phukanani. A different account of Phukanani’s story tells us that she attacked the Captain with the pole of the Flag when he targeted her son. Either way, unable to bear the humiliation of being hit by Phukanani, the Captain shot her. She eventually succumbed to the bullet injury but left behind a legacy of bravery and patriotism.
Today, Phukanani is an inspiration for many in Assam. Neither her age nor her domestic responsibilities could stop her from fighting against the oppressors of her fellow people. Bhogeswari Phukanani and many others like her lost their lives while fighting against the British in India and establishing an independent country. Their sacrifices are a reminder for us to walk on their paths and contribute towards strengthening the future of the nation.