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Special Content

Issue no 25, 18-24 September, 2021


Helen lepcha Alias Sabitri Devi

The fighter who Championed Swadeshi in Sikkim, North Bengal and helped Netaji Escape


Khagendramani Pradhan


Helen Lepcha was perhaps the only woman freedom fighter belonging to Sikkim, the erstwhile princely kingdom. Born in the year 1902 as the third child of Achung Lepcha in Sangmoo near Assangthang, South Sikkim her family had migrated to Kurseong in West Bengal in search of better avenues for education and employment. Helen Lepcha found her calling during the flood of Bihar in 1920, where her dedicated service in relief work was brought to the notice of Mahatma Gandhi, who not only met and praised her, but also invited her to visit Sabarmati Ashram.

 On her visit to Sabarmati Ashram, Gandhiji felt that her name did not suit the spirit of the movement and hence rechristened her Sabitri Devi, the name that resonated thereafter throughout the freedom movement in Bengal and Bihar province. With a greater responsibility assigned to work in the coalfield areas of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, Helen alias Sabitri Devi soon rose to win the heart and acceptance of the masses that even the colonial rulers could not ignore and started strictly monitoring her activities.

During the peak of Non-Cooperation movement, Sabitri Devi led a huge rally comprising thousands of laborers from Jharia coalfield in the year 1921 at the famous Mohammed Ali Park at Calcutta, which had the presence of eminent freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi, Chitaranjan Das, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and many others. This not only established her as a mass leader, but also brought her closer to prominent leaders of the freedom struggle and was assigned with furthermore responsibilities.

Even though Sabitri Devi had to return back home during the intervening period due to deteriorating health of her mother, she could not distance herself from the freedom movement and the growing resistance to foreign goods under the call from Mahatma Gandhi. Soon, she started a door to door campaign against foreign goods with the help of few Gorkha volunteers in the adjoining areas of Siliguri of Bengal. Foreign goods were collected and huge bonfires lit in public places inviting the wrath of British administration. Sabitri Devi was also associated with Netaji Subash Chandra Bose. During his house arrest at Giddey Pahar near Kurseong in the year 1939-40, it was through the secret messages concealed in bread from Ishan Ahmed's bakery, whose owner happened to be Sabitri Devi's husband, that Netaji's escape plan to Europe was formulated. She had personally supervised to disguise him as a Pathan with beard and moustache and made his escape possible.

In appreciation of her dedication and immense contribution to the freedom movement, the Government of India in the year 1972 honored her with a citation, a "Tamra Patra." Among many of the unsung heroes of freedom movement, the contribution of Sabitri Devi will always remain revered and reserved in the epoch struggle for independence of the Democratic Republic of India. Sabitri Devi remained true to her belief and conviction all her life religiously following the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi. She left the mortal world on 18th August, 1980.

The author is a Sikkim-based senior journalist. He can be reached at khagenm@gmail.com