Athlete Ila Mitra missed the 1940 Olympics, but became an indomitable peasant leader
In 1940, when Helsinki was preparing to host the 12th Summer Olympics and Europe was preparing for war, deputy accountant general Nagendranath Sen received news through his colonial administration network that his 15-year-old daughter, Ila, was being considered for the Olympic contingent that would represent British India.
It wasn’t entirely a surprise: from 1937, she had been an almost regular presence on the sports pages of Bengali and English language newspapers in Calcutta for her triumphs on the track. Ila was the eldest of his six children, and Sen was personally invested in his daughter’s sports career. He would escort her for swimming practice to College Square and to her many track competitions around the city, working around his office schedule. He would cut out news stories of his daughter and collect them in a scrapbook, referencing the date and publication with an ink pen.
In 1937 and 1938, the sports club, Jatiya Juba Sangha, awarded her successive junior championship titles for girls in Bengal. In 1938, the Bengali journal Sachitra Bharat featured the 13-year-old Ila in a collage of senior sports achievers that included the British Indian hockey team, a mountaineer setting off for Tibet, and 10-mile walking champions.
In this photo, a moon-faced girl in a shirt and soft, crinkly shorts smiles shyly at the camera as she stands next to the at least 47 trophies she had won until then. Ila Mitra (her married name) would go on to become one of the most prominent peasant movement leaders in the subcontinent: in her later photographs, you see a thin, tired, determined woman with wispy hair. The girl who was one of the best athletes of the Bengal Presidency is gone.
Later, when Ila became a household name in Bengal, several local newspapers and journals described her as the first Bengali woman to get an Olympic call. But no official communication from the government about this remains; the administration may have sensed that the Games would be cancelled in view of World War II, the second edition of the modern Olympics to be so cancelled.
On the trail
I first came across Ila half a decade ago when I began research on my project on women athletes in India. She appeared in a couple of blogs as an athlete and basketball player in the 1940s who chose to live in erstwhile East Bengal (in Pakistan) after Partition. But there was nothing more substantive and I lost the trail. One day this summer, when the devastation of the second wave of COVID-19 ripped through the country, I awoke with her name in mind. As if Ila had tapped me in my sleep and told me it’s 1940 again.
This time when I turned to the Internet, I found her trail. It was in Bengali, a language I rediscovered in the lockdown of 2020. Almost magically, I found her family — her son in Kolkata and her grandson in the U.S.— as if Ila had set up a telepathic group.
She was 15 the year the 1940 Olympics was scheduled. At 15, disappointments hurt. There is nothing she left behind to tell us how she felt — no writing, no conversations with her family. “I don’t remember her talking about herself,” says Ritendranath Mitra, her grandson, who grew up with her in their rented apartment in Entally. “She was generally agitated about what the party [Communist Party of India] was doing wrong, about the arrogance of its leaders. In the 90s, when I was growing up, thakma (Bengali for paternal grandmother) was not a prominent name. It was much later [after her death] that I realised her legacy was unique. I wish I had asked her [about her life] when she was alive.”
In an essay he wrote in her memory, he noted: “Thakma would wake me really early, kaak bhorey — as we call that time of dawn when no one is awake except the crows — to go swimming with me at Anderson Club. Till a few days before she passed, this was her routine: she swam and exercised every morning. She believed she had survived the torture she faced because of her fitness.”
The 1940s was a devastating decade for Bengal. Reports of food shortage and rising prices started coming in from the countryside, but the British government was readying for WWII. In the winter of 1942, a vicious cyclone hit the district of Medinipur. The cyclone and the war inflamed a devastating shortage of food, leading to an official death toll of three million people in the man-made famine of 1943-44. The ravage of the Bengal famine shaped the politics and life of Ila, as it did Bengal’s from the 1940s to the present.
In 1942, Ila graduated with a first class in her Intermediate examination from Bethune school, and enrolled for a Bachelor’s degree in Bengali at Bethune College. Bethune was a pioneering women’s institution of the time, managed in its early years by Bengali reformer Ishwar Chandra Bandyopadhyay (Vidyasagar) who advocated the education of girls, widow remarriage, and the end of child marriage. If Ila did unusual things, it was partly because her school encouraged unusual aspirations and confidence.
“…When I got admission in Bethune College, I joined the Girl Students Committee — there we began to discuss Marxism,” Ila told the academic Kavita Panjabi in an interview for her book Unclaimed Harvest. “We did this secretly. Gradually, through my relief work, I became a party member.”
The Mahila Atma Raksha Samiti (MARS) of the Communist Party of India (CPI) was formed in 1942, initially to protect women from being trafficked to soldiers of the Allied Forces. Soon, the idea of atma raksha (self-protection) was extended to hunger, poverty and violence. MARS travelled across Bengal for relief work, standing vigil at night to safeguard women, setting up langakhanas (community kitchens) to feed the starving, and doing advocacy on individual rights and community action. Perhaps for the first time in modern India, women became participants in public relief work.
The Tebhaga demand
In 1944, Ila’s father went to meet a prospective groom, Ramendranath Mitra, the son of a zamindari family in Ramchandrapurhat who had decided never to hold a job because he identified himself as a worker of the CPI.
Though Ila identified as a feminist, she agreed to the marriage possibly because of the groom’s political affiliation. In 1947, her mother-in-law Biswamaya Mitra made the unusual decision of staying on in East Bengal, as their estate in Nawabganj fell to the right of the Radcliffe Line declared on 17 August, even as most Hindu Bengali families chose to come away to India.
Ila and Ramendranath worked with their peasant tenants and mobilised them to pay their landlords no more than a third of the harvest instead of half, which was the practice. This was the central demand of the Tebhaga (one-third) movement. Increasing the share of the peasant was a safeguard against poverty and hunger, at a time when the memory of the famine was still palpable. The Mitras supported the peasants but the other zamindars lobbied the new administration to crush the challenge. The couple chose to live among their tenants to work and evade arrest. Although Ila was a committed communist, she was not fully free of upper-caste prejudices, Panjabi writes. She spoke of Santhal homes as “dirty” and the peasants instinctively called her Rani ma.
On January 5, 1950, a police raid in Nachole resulted in the death of four policemen, writes Maleka Bano Begum in the biography Ila Mitra. The police retaliated with a siege. Ila left the area with her peasant associates, dressed as a Santhal. At Nachole railway station, an alert policeman noticed the watch on Ila’s wrist and arrested her on the charge of murdering four policemen.
Tortured and brutalised
In Nachole thhaana, Ila was kept nude in a solitary cell, and given no food or water. At night, the sub-inspector and other policemen entered her cell and hit her on the head with the butts of their rifles. She bled from the nose and head. Later that night, she was taken to what was possibly the SI’s personal quarters, where her legs were crushed between two lathis and a handkerchief tied around her mouth. Afterwards, the police carried Ila to her cell.
There, the SI was waiting. He ordered four freshly boiled eggs. “Now she will speak,” he said. When the eggs arrived, four or five policemen held her flat on the ground and one of them placed a steaming egg inside her vagina. Ila lost consciousness.
She awoke to the SI and his colleagues kicking her in the stomach. Then they pierced her right ankle with a nail. Later, four or five men held her down and a policeman raped her. She lost consciousness again.
This continued for four days before Ila, burning with fever, was taken to Nawabganj jail. The jail warden there, O.C. Rahman, was her batchmate from Calcutta University. They had met in the heady days of famine relief. He arranged for a doctor: she was running a temperature of 105 degrees. Although she remained jailed until 1954, she at least received medical treatment. Later, Ila would say she survived custodial torture and managed to walk again by 1956 because of her training as an athlete. The torture left her with a slight limp for the rest of her life.
In January 1951, Ila testified in the Rajshahi Court, becoming possibly the first woman from the subcontinent to articulate her experience of rape in public. Begum wrote that Ila was reluctant, but the CPI coaxed her, publishing her testimony as a pamphlet and distributing it across East Bengal.
It proved to be a brilliant move — her story moved the citizens of East Bengal to protest. Bengali poets across the border, Subhas Mukherjee in West Bengal and Ghulam Khuddus in East Bengal, wrote poems in her honour. Short of evidence, Ila could not be held guilty of murder, but was sentenced to seven years for the violence that led to the death of four policemen.
Her testimony also probably moved the judge and authorities to a degree of leniency. In 1953, when her health deteriorated so sharply that it was thought she would die, the police moved her to Dhaka hospital. Then, in 1954, she was given parole to return to Calcutta for treatment. Ila would not return to Bangladesh until 1996, on the 25th anniversary of the new nation’s birth, this time as a state guest.
‘Ma, my friend’
In Calcutta, she was released from hospital in 1956 when she was able to walk with assistance. By 1962, by sheer force of will and daily exercise, Ila had completed her Master’s degree, secured a job as a lecturer at Sivanath Sastri College, and won an election from Maniktala constituency to become MLA. She represented this constituency until 1977, participating energetically in the Khadya Andolan of the 1950s and 1960s, demanding adequate public distribution of food and anti-hoarding measures. Ironically, after the Left came to power in Bengal in 1977, Ila never got a ticket again.
“She remained unfazed,” says her son Ronendranath. “She went to the party office every afternoon after college, scolded the office bearers often, and held forth at home about everything the party was doing wrong. It was never about herself. Ma was my friend, you know, when you meet at the age of seven, she’s your friend. And I know this as her friend.”
A sportsperson’s nationalism is a defining identity, like a poet’s philosophy or an artist’s muse. But sportsmanship also rises above national concerns. “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well,” Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, had said. In her life, the missed Olympian Ila Mitra fulfilled this ideal — working for the human dignity of the citizens of Bengal on both sides of the border, people who suffered three partitions and a monstrous famine.
Through April and May, when social media swelled with pleas for oxygen and medicines, I found myself escaping to Ila’s story as if it were a raft to stay afloat on. I found comfort in knowing there was repair after ravage, that Ila’s groundwork shaped the language of rights and resistance, from Tebhaga to the food movement of the 1960s to the Barga movement of the 1970s to Singur. Ila had come back just in time to show me that the past returns to haunt us, but also helps us start again.
The journalist and critic writes on public health, politics and cinema. This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.