It’s interesting how almost every city and town in India and many abroad, have a road named after Mahatma Gandhi. There are more than 60 roads named after him in India alone.
The practise of naming a street, park, bus station or railway station after a well-known personality is a gesture to honour their work and contribution. What’s even more common is that most of these names belong to famous men who have had significant contributions in their respective fields. For instance, the Eastern Railways, for the longest time, continued to follow a custom of dedicating station names as a tribute to the sons of the soil.
However, something changed in 1958 when the Indian railways decided to pay homage to a daughter of India and named a station in Howrah district, West Bengal — Belanagar Railway Station, after her. Bela Mitra became the first-ever woman in Indian history to receive such an honour.
The Woman Behind The Name
Born in 1920, in an affluent family in Kodalia, undivided 24 Parganas of colonial India, Bela Mitra was known as Amita or Bela Bose. Her father Surendra Chandra Bose was Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s elder brother, making her the niece of the prominent freedom fighter.
While growing up, Netaji continued to be a constant source of inspiration for Bela and her younger sister, Ila Bose who had played a prominent role in Netaji’s escape from house arrest, back in 1941.
From a very young age, Bela had dedicated herself to the freedom struggle and decided to join Netaji after he left the Congress Assembly at Ramgarh in 1940. When the Indian National Army (INA) was formed, Bela joined the legendary Jhansi Rani Brigade while her husband, Haridas Mitra, a revolutionary like her, joined INA as a secret service member and was later promoted to being the chief of intelligence.
Bela, on the other hand, was sent to Kolkata to oversee special operations by the INA. She was made in charge of all the under-the-radar discreet communications between the nationalist groups and individuals. One of these operations involved, INA deploying the secret service team from East-Asia in India, via the north-eastern part of the country.
Amid this operation, Haridas, one of the leading secret service members, was captured by the British. That was when Bela assumed leadership on the operation and played a pivotal role in making it successful. She supervised communication with the members, secured their deployment, and lodging. She even sold her wedding jewellery to pay for the transportation of many prominent revolutionaries to safehouses.
In 1944, with her help, a secret transmission service was set up. She led a team of competent radio operators and spies, who would set up their own transmitters and receivers to establish secret communication between India and Singapore. This channel allowed the exchange of vital information via messages between the two countries for almost a year. All the operations for this service were single-handedly led by Bela from Calcutta (now known as Kolkata). One of the unsung heroes of Indian freedom struggle, Bela was the much-needed support system and a significant part of INA, who risked her life for the larger cause.
After World War II, her husband Haridas along with three revolutionaries, Pabitra Roy, Jyotish Chandra Bose and Amar Singh were charged with treason and called anti-nationals. After the arbitrary trial, in 1945, they were sentenced to death. To rescue them, Bela travelled to Pune to seek help from Mahatma Gandhi. He wrote a letter to the Viceroy of India, Lord Wavell to reduce the sentence and managed to bring it to life imprisonment instead of death, which eventually was null and void after the independence of India.
Bengal’s ‘Jhansi Rani’
After India got its independence, Bela’s husband, along with many such revolutionaries, was released from imprisonment. While Haridas joined the Congress Party to become the Deputy Speaker of Vidhan Sabha, Bela decided to stay away from politics.
Instead, she decided to dedicate herself to undo the impact of violence caused by the Partition. Her goal was always to selflessly serve the masses, so she decided to set up a social organisation called Jhansi Rani Relief Team in 1947, to aid the refugee crisis in West Bengal. Governed by a bottom-to-up approach, the Jhansi Rani Relief Team was focused on mending the open-wounds in the social fabric of India, which had endured a bloody partition in its path to freedom by working towards relocating and rehabilitating millions of refugees from East Pakistan.
Bela even set up refugee camps at Abhaynagar, on the Bally-Dankuni line where she stayed to oversee rehabilitation of the refugees. As a befitting homage to her work for the homeless, the Eastern Railways decided to re-name the railway station on the same Howrah–Bardhaman line in Abhaynagar, where her refugee camp was formerly situated, after her. Having impacted hundreds of families, she continued to serve the masses till her last breath in July 1952.
Although her story still dwells in the shadows, almost lost in the pages of history, the fact does not change that she risked her life and dedicated the remainder of it to ensure that future generations, like ours, can breathe in a free and independent country.
Edited by Yoshita Rao