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Shrimati Shakuntala Choudhury: The self effacing pilgrim of the Gandhian Path

Gandhian celebrates Centenary

Eminent Gandhian and social worker Shakuntala Choudhary celebrated her 100th birthday at a simple function held at the Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust, Assam branch, at Sarania, Guwahati on 25th June 2019. The most striking feature of the event was the absence of government functionaries and fanfare. The day was marked with prayers and felicitations by prominent citizens of Assam. The faculty and students of Handique Girls College, of which Shakuntala Baedeo was among the first batch of this college, feted the veteran social worker. In the function, Principal Dr Utpal Dutta and former Principal Geeta Barua felicitated her with a shawl, a bouquet and a special birthday cake. In her speech, Geeta Barua said Choudhary’s life is an example of dedication towards Gandhiji’s principles.

 

Reproduced from “ISHANI”, Vol. 1, No. 2 dated 18th March 2005.

Not many of the present day generation are aware of a hallowed spot in the city of Guwahati. It is a place where the Father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi, stayed for three days during his last visit to this city in the year 1946. He stayed in a small thatched hut that was fondly constructed by a group of eminent freedom fighters led by late Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi.
A historically important event of his three-day stay was the inauguration of the Assam Branch of The Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust (KGNMT) and Kasturba Gram Sevika Vidyalaya. Late Amalprova Das, a young, dynamic nationalist of Gandhian stream then, was appointed as the Pratinidhi of the Trust in charge of both the establishments. In course of time she was able to groom competent and dedicated successors. One prominent name that immediately comes to mind is that of Shrimati Shakuntala choudhury-popularly known as Shakuntala Baideo (elder sister. She is highly esteemed elder of the entire Gandhian fraternity of Assam. By now the Gandhian fraternity in rest of India also addresses her respectfully as a Shakuntala Baideo.
The headquarters of the Assam Branch of KGNMT and Gram Sevika Vidyalaya is now popularly known as the Sarania Ashram because it is located on a tiny hillock of the Sarania Hills of Guwahati. Covered with trees and tiny cottages with the Gandhi hut or the Bapu Kutir on a certain high point, the atmosphere is truly that of a heritage.
As one enters the precincts of the Sarania Ashram, one notices the Ashram sisters dressed in neat Khadi clothes going about their assigned tasks. In all likelihood one may also notice a tiny figure of medium height, with bespectacled bright eyes, smiling face dressed in typical Assamese dress made out of Khadi cloth. She is Shakuntala Baideo of Sarania Ashram. Though gentle in speech and behaviour she has a commanding presence, her face reflecting gentle confidence and a sense of determination. She is undoubtedly a leading and universally repected member of the Gandhian fraternity of Assam. One predominant feature of Shakuntala Baideo’s personality is her self-effacing nature. She has always shunned publicity. She is highly reluctant to speak about herself or her work. To any persistent attempt to learn about her pat comes the reply, “I have not done anything
extraordinary. I have merely continued to follow the path I have chosen for myself. There is nothing special to tell about me.” An attempt is, however, made below to preset some of the salient features of her life and work through interaction with her close associates and by going through a couple of rare accounts published in Assamese language.

Early years
Born on the 25th of June in 1920 at Pan Bazar in Guwahati, she had her early schooling at Dhubri in Assam where her father was in service. The high school and college education took place at Guwahati. Right from her student days she gave ample evidence of her extraordinary qualities of head and heart. She remained a brilliant student of her school and college all throughout. She studied till the final year to complete her graduation in Sanskri, but a spell of illness intervened and she had to forego her final exams and also the plans to continue her academic career. As a student she had also made her special mark in co-curricular activities like dramatics, debating, drawing and music.
One of the strong influences on young Shakuntala was the association of her parents, more particularly her father late Harinath Pathak Choudhury. Shri Choudhury was a keen student of Sanskrit and Assamese literature and was himself a literary figure. His knowledge of Vaishnav sect founded by the great Saint of Assam, Srimanta Sankardev was also prolific. He encouraged his young daughter to pursue co- curricular activities and took pains to join hands in her practice of music, painting, acting, debating and similar other activities. Her mother Vidyadhari Choudhury, on the other hand, taught her the art of weaving on handloom, art of cooking and stitching clothes. In short, the cultured atmosphere in the family planted the germs of good qualities of character, which were demonstrated by her in her later life.

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Shakuntala Baideo began her career by joining Nagaon Girls High School. The year was 1945. Later on she shifted to T.C. Girls High School at Guwahati and continued to work at this school till 1947. It was when she was working at this school that Amalprova Baideo instinctively recornized this precious jewel hidden within the four walls of this school. She invited the young teacher to join hands with her in running the Gram Sevika Vidyalaya and managing the Assam Branch of the Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust. Shakuntala accepted the invitation and joined the band of other dedicated workers who were already helping Amalprova Baideo. Thus began her pilgrimage of the Gandhian Path. This pilgrimage, which began in the year 1947 has continued non-stop till date. This fact alone is an extraordinary achievement for an individual in her life. Weded to simplicity and a life of voluntary poverty Shakuntala Baideo has also observed life-long celibacy. Another noteworthy aspect of her life is that though born and nurtured within society which traditionally consumes fish, Shakuntala Baideo by her own choice has remained a pure vegetarian throughout her life.

The work at the KGNMT- Assam
On her joining the KGNMT – Assam, Shakuntala Baideo was entrusted to function as the office secretary; in other words as the head of the administration. Simultaneously, she also worked on the teaching staff of the Gramsevika Vidyalaya. These initial years of the Ashram were full of life, enthusiasm and activity. India had achieved independence and the leadership of the state government consisted of the erstwhile freedom fighters. Such prominent leaders like Premier
(later designated as the Chief Minister) late Gopinath Bordoloi and the Education Minister late Omeo Kumar Das happened to be adherent to the Gandhian Consctructive work progrmme. They also happened to be the office-bearers of the advisory committee of the KGNMT. Thus there was an ample scope of work.
Amalprova Baideo attended to her responsibility as the Pratinidhi in right earnest. She undertook long tours of different parts of Assam, which then consisted of present day Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Mizoram also. She established Gram Seva Kendras in most parts of the region. The Gram Sevika Vidyalaya also functioned in full swing and trained a good number of Gramsevikas. The trained Sevikas were then placed for working in the newly established centers. It was during such an active period that Shakuntala Baideo worked as the head of the administration. Within a short time, she earned the reputation of being an efficient and firm administrator, stickler for disciplined conduct and for systematic maintenance of accounts. True to expectations, she strengthened the hands of Amalprova Baideo in laying the strong foundation of the working of the Trust. Even today the KGNMT-Assam is running 21 Gram Seva Kendras in different villages of the region. Running these centers is the most valuable service rendered to the villages of Assam and to the cause of national integration. Shakuntala Baideo is an important partner in this exercise. This being the case it was but natural on the part of Amalprova Baideo at the end of eight years’ hard and dedicated work to pass on the mantle of the office of the Pratinidhi to Shankuntala Baideo in the year 1955.

1955 to 1975
For 20 long years from 1955 to 1975 Shakuntala Baideo held the office of the Pratinidhi with typical efficiency and dedication. This period witnessed many important developments. The main task of administering and sustaining the Kasturba Gramseva Kendras spread over the region was of course there. It was carried out with due care and devotion. But several other important developments also took place during this period with which she was associated. The major events that come to mind are, relief provided by the Kasturba Sevikas to the Tibetan refugees, peace marches conducted during language riots in Assam in 1960, Vinobaji’s a year and a half long Padayatra in Assam. Shakuntala Baideo was associated with all these activities.
The most extraordinary historic event, no doubt, was the Padayatra undertaken by the late Acharya Vinoba Bhave. Shakuntala Baideo was an imortant member of Vinobaji’s entourage. She was assigned the important task to act as the interpreter and translate into Assamese all the speeches of Vinobaji, which used to be delivered by him in Hindi at numerous meetings in course of the entire padayatra. The service rendered by Shakuntala Baideo was an important factor that was instrumental in the successful conduct of this Padayatra of great significance. At the same time the Padayatra provided her with the rare good fortune of being in the company of the Gandhian saint and thereby derive precious intellectual and spiritual nourishment.
The Chinese aggression on India’s frontier also took place during this 20 years period. Once again the Sevikas of the Sarania Ashram played an active role in reducing the panic in villages and providing relief to those who had already deserted their villages. Yet another important assignment performed with great credit was the Padayatra in Assam in 1973 under the leadership of Shakuntala Baideo. This was the Padayatra, which was a part of Nationwide Padayatras conducted by different groups in response to a call by Vinobaji.
On completion of 20 years tenure that witnessed many important events as well as an impressive growth in the activities of the KGNMT – Assam, Shakuntala Baideo had every reason to feel
satisfied over her tenure. It was now time for change. She passed on the mantle of the office of Pratinidhi to her successor. No doubt her tenure as the Pratinidhi of the Trust in Assam was again a bright feather in her cap. It was now a time to enter the next phase of life.

p3“Asamiya Vishwa Nagari” and other initiatives.
An important move initiated by Vinobaji was to promote the use of Devanagari script by different linguistic groups of the country as the link script in addition to their own script. One measure undertaken to fulfil this objective in several states was to run a periodical that will carry a portion of its material in Devanagari script and rest in the script used in the particular region. Accordingly, a periodical in Asamiya language was also started in the year 1977. It was named as “Asmiya Vishwa Nagari” and was run as a monthly magazine. Shakuntala Baideo was assigned to be in charge of this project and function as its editor. This magazine has carved an important place amongst the social activists and intellectuals of Assam. Having been launched in 1977 it has continued non-stop till date. It has thus served Assamese society continuously for 27 years! The main writings carried in the magazine deal with the lives and thoughts of Gandhiji, Vinobaji and other Gandhian elders. Similarly, the writings on the saints of Assam and other parts of the country are also published. The magazine has proved to be highly admired vehicle of Gandhian thought and Indian spirituality.
One major post-1975 initiative in which Shakuntala Baideo was involved was the “Ban cow slaughter Satyagraha” started by Vinobaji in 1978. She joined the band, which offered Satyagraha at Tengra, Metia Buruj slaughterhouse in West Bengal where she was also arrested. The second major movement was the stree Shakti Jagaran (Generating awareness amongst women about their inherent strength). She was the moving spirit behind this movement in Assam.
A few major organizations that were led by her and a few in which she played a major role in post 1975 are, The Sarvodaya Trust, The Yuva Matir Samaj, The Matri Samaj and the Peoples’ Forum against Drugs, Violence and Social Injustice. For a few years past she has also been inducted as a Trustee of the Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust at the National level. Her counsel is eagerly sought by the Trust and she is listened to with respectful attention at the periodical meetings of the National Trust. She was given an award by The Urmila Debi Trust of Assam Sahitya Academy and was felicitated by the important organizations of Assam like, Alipana, ICCW-Assam, ICCW-Kamrup District and The Ladies and Children Recreation Center, Guwahati.

Her great contribution to the nation
Shakuntala Baideo’s pilgrimage of the Gandhian path began in 1947 when she joined the KGNMT-Assam at the invitation of venerated Amalprova Baideo. Thus it is a 58 years old pilgrimage! And what a pilgrimage! An attempt has been made to describe this inspiring journey of 58 years. To the country’s good fortune Baideo continues to lead active life of service.
True to her life-long practice, she begins her day at four o’ clock every morning. Her daily routine of Ashram prayers twice a day, recitation of Vishnu Sahasra Nama, regular reading of a religious scripture for 15 minutes, performance of Yogasanas, cleaning her room and washing her own clothes and daily sacrifical spinning (Sutra Yajna) for half an hour are conducted undisturbed every day. True to Gandhian prescription, life of service is her Sadhana, her offering to The Divine.
It is not easy to find many comparable examples in the country. Shakuntala Baideo drew her inspiration from Amalprova Baideo, Gandhiji and most importantly from revered Vinobaji. She had no occasion to come in close personal contact with Gandhiji but she was blessed with the rare good fortune of sitting at the feet of Vinobaji and Amalprova Baideo and gaining spiritual insight and strength.
This biographical narration will not be complete without a mention to the precious contribution of Sarania Ashram to the cause of national integration. The country is exercised greatly over the virus of secessionism that has infected Assam and neighbouring states. At one stage great storm violent disturbances had enveloped Assam. Sarania Ashram was like an oasis during such a period. It represented amity, sanity and brotherly sentiments. The steadfast leadership provided by Shakuntala Baideo and her companions acted like a rallying point for those citizens of Assam who did not approve of the secessionist trends.

It was the unique genius of Mahatma Gandhi, which built up the tradition of selfless service to the nation and service to the cause of creating a social order based on truth and non-violence. All parts of the country produced invaluable gems through the inspiration of the Mahatma’s teachings. Shakuntala Baideo is one such Gem. May God Almighty continue to bless us with such precious gems for all times!

(The author is Late Natwar Thakkar, a veteran Gandhian who founded Nagaland Gandhi Ashram, Chuchuyimlang, Nagaland in early 1955, and was a close associate of Shakuntala Choudhary.)

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