Ashoka Gupta was a renowned social worker who dedicated her life to social service. In 1946 a violent communal riot erupted in Noakhali in erstwhile East Bengal when Hindu life and property were targeted and conversion was undertaken under the threat of death. Assaults and molestation of women formed a significant feature of the riots. As soon as the news of the riots reached outside world, the members of the All India Women’s Conference formed a Relief Committee with Ashoka as its convenor. Initially they distributed relief materials to the fleeing villagers. But when Gandhiji arrived in Noakhali he advised the workers to set up their camps in interior villages to restore confidence among the terrified Hindus. On Gandhiji’s advice, Ashoka set up her base in an interior village, taking her little daughter with her. Ashoka’s tasks included restoring normalcy and communal peace between the two communities, urging the Hindus to return back, ensuring that the victims received their quota of government relief. She was particularly concerned about the fate of the molested and abducted women. However, she admitted that she could not do much for those helpless women. Nevertheless, she won many hearts through her self-less service in Noakhali and it remained the most memorable chapter in her life.
Role of Women in Riot Torn Noakhali in 1946: An Extraordinary Journey for Peace, Stability and humanity. (Published)
In the 1940s when India was at its final stage of anti-colonial struggle, communal politics had spread its tentacles in the Indian political scene. In 1946 the communal balance of the Bengal Presidency, on the eastern part of India became delicate. Calcutta first witnessed a scene of horrific communal violence in the month of August. This was followed by the devastating communal riot in Noakhali, in the erstwhile Eastern Bengal (now in Bangladesh) where the Muslim majority community unleashed a reign of terror upon the Hindu minority community. But the most horrific part of the riot was that women of the Hindu community were abducted, molested and forcibly married to Muslims. The British government was, however, very indifferent to this situation and did little to calm the situation. It was in this situation that Mahatma Gandhi became the sole source of hope when he undertook a peace-keeping mission in Noakhali to restore communal harmony. More importantly he inspired a number of women to come forward in support of riot affected people. They went into remote villages, stationed themselves there and worked hard to restore harmony between the two communities, to convince the terrified Hindus to stay back and rebuild their social life. As women, the workers were especially empathetic towards the plight of women as there were number of cases of violence, molestation, abduction and forcible marriage. However, despite their best efforts, women achieved limited success. The communal mistrust was so deep that stray incidents of violence continued to happen. The effort to give molested women a new life also came to a naught because very few women were ready to admit that they were raped or molested. However, in those days of gloom the efforts the women made to bring about a positive change cannot be ignored.