Liberation’s Leading Lady

Ka Phan Nonglait was the first female fighter of the Indian freedom movement from the Khasi Hills, says Ratan Bhattacharjee

By Ratan Bhattacharjee

India’s independence movement was a series of sacrifices by thousands of freedom fighters. But one that escaped the ‘mainland’ documentation was fought against the British forces in the Khasi Hills even before Sepoy Mutiny.

The Anglo-Khasi War between 1829 and 1833 was part of the Independence struggle that began with U Tirot Sing’s attack on a British garrison that disobeyed the orders of the Khasi king to stop a road construction project through the Khasi Hills. The colonial forces were countered bravely although the British gained ascendancy in the hills later.

Ka Phan Nonglait is definitely among the unsung heroes who played a crucial role in India’s freedom movement as the first female fighter who assisted Tirot Sing. She is considered the first woman freedom fighter who countered the British forces with guerrilla tactics. Thanks to a book by Daniel Stone Lyngdoh, her contributions to India’s freedom struggle are being recognised through the Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav celebrating the British-era revolutionaries from all over the country.

Lyngdoh, from West Khasi Hills, is an advocate in the Supreme Court and the convener of the Delhi branch of the Khasi Authors’ Society. He was awarded the North East Youth Ambassador of Peace, 2018, during the North East Festival. His book – the foreword is by Salman Khurshid – tells the world that the Khasi people under the leadership of Tirot Sing and Phan Nonglait fought the first fight for freedom against the British.

Unfortunately, India has continued to neglect leaders and freedom fighters from the margins and this fight was not mentioned in the notable history books on the freedom struggle of India. There are many freedom fighters from the Northeast who were not given prominence earlier in spite of their exemplary sacrifice spearheaded by the freedom fighters. It is expected that she will now gain recognition at the state and national level in the 75th year of India’s independence.

Her role in the freedom struggle is no less than Jhansi Rani Lakshmibai in 1857, Bhagat Singh in 1931, Matangini Hazra and Pritilata Waddedar in 1932, and the heroes of the Northeast such as Rani Gaidinliu, Paona Brajabashi or Bir Tikendrajit Singh of Manipur, and Kanaklata Barua or Kiranbala Bora of Assam (during the Quit India Movement).

The war that Tirot Sing led against the British was more of a war of swords and arrows versus guns. It was for Phan Nonglait’s tactical inputs that the victory against the British was possible. It was an incredible feat in the Khasi society of that time. ‘Ka Phan Nonglait – A lady freedom fighter of India’, the book by Lyngdoh vividly recounts the battles including the Nongkhlaw massacre. Tirot Sing’s soldiers came to know about the movement of the British troops out of Mairang village toward Nongkhlaw. It was summer, and due to the unbearable heat, the British soldiers rested near a waterfall. Phan Nonglait very shrewdly took the initiative to provide the soldiers with refreshments while Tirot Sing’s men waited in the shadows. As the tired Britishers relaxed, Phan Nonglait used the opportunity to take away all their weapons and throw them into a rock hole of the waterfall. The soldiers of Tirot Sing seized the moment, and attacked and captured the British soldiers, who were unprepared and unarmed. The weapons are presumed to be still lying in the rock hole of the waterfall named Phan Nonglait Falls.

Another incident underlines her active role in the killing of 32 British soldiers.

Phan Nonglait was born in Rymmai village under Hima Nongkhlaw in 1799 and died on December 6, 1850, after a protracted illness. Some of her descendants include Mely Shaimon, Milinda Nonglait and Magdelene Nonglait.

Ratan Bhattacharjee is a senior academician and a contributor at The Shillong Times

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