| Ashoka Gupta, the oldest student of Bethune College at the gathering of old and new students on the campus on Monday. Picture by Aranya Sen
“…it being the system of eastern nations to keep their women in ignorance, imagining it gives them greater power over them.”
— Those are the words of the irrepressible Fanny Parkes, who visited India in the first half of the 19th Century. At that time, though women in the West ostensibly enjoyed more freedom than their sisters in the occident, yet there were several spheres of life from which they were cut off. University education was one of them.
Yet, surprisingly, Calcutta itself could boast an institution in middle 19th Century, that produced women who had the courage to break all social rules and pursue higher education, and were gainfully employed thereafter. This institution was Bethune College, celebrating its 125th anniversary. It played a significant role in the empowerment of women. Although its liberating role was confined to upper-class women, they later became very strong and positive role-models of middle-class women from less affluent backgrounds.
The college played a significant role in the education of Muslim women, too. Akhtar Imam, Fazaltunnessa Zoha, Hamida Khanam — who became eminent personalities in Bangladesh — have acknowledged the pivotal role the college had played in their lives.
The college was very close to the freedom movement. It afforded an opportunity to many students — Pritilata Waddader, Kalpana Dutta Joshi, Bina Das — to channelise their energies by throwing themselves headlong in the struggle. With its Anglo-Indian, Jewish, Ceylonese, Northeastern and Parsi students, the atmosphere was very cosmopolitan.
The college created a milestone in late 19th Century. In 1878, Kadambini Basu, nee Gangopadhyay, was the first woman to pass her Entrance examination from Bethune School. She and her contemporary, Chandramukhi Basu, daughter of Bhubanmohan, of Dehradun, had the distinction of being the first women graduates in India in 1883, as well as in the British empire. After her marriage to Dwarakanath Gangopadhyay, Kadambini joined Medical College, and ultimately became the first woman doctor with a foreign degree.
Bethune College had other students too who made waves. Durgamohan Das had three daughters — Sarala, Abala and Shailabala. Though they never graduated yet they were pathbreakers. Sarala believed that education should lead to employment and students should be trained for that. Her sister Abala, too, was in the forefront of the movement for the emancipation of women.
Poet Kamini Roy passed BA with honours in Sanskrit from the college, which she joined later as a teacher. Ramananda Bandopadhyaya’s two daughters, Shanta Debi and Sita Debi, were two distinguished students of the college, who later turned out to be litterateurs of repute. So, during its current celebrations, it is only but natural that the former student who will be felicitated is Ashoka Gupta, in her early 90s now. She studied science and accompanied Gandhi to Noakhali. Her mother was novelist Jyotirmayee Debi. Her daughter is an IAS officer, Kasturi Gupta Menon. The lifeforce of the college is not spent.
— A Staff Reporter