“The sacrifice made by Viranwali of her life to wash out a national stigma has the power to invigorate the dispirited Indians and to infuse pluck and determination in their hearts,” wrote Lokamanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak in Kesari on 26 November 1907.
Who is Viranwali? Public memory has its strange mechanism. As a nation, we have forgotten the name of a woman whose self-sacrifice awakened the nationalist zeal among Indians and kindled it in a way that a generation of revolutionaries rose in revolt against British rule. Her supreme sacrifice was a key factor in the formation of the Ghadar Party and the emergence of Bhagat Singh and revolutionary movements/
Viranwali was a gutsy woman challenging the patriarchal notions of her times. Education had started spreading in India and women were stepping out. She took the courage to travel by railways all alone. But, she did not realize that India was being ruled by the British people who treated Indian women as sex objects. The sexual attacks and rapes of Indians were common. Stationmaster, Moore, spotted a lonely woman on the train. The evil man and his companion overpowered Viranwali and raped her on the train.
Viranwali reported the crime to the police. The British had this law that European criminals could only be tried by European judges. Both the rapists were tried by a British jury led by Justice Reid and without any surprise, the rapists were acquitted of all the charges. In protest, Viranwali killed herself.
She slept forever to awake Indians out of slavery.
This crime in Punjab shook the nation. A Tamil newspaper wrote, “those who have consummate such an outrage on a Hindu lady have been left scot-free. The reason is that the outraged lady is only a poor Hindu, and the offender belongs to the ruling class. High is the greatness of British Justice!” Indian Social Reformer commented, “European dares insult Indian women as light-heartedly as he often does is an index to a state of feeling prevalent among many of his betters.” Akhbar-e-Saudagar pointed out that rapes of Indian women by British men were quite common and suicide was needed to bring the issue to mainstream politics. Orientel Review wrote, “The honour of women is a precious heritage of a country” and asked the countrymen to rise in defense of this heritage.
The case stirred the feelings of youth. Anjuman-e-Muhibban-e-Watan led by Sardar Ajit Singh, Arya Samaj led by Lala Lajpat Rai, and Journalists working with Syed Haider Raza were named in the intelligence reports for inciting popular feelings by delivering speeches explaining the case of Viranwali. It is needless to say that these streams of Punjab later developed themselves into the Ghadar Party and produced people like Bhagat Singh. The movement spread across India. Tahal Ram Ganga Ram of Allahabad, now Prayagraj, who was working with Haider was reported as one of the most ‘notorious’ speakers propagating about Viranwali. Tahal was deported out of UP for the service of his people.
The sacrifice of Viranwali did not go in vain. The case proved to be a catalyst, particularly in Punjab. Viranwali deserves to be remembered in our national history like any other hero. It was her sacrifice that moved lakhs of Indians on the battlefield against the British to save the honour of the Indian women.