India needs to dearly hold sacred its independence. For generations the cloak of the British Rule that had grappled, sometimes with force, sometimes with injustice the very essence of freedom that is the basic right of every individual citizen, was thrown over after many attempts. And hence the Independence of this nation was won in ways and by its people in unprecedented ways.
Men of honor had a significant role to play in the freedom struggle. However, surprisingly women too led from the front and emerged as game changers in the quest for independence.
Women leaders made a significant mark of their valor and will as early as in the 18 century and set the stage for emphasizing that women were in no way willing to be relegated to the backdrop of the freedom struggle. Maharani Velu Nachiyar (1730 – 1796) bravely fought with the British army decades before the 1857 Revolt. She probably remains the only queen to have defeated the British army successfully. Gauri Parvati Bai who was queen of Travancore carried out reforms and emphasized on the need for education of girls thus in many ways helping women elevate from social and educational stigma.
However, the 1857 Revolt saw many stalwart women participants in the freedom struggle that have gone down as legends in the history of Indian Independence. Rani Lakshmi Bai dressed up as man and fought alongside her battalion bravely against the British army. Begum Hazrat Mahal refused to be bogged down by the Doctrine of Lapse and reclaimed Awadh from the British as well as reinstated her young son as king. However after the fall of Lucknow she had to flee to Nepal. Rani Avantibai Lodhi of Ramgarh, Rani Tace Bai, Rani Jindan Kaur, Jhalkaribai and Uda Devi are other historical women who fought with the British army during the revolt. Besides their strength and courage at battles with the British armies, notable Indian women also paved way for social change. Savitri Bai Phule, the first female teacher in a first women school also opened a school for the untouchables and worked tireless for women rights. Helping her was Tarabai Shinde known for her published work Stri Purush Tulana considered as one of the first modern Indian feminist perspectives.
Early 19th century
The early 19th century saw the freedom struggle take full swing and women from across all castes and class took the baton of being equally responsible and dedicated to the national cause. Where men of stature, such as, Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose and Chandrasekhar Azad emerged as leaders in their own right, women stalwarts too matched them step to step. In fact, undoubtedly women freedom fighters have made significant contributions to the independence movement and in many ways the coordinated synchronization between the two has been an important landmark in the gaining of Indian independence.
Sarojini Naidu also fondly known as the Nightingale of India was a prolific writer and poet. She was president of the Indian National Congress and was an outstanding leader campaigning and leading from the front in the Civil Disobedience Movement and Salt Satyagraha.
Annie Besant was elected the president of the Indian National Congress and launched the Home Rule Movement. A reformer, labor organizer and strike leader, Annie Besant was also actively involved in educational activities setting up schools and colleges.
Madam Cama or Bhikaji Cama exiled in Europe was a social worker and a strong nationalist. She unfurled the flag of Indian Independence in Stuttgart Germany along with a powerful speech advocating the right to freedom.
Kamala Nehru was in the forefront of the Non – Corporation Movement and organized women in picketing shops selling foreign liquor and cloth. However, when her husband Jawaharlal Nehru was arrested for delivering a speech deemed as ‘seditious’ by the British, she went in his place to deliver it.
Vijay Lakshmi Pandit the first women to become the president of the United Nations General Assembly was arrested multiple times for her involvement in the Civil Disobedience Movement.
Aruna Asaf Ali played a pivotal role in the Quit India Movement unfurling the flag in Bombay to signify the start of the movement. She edited ‘Inquilab’ a monthly journal of the Indian National Congress and was awarded the highest civilian award the Bharat Ratna.
Kalpana Dutta was influenced by the ideas of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and joined the Chittagong armory raids.
Kasturba Gandhi worked with Mahatma Gandhi all through her life and was the leader of the Women’s Satyagraha. She was involved closely with her husband in almost all his movements.
Usha Mehta who as a child participated in the ‘Simon Go Back’ movement, did little know that her true calling was her nationalist spirit and broadcasting for the Congress Radio during the Quit India Movement.
The list can go on, as one woman after the other made her individual as well as a collective mark on the independence movement. Sucheta Kriplani founder of the All India Mahila Congress, Raj Kumari Gupta who supplied the revolvers in the Kakori operation, Abadi Bano Begum who motivated crowds in Lucknow from behind her burqa, Lakshmi Sehgal who headed the Rani Jhansi regiment under Subhash Chandra Bose, Kamaladevi who actively participated in the Non-Corporation Movement, Salt Satyagraha as well as was an eminent theatre personality and promoted native handicrafts and arts, Kanaklata Barua who was shot while leading a procession bearing the Indian National Flag, Parbati Giri who worked dedicatedly for the welfare of orphans, Matangini Hazra who was shot thrice but continued to march with the National Congress Flag chanting Vande Mataram and many more were women of grit, dedication and honor.
However, as bright stars shone in the freedom struggle, there were also many nameless women who have in their own way contributed to the movement. The Swadeshi movement perhaps involved the most women who picketed foreign products. When men were arrested the women stepped up and fulfilled and finished their unfinished work. The numerous women who laid down their life at the Jallianwala Bagh, the umpteen women who silently wiped a tear in pride when the men of their family sacrificed their lives- Women as messengers, as supporters, as wives and mothers and as leaders were an integral part of the independence movement.
Our nation needs to remember that our freedom struggle would not quite be the same without women. Alas, it is not just memory and names that history teaches us. It is the path forward, the respect earned and the sheer belief that women are as much capable of standing up for themselves, of demanding freedom and willing to pay any price for it.