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.
Indian Before 1857
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 known as the Nightingale of India, was a notable poet and writer. She travelled throughout India from 1915 to 1918, giving lectures on social welfare, women’s empowerment and nationalism. She has also made women of India more aware and brought them to work and in the fight for the country from the kitchen. She also contributed and established the foundation, in 1917, of the Women India Association (WIA). She was president and an excellent leader in the Civil Disobedience Movement and Salt Satyagraha movement and leader at the front.
Annie Besant was a notable British theosophist and reformer, and a supporter of Indian Independence. She was interested in Theosophy, a religious movement formed by Hindu concepts of karma and reincarnation in 1875. Besant was a member of the Theosophical Society and later the leader, she propagated their beliefs around the globe, particularly in India. Besant visited India initially in 1893 and afterwards settled there, participating in the nationalist struggle in India. In 1916, she founded the Indian Home Rule League, and became its president. She was also a leading member in the Indian National Congress. A social reformer, labor organizer and strike leader, was also actively involved in setting up schools and colleges to support educational activities.
Madam Cama or Bhikaji Cama was an ardent freedom fighter who immensely contributed to the early years of the Indian battle for freedom and campaigned for women’s role in society. She has drawn attention to the Indian struggle as a passionate nationalist. Although she was exiled for 35 years, her quest for liberation did not leave a stone untouched. On August 22, 1907, Madam Bhikaji Cama became the first to hoist the Indian flag on foreign land in Stuttgart in Germany. She recalled the horrific effects of a famine which had smashed the Indian subcontinent in calling for human rights, equality and autonomy from Great Britain.
Kamala Nehru joined the country’s fight for freedom with the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1921. Once known as a quiet person, she emerged as a strong woman and broke all stereotypes in the Indian Independence struggle, uniting with her husband in the movement. She started a big protest, together with other women pioneers, against the shops in Allahabad selling alcohol and foreign fabric. When her husband Jawaharlal Nehru was imprisoned by British for delivering a speech deemed as ‘seditious’, she went in his place to deliver it. Although her husband was incarcerated months ago, Kamala Nehru maintained her fight for freedom and established a dispensary for injured warriors in Nehru’s mansion—Swaraj Bhawan. Together with other women volunteers, Durgabai and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, she also organised no-tax campaigns.
Vijay Lakshmi Pandit
Vijay Lakshmi Pandit, the first woman to become the president of the United Nations General Assembly had an illustrious career spanning over decades.She was among the few to revolutionise women’s role in national construction as a campaigner, minister, ambassador and diplomat which was then typically regarded as a male pursuit. In the British era, she was one of the first women cabinet ministers to demand for the Indian constituent assembly to frame a Constitution. When the resolution endorsed by the congress was tabled by the United Provinces in 1937, she did not coat any words and declared the 1935 Indian Government Act “wholly unsatisfactory.” In the years 1932-1933, 1940, and 1942-1943 in connection with civil disobedience campaigns, she was arrested and three times imprisoned by British people.
Aruna Asaf Ali
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. During the Salt Satyagraha, Aruna Asaf Ali participated in a number of nonviolent riots. For this, the colonial authorities quickly arrested her.In 1931, the Gandhi-Irwin pact guaranteed that all individuals who were detained during the Salt Satyagraha would be released. However, it did not include Aruna Asaf Ali. Only a vigorous protest for her release by the other women freedom activists and Mahatma Gandhi helped her case. She was not involved in politics when she was released, but became an active member of the underground movement by the end of 1942.
Kalpana Dutta joined the Republican Indian Army of Surya Sen in 1931 which had been engaged a year earlier in the Chittagong attack. For the revolutionaries, she used to build bombs and work as a courier agent. She had the duty of attacking a European club in Chittagong the same year, accompanied by Pritilata Waddedar. However, one week before the raid Kalpana was detained during a reception in the region. She went underground following her release on bail. In 1933, however, Kalpana was arrested and imprisoned for life. Mahatma Gandhi visited her in prison in the midst of public protests. Kalpana was released from prison six years later. Kalpana was dedicated to relief efforts during the Bengal famine and Bengal division in 1943 upon her release from prison. In 1940 she joined the Indian Communist Party and three years later married PC Joshi, a leading party leader. At 81 in Kolkata she died. The principles of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose had a great influence on her.
Kasturba Gandhi worked with Mahatma Gandhi all through her life and was the leader of the Women’s Satyagraha. She always assisted her husband in almost all his movements. A key difficulty for Kasturba was her worsening health. In Borsad, Gujarat, she nevertheless took part in a Satyagraha (non-violent resistance) campaign. Over the years, Kasturba Gandhi has become part of the Indian Freedom movement and has been involved in campaigns and demonstrations of civil disobedience. Women from all over India were looking for inspiration at Kasturba and regularly asked her to organise marches and protests.Together with Gandhi and other freedom fighters, in 1942 Kasturba was arrested again for participating in the Quit India movement. The inspirative champion breathed her last in Aga Khan Palace in Pune where she had been imprisoned after a life of struggle and protest.
Usha Mehta who as a child participated in the ‘Simon Go Back’ movement, realized that her true calling was her nationalist spirit and broadcasting for the Congress Radio during the Quit India Movement. Usha Mehta said to her father that education had to wait and left her house to help the movement for freedom. No knowledge of her whereabouts was available for a fortnight. The British seemed to have been able to silence the Quit India campaign, as over 100,000 protesters were detained, or hidden, with important leaders. Now a secret radio station had been revived by Usha. In addition to her partners (the owners of Chicago Radio, the person supplying equipment and supplying technicians), Vithalbhai Jhaveri, Chandrakant Jhaveri, Babubhai Thakkar, and Nanka Motwani, Gandhi’s and the other major leaders messages were broadcasted here. Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia, Achyutrao Patwardhan and Purushottam Trikamdas gave riveting talks, while National Songs were also heard at the station.
When the British movement was hit and the vernacular newspapers were once again restricted, the sound waves of this underground radio connected the people, gave them hope and strength and encouraged them to continue the protests.
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.