Gandhi's unsung heroes

The way Gandhi inspired and empowered women from middle-class homes and India’s villages to become equal partners in the struggle for independence is a less-known facet of Gandhi’s leadership genius

A group of women and children fill their brass pots with salt water at the Chowpatty shore to make salt in defiance of the British government’s salt law, 1930
A group of women and children fill their brass pots with salt water at the Chowpatty shore to make salt in defiance of the British government’s salt law, 1930

Arvind Mohan

It was a hot April day in 1917 when Gandhi set off for Jasaulipatti village in Motihari, the headquarters of Bihar’s East Champaran district. They set off early to escape the heat. The conventional mode of transport was the elephant but Gandhi had never sat on one before. Perched precariously on his swaying ride, Gandhi held forth on the ills of the ‘purdah’ system. His companions defended the system but Gandhi held firm. It was a pernicious system, he argued, that affected women’s health and did not allow them to work alongside their husbands. No nation could afford to keep half its population in purdah, he said.

On their way, they would sometimes have to look away from women squatting for their morning ablutions on both sides of the dirt track. (Gandhi had arrived in Motihari the previous day for a first-hand impression of the problems of indigo workers.) Gandhi strongly felt that keeping women confined at home was a grave injustice to them, bordering on the criminal. This animated discussion on elephant back was rudely truncated when a police constable rode up to them on a bicycle; he was there to serve Gandhi notice to leave the district. Gandhi got off and returned to Motihari on a bullock cart. But he refused to leave the district to which he had been invited by peasants to tell him about the ways in which they were being exploited.

In South Africa too, Gandhi had initially found it difficult persuading Indian women to court arrest to protest a draconian and demeaning law that targeted Asians. Only four women at first agreed to do so. All four predictably were from his own family. Besides Kasturba, Gandhi’s daughters-in-law Santoshbehn and Kashibehn, and Jaikunwar, daughter of close associate Pranjeevan Mehta, courted arrest. Kasturba initially demurred and then agreed. The next time Gandhi gave the call, 143 women volunteered to go to jail.

By 1942, when the Quit India movement got under way, women were equal partners and were even leading the movement. Aruna Asaf Ali, Kamala Devi, Usha Mehta and Sucheta Kripalani were some of the more prominent women at the forefront of the movement and played a key role in sustaining it when most Congress leaders were put in jail. Thousands of other women took part in the movement that saw an estimated 100,000 protestors arrested. In Noakhali, where Gandhi toiled for peace and harmony in the wake of riots, women were again by his side. Remarkably, one of them, Bibi Amtus Salam dared to defy even Gandhi and refused to break her fast till swords looted from a temple were returned. Gandhi had almost magically liberated Indian women.

Gandhi with granddaughters Abha and Manu at Birla House in Delhi
Gandhi with granddaughters Abha and Manu at Birla House in Delhi

He found it difficult to talk to women in Champaran. They rarely met strangers or come out of their homes. One of the first things Gandhi did, therefore, was to summon Kasturba to Champaran. In 1917- 18, the Congress did not even have a single full-time volunteer in Champaran, leave alone women volunteers. Advertisements were issued inviting volunteers to work in Champaran. Kasturba herself arrived with Avantika Bai Gokhale, Anandi Bahan, Manibehn (who was married to Narhari Parikh) and Durgabehn (who was married to Mahadevbhai Desai). This inspired the lawyers from Bihar (among them Brajkishore Prasad and Rajendra Prasad) assisting Gandhi to allow women from their own households to join the Mahatma.

Women participated in greater numbers than ever in the textile mill workers’ strike in Ahmedabad and in the Kheda satyagraha of 1918. By the time of the non-cooperation movement of 1920, they had taken to spinning cotton yarn on the charkha, and were frequently seen picketing outside liquor outlets and shops selling foreign clothes, which were to be boycotted. Many of these women had rarely before ventured out of their homes. They didn’t know the names of their own localities; most wouldn’t dream of uttering the names of their husbands or older male members of the family and would have found it difficult to find their way home even in their hometowns.

The Gaya session of the Congress in 1922 witnessed a surprisingly large number of women delegates, records testify. The participation of women in earlier Congress sessions was limited to a handful of them from elite families. They would be seated on one side, with screens separating them from the men. Reports of the Gaya session record that on the first day the screens were in place as usual, but on the second day the women delegates took them down. “We don’t need these anymore,” they resolutely declared. This dramatic turnaround in their demeanour, the new assertiveness had taken less than five years.

The turnout at the All India Women’s Conference in Poona in 1927 was also similarly large—some accounts put it at over 20,000. Indian women had set themselves free. During the salt satyagraha of 1930, an estimated 20,000 women courted arrest despite restrictions on the participation of the elderly, the pregnant and the ill. One is hard put to recall any other movement anywhere in the world where so many women went to jail. They came out in large numbers knowing fully well that conditions in prison would be harsh.

Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu during the Salt March of 1930, protesting against the British government’s monopoly on salt production
Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu during the Salt March of 1930, protesting against the British government’s monopoly on salt production
Getty images

His inspirational leadership had electrified the country, so to speak, but the results of his efforts were mixed. He worked all his life to bring Hindus and Muslims together, but he couldn’t stop the Partition nor the communal riots. He often risked his life trying to douse communal passions and was eventually assassinated by a Hindu fanatic. But, again, he played his part in India’s embrace of secularism and in guaranteeing—constitutionally, at least—equal rights for women.

Gandhi also opposed untouchability and worked ceaselessly to put an end to that practice. While freedom and swaraj remained his main goals, the sheer range of his social interventions is astonishing. His efforts were crucial in legalising equal rights for women in India, including voting rights, when it was not being talked about even in the ‘advanced’ West.

He inspired thousands of women to quietly yet doggedly offer political resistance. In Champaran, he collected 25,000 depositions on the plight of indigo farmers, a high number of those from women—this, at a time when women had little or no right over land and property. He also inspired them to take on social work and participate in other nation-building activities. Many more than the ones we easily recall—names like Ela Bhatt and Krishnammal Jagannathan—were inspired by Gandhi and dedicated their lives to social work.

In the days following the non-cooperation movement, Gandhi would hold separate meetings to address women before the daily prayer meeting. The family members of many women attending these meetings would insist— or so go the stories—that they leave their jewellery behind at home. Such was his mesmerising influence apparently that women would think nothing of donating whatever valuables they had on their person.

(L-R) Amina Tyabji, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Kasturba Gandhi,
March 1930
(L-R) Amina Tyabji, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Kasturba Gandhi, March 1930

Not just women either. People gave up their houses, land, property and jewellery and an unaccounted for number of Indians devoted their lives to nation building, inspired by Gandhi. Many decided not to raise families to dedicate themselves to social work. Many couples decided against having children for similar reasons. Countless mother-daughter duos, couples, sisters chose to live in relative anonymity to serve society.

Not much has been written even about the role of Kasturba, Gandhi’s self-effacing life partner, whose contributions to the freedom struggle have been largely ignored. Hardly surprising, then, that we should know so little about Gangabahan or Matangini Hazra. Works such as Urvashi Butalia’s ‘The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India’, which recalls the roles of Mrinalini Sarabhai, Lajjawati Hooja, Rameshwari Nehru, among others, do not expunge the reality that the story of the Indian freedom struggle, as we know it, is largely a male retelling—and, if for that reason alone, an impoverished understanding of the role of women and the price they had to pay.

We luckily know of Durgabai, who dedicated her life to social work and encouraged her husband to marry another woman. When the second wife passed away, Durgabai’s former husband donated all her jewellery to the institution set up by Durgabai. We also know of Jawaharlal Nehru’s mother Swaroop Rani, who died from blows sustained in a police assault. We know of Sucheta Kripalani, who defied Gandhi to get married, but then decided against raising a family so that she could devote herself to Gandhi’s mission. Many women, influenced by Gandhi, opted for inter-caste marriages; many remained single and were lonely in their old age; many who had donated their properties died in penury.

There are stories about the same women being arrested repeatedly in the course of the same agitation. Police would let them off, possibly thinking they were docile or weak or some such, and these women would plunge right back into the agitation.

Gandhi with Birdibai, the mother of his adopted son Jamnalal Bajaj, in Wardha, 1945
Gandhi with Birdibai, the mother of his adopted son Jamnalal Bajaj, in Wardha, 1945

A lot has been said and written on Gandhi’s relationship with women. His name has been linked suggestively to Sushila Nayyar, Manu and Abha Gandhi and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, among others. But not nearly enough has been written about women like Satyawati, who went to jail with her eleven-day-old child, or about the gritty dedication of single mothers like Chandraprabha—women who responded to Gandhi’s call and devoted themselves to a life beyond themselves and their families.

Radha Kumar, author of the acclaimed book ‘Stree Sangharsh ka Itihas’, says it was unquestionably Gandhi who made the way for women from middle class homes and India’s villages to end the dominance of women from rich and aristocratic families in public life. In his demanding yet nurturing leadership, Gandhi’s women followers found their voice and the confidence to fight for their rights. Gandhi wouldn’t have thought of it as ‘reservation’, but women had representation at every level in his ashrams and outside.

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines

Published: 02 Oct 2022, 10:00 AM