By Indrani Ganguly
“Who will care to visit my grave when I am gone,
Only the wind will raise its dust when I am gone…
But a voice will rise in protest from my grave when I am gone
My last wish is this, that those who care for me
May strew a few flowers on my grave when I am gone.”
Ms Sughra Humayun Mirza (Indian social reformer and poet, 1884-1954)
As yet another India Independence Day approaches, it is time to remember all the valiant women of undivided India, who came from all walks of life, to fight for independence, to ensure they receive their rightful place not only in the history of the subcontinent, but on the world stage just like their male counterparts.
The Indian women followed different paths of struggle. The less well-known to Indians today are women like Bina Das and Preetilata Wadedar who participated in the militant nationalism in Bengal and Punjab, including raids on armouries and attempts to shoot the Governor Bengal and high-ranking officials who were seen as the symbols of British repression. Others joined the Azad Hind Fauz led by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Many of these women were captured, charged with ‘terrorism’ and sentenced to hard labour or killed either by the police or by their own hands to avoid capture.
The other, better-known group comprises those who supported the non-violent nationalist movement whose most famous leader was Mahatma Gandhi. Two women who were very close to the Mahatma, participating in the struggle for independence and promoting women’s rights, but at the same time questioning his idiosyncrasies, were his wife Kasturba Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu.
Kasturba Gandhi, affectionately known as Ba, was married to Gandhiji at a very young age. They had five children of whom four survived. She joined him in his struggles in both South Africa and India, often taking his place when he was in jail, though she did not always agree with him. Kasturba focused on helping improve the welfare of women in both South Africa and India. Although she could not take part in Gandhi’s famous Salt March in 1930, participated in many civil disobedience campaigns and marches and was arrested and jailed on numerous occasions.
Kasturba is well-remembered for her vigorous debates with Gandhiji who is reputed to have said she taught him the art of passive resistance! She died in 1944 at the age of 74 after a bout of illness acquired in prison lying on Gandhiji’s arms.
Sarojini Naidu, the Nightingale of India, had a very different entry into the national movement and Gandhiji’s life. Her first rebellion was when she decided to study poetry rather than science or mathematics. Fortunately, her father was very supportive and she studied literature in London and Cambridge. Her poetry attracted a huge Indian and English readership. Her next battle was in 1898, when she fell in love with and married Dr Govindarajulu Naidu, who was from a different background. Again her father supported her. Her marriage was a very happy one and she had five children.
Sarojini’s battles for independence and women’s rights began after she met Shri Gopal Krishna Gokhale who told her to use her oratory and poetry to free Mother India.
In 1916, she met Mahatma Gandhi. Her first comment to him was how messy his house was! This set the scene for a long friendship which never wavered through more than thirty years of fighting for India’s freedom. Sarojini never lost her irreverence for the Mahatma, calling him “Mickey Mouse” and poking fun at him.
In 1930 Sarojini marched with Gandhiji on the famous Salt March, also known as Dandi March. She participated in many other movements including the Quit India protest in 1942 for which she was jailed. After independence, she became the Governor of Uttar Pradesh, the first woman governor in India. She died in office in 1949, aged 70.
There are many other women like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, Raj Kumar Amrit Kaur, Kamala Nehru, and Aruna Asaf Ali to name a few who fought for independence and women’s rights.
There are also many thousands whose names we shall never know but who played a vital role in India’s twin movements for independence and social reform. Let’s keep them all in mind as we celebrate Independence Day.
GOPIO Queensland’s annual India Day Fair is a celebration of Indian Independence and will be held on 19th August at Roma Street Parklands