Another Independence Day rolled around, with all the speeches, flag hoisting ceremonies, blaring of patriotic songs, tributes to Gandhi, Nehru, Tilak, Netaji, Sardar and maybe Bhagat Singh. But it would strain the memories of all but ardent history buffs to recall the names of any female freedom fighters.
Rani Laxmibai would get top-of-the mind recall, because of the movies, and the aura of ‘khoob ladi mardani’ kind of folklore around her. Kasturba Gandhi, maybe, because of Mahatma Gandhi’s reflected glory, though she did march beside him, and motivated a lot of women to join the independence struggle. After a bit of jogging of memory, some would remember Captain Lakshmi of the Indian National Army and Sarojini Naidu.
Typically, history has been written from the male point of view, and the contribution of women has been more like a footnote. But women have stood alongside men, and made equal or bigger sacrifices, and every time the tricolor is raised on Independence Day, we should also remember at least a few of them.
Kittur Chennamma is considered to be the first royal to rebel against British rule. As Rani of the Nayaka kingdom of Kittur, she led an army against the East India Company in 1824, after the death of her husband and son, when the British tried to annex her territory. Unfortunately, she was defeated and died in prison.
Begum Hazrat Mahal, a contemporary of Rani Laxmibai, was a courtesan and the second wife of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh. After he was exiled to Kolkata by the British, she took charge and rebelled against them. She established an army of women, with a brave Dalit woman Uda Devi as its commander. When the Great Rebellion of 1857 was crushed, she escaped to Nepal, where she died in 1879.
Usha Mehta was inspired by Gandhi when she was a child, and participated in the freedom movement along with other kids, distributing clandestine publications. Later, as a heroine of the Quit India Movement, she and her associates started the Secret Congress Radio, an underground radio station to broadcast messages from Gandhi and other leaders. She was arrested along with the others and imprisoned. She was relentlessly interrogated by the police and kept in solitary confinement, but did not betray her comrades. She was an inspiration for many female freedom fighters in her time.
Umabai Kundapur was encouraged to participate in political activities by her in-laws and her husband, Sanjiv Rao. After his death, she carried on her work in the freedom movement, and displaying remarkable leadership qualities, managed to get more women to join the struggle. She was the founder of the Bhagini Mandal and led the women’s wing of Hindustani Seva Dal. She campaigned tireless for the education of girls and also sheltered freedom fighters from the British.
Matangini Hazra was so inspired by Gandhi, that in her village she was known as Gandhi Buri (old woman Gandhi). Born in a poor rural family and widowed at the age of 18, her journey is truly remarkable. She mobilized people to revolt against the British, and was jailed several times. During the Quit India Movement, at the age of 73, she led an anti-British procession and marched to take over the Tamluk police station, where she was shot by the cops, and died with Vande Mataram on her lips.
Aruna Asaf Ali, belonging to a progressive family from Bengal, was a prominent name in the freedom movement. She was arrested for taking part in the Salt Satyagraha. After she was released she threw herself wholeheartedly into the Quit India Movement and faced bullets while raising the flag of the Indian Indian National Congress at the Gowalia Tank Maidan. She also edited the Congress’ monthly magazine Inquilab.
There are so many others—Bhimabai Holkar, Jhalkari Bai, Bhogeshwari Phukanani, Kanaklata Barua, Rani Gaidinliu, AV Kuttimala Amma, Janaky Athi Nahappan, Moolmati, Begum Royeka, Kuntala Kumai Sabat, Krishammal Jagannathan, Pritilata Waddedar, Parbati Giri, Bhikaji Cama, Maniben Patel, Achamma Cherian, Annie Besant, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay…now a simple web search will lead to brief notes on their extraordinary lives
At a time when Indian society was still conservative and caste-bound, when women were not allowed to get an education or work outside the house, these women fearlessly defied convention—some with the encouragement of their parents, in-laws and husbands, some without, some with an education, some unlettered—and fought not just for a free India, but a better India.
When the country gained Independence, 15 remarkable women helped draft the Indian Constitution: Ammu Swaminathan, Dakshayani Velayudhan, Begum Aizaz Rasul, Durgabai Deshmukh, Hansa Jivraj Mehta, Kamla Chaudhary, Leela Roy, Malati Choudhury, Purnima Banerjee, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Renuka Ray, Sarojini Naidu, Sucheta Kripalani, Vikaylaxmi Pandit, Annie Mascarene.
Not all women picked up a sword, marched in processions or went to prison in the fight for freedom, but the fortitude of those who held families together while the men went out to join the movement cannot be ignored. They did not get the honour or the glory, or the tamrapatras, but they did their bit. On a personal note, my freedom fighting grandfather was away most of the time, while my tiny, soft-spoken, mild-mannered grandmother struggled to bring up the kids and mind the home; when things got too tough, the children were sent away to boarding school or to stay with relatives, their lives often disrupted at a moment’s notice. But she never complained or tried to guilt-trip him into giving up his mission. Many families at that time must have gone through similar difficulties but the goal of freedom was more important than individual well-being.
The stories of these women—the well-known and the unsung—should not be forgotten. On August 15, when we wave a flag for the country, and salute the great leaders, we must also acknowledge the courage and the sacrifice of the women.
(This piece is a slightly modified version of the column that first appeared in The Free Press Journal dated August 12, 2020. Photo Courtesy NCW on Twitter)