India’s freedom struggle saw mass participation at an unprecedented scale and many of these participants were women. Unfortunately, several of them have remained invisible to this day, unknown and unsung. The few women freedom fighters who made it into history books invariably came from elite or middle class backgrounds and their male relatives had often encouraged them to join the movement. In contrast, there were innumerable ordinary women, with no formal education or very little schooling, coming from poverty-stricken, conservative homes, who got involved in the struggle with undaunted spirit and great commitment.
Raj Kumari Gupta was one of them. Born about a century ago, in the little known Banda zilla of Kanpur, she and her husband worked closely with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the father of the nation, and Chandra Shekhar Azad, a revolutionary and leader of the Hindustan Socialist Republic Association. Her crucial contribution to the Kakori dacoity case barely figures in the narratives of freedom. Raj Kumari, who was given the charge of supplying revolvers to those involved in the Kakori operation, apparently hid the guns in her “underwear” and set out in khadi clothes to deliver them, with her three-year-old son in tow. On being arrested, she was disowned by her husband’s family and thrown out of her marital home.
There is also the case of Tara Rani Srivastava. She was born in Saran, near Patna, Bihar, and participated actively with her husband, Phulendu Babu, in the 1942 Quit India movement. On Gandhi’s call, Phulendu assembled a massive crowd of men and women in front of the Siwan police station to hoist the national flag on its roof. Although they had just got married, Tara and Phulendu stood in the front of the crowd and raised slogans. As Phulendu cried, “Inquilab”, Tara Rani repeated the word in a higher register. Phulendu soon fell to police bullets. Tara Rani was not deterred. Demonstrating exemplary courage, she bandaged his wounds and marched with the national flag straight towards the police station. By the time she returned, her husband had died.
Whether these women can be considered as revolutionaries or not, there can be no denying that they fought against great personal odds for the freedom of the country. They displayed great resolve despite seeing their children ascend the gallows. It is said that the night before activist Ram Prasad Bismil, a member of the Hindustan Socialist Republic Association, was to be hanged on December 18, 1927, in Gorakhpur jail, his mother came to see him. On seeing her, Bismil’s eyes became moist, but his visitor remained calm. She had never actively participated in politics but she understood the underlying importance of her son’s passionate espousal of revolution. Bismil’s mother did not beg for mercy to be shown towards her son. Instead, she is believed to have told Bismil not to shed tears like a “kayar” (coward). Bismil is then said to have answered saying that he was crying, not because he was a coward, but because he would not have a mother like her. Steeled by her son’s death, she is believed to have said in a speech subsequently that she was ready to give another son to the nation. Saying this, she had raised the hand of Bismil’s brother.
Given domestic constraints, many women found it difficult to get directly involved in public action, but they contributed in their own ways. Many took to spinning the ‘charkha’ as a mark of support for the Swadeshi movement. Others acted as secret envoys and messengers – passing on proscribed material, helping fugitives from the law shift from one place to another, and ensuring that they were fed and looked after.
There is the case of Ganga Devi from Uttar Pradesh. She had no formal education and had been married at the age of 13 into a home which had over 60 family members. Her husband, a government employee, enforced strict restrictions on her movement so as to keep her away from the raging political ferment of those times. But that did not stop Ganga from encouraging her children to be sympathetic to the rebels. Once she witnessed her son getting thrashed by his father for his nationalist activities, she realised that whatever she did for the movement had to be done in great secrecy, behind her husband’s back. And that’s exactly what she did. She saved money from the household expenses and cooked food for men in hiding while her husband was asleep, washing the utensils herself to keep the matter a secret even from family retainers.
The stories of these women don’t generally surface in contemporary India save for efforts like those undertaken by the Gandhi Smriti, in Delhi recently, when it launched a permanent exhibition on ‘Great Indian Women Freedom Fighters’.
According to Charu Gupta, an Associate Professor, Department of History, Delhi University, history writing in the Sixties did not register the role of ordinary women in the freedom movement. She observes, “Implicitly the history of that time projected only a select group and this gave rise to a distorted vision.” She points out how the entire portrayal of the freedom struggle tended to be male centric, bourgeois, and upper caste, with the participation of women in the freedom struggle being seen as an extension of their domestic roles of serving their families.
The lack of the presence of ordinary women in historical work, according to Gupta, was due to several factors – but the biggest constraint was that history writing was generally based on official records. She, however, does believe that this approach has been undergoing a change, with historians now more inclined to base their work on “creative sources” like personal diaries, family histories, newspaper reports, magazine articles and oral narratives.
As Suruchi Thapar-Bjorkert observes in her book, ‘Women in the Indian National Movement Unseen Faces and Unheard Voices, 1930-42’, “Reinterpreting Indian nationalist history required going beyond archival, official and unofficial sources.” On oral narratives, she says, “As a methodological tool, these narratives revealed the individual subjectivities of participants in the nationalist movement. Documenting these life histories opened a new world before me: a world more real than officials records.”
It is time now for post-Independent India to acknowledge the role played by innumerable, ordinary, often very poor women in the struggle against British colonialism. There is a need, for instance, to recall the rural women of Bardoli, Gujarat, whose lands – which they owned and were cultivating – were confiscated. These simple women came out in huge numbers in support of their men and remained steadfast. They refused to pay taxes. Women like Abadi Bano Begam, a strong willed widow and a freedom fighter from Lucknow, known by her honorific ‘Bi Amman’, need acknowledgement. She observed strict ‘purdah’ all her life and when the time came to speak on behalf of her jailed son, she did so from behind her ‘burqa’ (veil) in 1917. This was, perhaps, the first time a Muslim woman in ‘purdah’ had addressed a political gathering of men and women. Her action helped to bring many ‘purdah’-observing women to political meetings.
Not just women from the minority communities, among those who struggled unrelentingly for independence were Dalit and tribal women as well. Abhinaya Gaikwad, a Mumbai-based academic, in a paper published in a book on Dalit women’s participation in India’s freedom struggle, mentions women like Champutai Ganapatrao Bansod’s participation in the 1930 Civil Disobedience Movement.
Gaikwad notes that despite the remarkable contribution of Dalit women to India’s freedom movement, the country has not taken adequate note of their presence. Gandhi had long recognised this when he said, “The women of India should have as much share in winning ‘swaraj’ as men. Probably in this peaceful struggle woman can outdistance man by many a mile.”