Mahatma Gandhi Continues to Inspire Women in India

A flurry of activity, a fresh coat of paint and media attention enlivened things at the normally tranquil Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya in November last year, with US President Barack Obama visiting the house where one of his idols, Mahatma Gandhi, had once lived. Thanks to Gandhi’s presence here at tumultuous time during the freedom struggle, the quaint 100-year-old bungalow on Laburnum Road has been witness to history – the civil disobedience, Satyagraha, Swadeshi, Khadi and Khilafat movements were launched from here. In 1955, Mani Bhavan – situated in the heart of Mumbai – was turned into a museum and research centre.

Women in India had always responded to nationalistic calls, turning out in large numbers during the “raksha bandhan” demonstration by Rabindranath Tagore in 1905 or Tilak’s Swadeshi movement. But it is only after Gandhi’s non-violent strategy came to define the freedom struggle that women from all walks of life came out in significant numbers.

“Gandhiji was the first person to breach the private and public world of women,” says Dr Usha Thakkar, respected academician, researcher and Hon. Director of the Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya. “Because the Gandhi aura was attached to the protest, active participation of women did not draw as much ire from society as would be expected.”

His innate respect for women, his communicative skills and his non-disruptiveness of family structure were the keys to his success in mobilising women, feels Dr Thakkar. “He did not ask them to neglect their roles as mothers and wives, or to rebel against the family. Though he was a strong advocate of gender equality, he favoured changing the system rather than breaking it down. He offered strong, but pacific role models like Sita, Draupadi and Meera. Do whatever you can, he would tell the women.”

And women certainly did not hold back. They picketed shops selling liquor and foreign goods and propagated khadi (hand-spun cloth). They marched in the streets, sang patriotic songs during Prabhat Pheris (morning vigils) and delivered fiery speeches at public meetings. They made salt; they sheltered political activists. They taught their children nationalistic ideals. They faced lathi charges, tear gas and the rigours of jail. “In effect, every home turned into a Satyagrahi unit, and the British found it difficult to breach the ramparts of the home,” says Dr Thakkar.

In her essay, ‘Discovering New Horizons’ (Non violent Struggles of the Twentieth Century: Retrospect and Prospect), Dr. Thakkar notes that of the 80,000 people arrested during the Salt Satyagraha, 17,000 were women! And first-person accounts of such women can be found tucked away in the Mani Bhavan library. Take the Marathi book, ‘Te Mantarlele Diwas’ (Those Enchanted Days). Compiled by Rohini Gawankar and Nanda Apte, it reads like micro-diaries of ordinary women, who did extraordinary things during those epoch-making times.

“It was not only the educated, liberated, upper class women who were drawn to the cause; the larger mass was made up of ordinary urban and rural women from every part of India, and every class, culture and religious background, who stepped out of their home-bound lives to become dedicated fighters,” states Dr Thakkar.

In her essay she writes that their entry in national politics through non-violent means wrought a lasting change of paradigms for women in India. Women gained an awareness and confidence in their own strength. In a way, it paved the way for women to become an integral part of politics and public life even after Independence.

As an example, Thakkar speaks about her mentor and erstwhile President of the Mani Bhavan, the late Dr Usha Mehta. Mehta had entered national service at the tender age of eight, lustily shouting “Simon Go Back!” in a protest march against the Simon Commission. She emerged as one of the leaders of the Quit India movement in 1942, when she hoisted the Indian flag at Gowalia tank on August 9, 1942.

One generation of women came under Gandhiji’s life-changing spell, but the story does not end there. He continues to have contemporary relevance, feels Dr Thakkar. During a camp she had organised to teach women elected to village panchayats the essence of Gandhi’s vision for rural India, she found that women could instantly connect to Gandhian concepts of decentralisation, panchayats and rural development. “When they were presented with a copy of his autobiography, the women first touched it to their heads reverentially, as they would any sacred scripture,” she says.

Gandhi has left a rich legacy for the women of India, and has been instrumental in helping them attain the many rights that would have been difficult to achieve without his gentle, but firm motivation and advocacy. It is important to recall this debt with gratitude.