Let’s remember the women freedom fighters of India’s independence movement and the women leading change in India today. It’s time to #KnowtheirName.
Women Freedom Fighters of the Past:
1) Sarojini Naidu-
13 February 1879-2 March 1949 (aged 70)
Sarojini Naidu was an Indian independence activist and poet who earned the sobriquet of “Nightingale of India”. She was born in a Bengali Hindu family in Hyderabad. She was educated in Chennai, London and Cambridge. She married Dr. Govindarajulu Naidu and settled down in Hyderabad. She took part in the Indian nationalist movement, became a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and fought for the attainment of Swaraj or independence. She became the President of Indian National Congress and was later appointed as Governor of the United Provinces, now Uttar Pradesh. She was the first woman Governor of India which at that time had a dominion status under the British crown. Known as the ‘Nightingale of India’, she was also a noted poet. Her poetry includes children’s poems, nature poems, patriotic poems and poems of love and death.
2) Sucheta Kriplani-
25 June 1904-1 December 1974 (aged 70)
Sucheta Kriplani was not born with a steely will and exemplary leadership qualities. Rather, she was a shy child, self-conscious about her appearance and intellect, as she points out in her book, An Unfinished Autobiography. It was the age she grew up in and the situations she faced that shaped her personality. Sucheta recounts how, as a 10-year-old, she and her siblings had heard their father and his friends talk about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. It left them so outraged that they vented their anger on some of the Anglo-Indian children they played with, by calling them names.
She had closely worked with Mahatma Gandhi during the Partition riots. She accompanied him to Noakhali in 1946. She was one of the few women who were elected to the Constituent Assembly and was part of the subcommittee that drafted the Indian Constitution. She became a part of the subcommittee that laid down the charter for the constitution of India. On 14 August 1947, she sang Vande Mataram in the Independence Session of the Constituent Assembly a few minutes before Nehru delivered his famous “Tryst with Destiny” speech. She was also the founder of the All India Mahilla Congress, established in 1940.
3)Aruna Asaf Ali
16 July 1909-29 July 1996 (aged 87)
Aruna was educated at Sacred Heart Convent in Lahore and then at All Saints’ College in Nainital. After her graduation, she worked as a teacher at the Gokhale Memorial School in Calcutta. She met Asaf Ali, a leader in the Congress party, in Allahabad. They got married in 1928, despite parental opposition on grounds of religion and age (he was a Muslim and her senior by more than 20 years).
She was an active member of Congress Party after marrying Asaf Ali and participated in public processions during the Salt Satyagraha. She was arrested on the charge that she was a vagrant and hence not released in 1931 under the Gandhi-Irwin Pact which stipulated release of all political prisoners. Other women co-prisoners refused to leave the premises unless she was also released and gave in only after Mohandas K. Gandhi intervened.Commonly referred to as the “Grand Old Lady”’ of the independence movement, or the “Heroine of the 1942 movement”.
After India gained independence in 1947, Ali dedicated herself to social reform, including women’s and workers’ rights. She published Patriot newspaper and Link magazine; became the first Mayor of Delhi in 1958; and won the International Lenin Peace Prize in 1964 and the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1991. In 1992, Ali earned the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honor, then the highest, the Bharat Ratna, in 1997.
4) Lakshmi Sahgal-
24 October 1914–23 July 2012
Lakshmi Sahgal started and ended her career as a doctor, but in between, she became a soldier. Inspired by India’s efforts for independence, she joined the Indian National Army (INA) in 1943 to fight the British Empire. The INA’s founder recognized Sahgal’s tenacity and made her captain of the Rani Jhansi Regiment, a women’s military unit and the first of its kind in Asia.
After being taken prisoner by the British, Captain Sahgal (or Captain Lakshmi as she’s commonly called), returned to her medical practice in India. During the partition riots, she gave medical care to Hindus and Muslims alike. In 1981, she helped found the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), which fought for women’s education and employment, among other causes. When anti-Sikh mobs flooded the streets in the wake of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Sahgal protected Sikhs in her area from violence and harassment.
5) Kamala Nehru-
1 August 1899-28 February 1936 (aged 36)
Many people will recognize Kamala Nehru’s last name in relation to two other famous Indians, as she was married to India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and was mother of India’s first female Prime Minister, Indira Nehru. What some people may not know is that Kamala Nehru was also a key figure in her own right. She was a devoted activist in the fight for India’s independence.
Nehru was deeply involved in Gandhi’s Noncooperation Movement, rallying other women and organizing protests of shops that sold foreign goods. According to India Today, she was on the front lines to combat Britain’s salt monopoly. Not only did she walk in the 1930 Salt March, but she may have even been “one of the first leaders to sell contraband salts during Salt Satyagraha.”
She certainly didn’t shy away from leadership. Since the British often jailed her husband for political reasons, Kamala Nehru sometimes stood in for him at events, reading speeches he had intended to give. As she gained considerable popularity throughout India, she increasingly became a threat to colonial powers herself. Although she served time in prison for her leadership in the Indian struggle for freedom, Nehru would not be intimidated. Instead, she set up a small clinic in her home to provide medical treatment for other freedom fighters. Mahatma Gandhi later turned her clinic into a hospital, named in her honor.
11 April 1869-22 February 1944 (aged 74)
Affectionately called Ba, Kasturba Gandhi first got her political and social activist feet wet in South Africa, where she lived with her family from 1897-1901 and 1903-1914. There, she helped establish a co-op called the Phoenix Settlement and was jailed for three months after protesting the government’s treatment of Indians. Kasturba continued her activism in India, where she was arrested and imprisoned several times throughout her life.
Kasturba certainly proved her own mettle in the fight for freedom. Like Kamala Nehru, Kasturba Gandhi stood in for her husband many times while he was in jail. She helped sustain the movement and spur its momentum. After she died, her husband remembered her strength and devotion to India’s struggle: “But for her unfailing cooperation, I might have been in the abyss…She helped me to keep wide awake and true to my vows. She stood by me in all my political fights and never hesitated to take the plunge.”Kasturba Gandhi was more than the Father of the Nation’s wife. She was an activist and community organizer through and through. Fellow freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu called “Ba”.