The entire history of the freedom movement is replete with the saga of bravery, sacrifice and political sagacity of great men and women of the country. This struggle which gained momentum in the early 20th century, threw up stalwarts like Mahatma Gandhi, Lala Lajpat Rai, Motilal Nehru, Abul Kalam Azad, C. Rajagopalachari, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subash Chander Bose. Their number and stature often gives us an erroneous impression that it was only a man’s movement. But it is not so. Many prominent women played a leading role in the freedom movement.
The important place assigned to women in India dates back to the time of the Vedas and Smritis. Manu declared that where women were adored, Gods frequented that place, During the Vedic age the position of women in society was very high and they were regarded as equal partners with men in all respects. Who had not heard of Maitri, Gargi, Sati Annusuya and Sita?
In keeping with this tradition, burden of tears and toils of the long years of struggle for India’s freedom was borne by the wives, mothers, and daughters, silently and cheerfully. The programme of self-imposed poverty and periodical jail going was possible only because of the willing co-operation of the worker’s family. In the various resistance movements in the villages, the illiterate women played this passive but contributory part as comrades of their menfolk.
The first name that comes to mind is that of the famous Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi. Dressed in men’s clothes, she led her soldiers to war against the British. Even her enemies admired her courage and daring. She fought valiantly and although beaten she refused to surrender and fell as a warrior should, fighting the enemy to the last. Her remarkable courage inspired many men and women in India to rise against the alien rule.
Begum Hazrat Mahal
Another woman whom we remember in this connection was Begum Hazrat Mahal, the Begaum of Oudh. She took active part in the defence of Lucknow against the British. Although, she was queen and used to a life of luxury, she appeared on the battle-field herself to encourage her troops. Begam Hazrat Mahal held out against the British with all her strength as long as she could. Ultimately she had to give up and take refuge in Nepal.
During the later half of the 20th century the struggle for freedom gained momentum and more women took leading part in it.
The life companion of the Father of the Nation contributed her mite to the freedom movement in a subtle manner. As the closest associate of Gandhiji during his epic struggle in South Africa and in India, she suffered in no small measure.
One simply marvels and wonders how this quiet self-effacing woman underwent countless trails as Gandhiji’s wife, and how gallantly she agreed to the Mahatma’s endless experiments and self-imposed life of poverty and suffering.
Swarup Rani and Kamala
The mother of Jawaharlal Nehru, Swarup Rani Nehru cheerfully gave her husband and children to the country’s cause and herself, old and trail entered the pray at its thickest.
Jawaharlal’s brave wife, Kamala; kept smiling all through the long years of travail of her brief life.
Kamala Nehru was a flame that flickered briefly in the raging storm of the freedom movement in India. Not everybody knows that she braved lathi-charges, picketed liquor shops and languished in jail for the cause of Indian independence. She influenced her husband Jawaharlal and stood by him in his determination to plunge into the movement started by Mahatma Gandhi, to free the mother Mahatma Gandhi, to free the motherland from the clutches of the British rulers.
With Jawaharlal away in prison, Kamala took to social work to begin with. She started a dispensary in her house in Allahabad and also started a movement for women’s education and to get them out of purdah.
As a member of the Rashtriya Stree Sabha which was set up on a Jallianwala Day in 1921, Kamala Nehru worked for the entry of Harijan into temples.
amala Nehru was first among the group of volunteers to sell contraband salt during the Salt Satyagraha. All through the long months of 1930, the Desh Sevika Sangh which she led along with Kusturba Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu, did hard jobs like policing disturbed areas in Bombay. While the men were in jail, they took over.
Great as a poet and orator, Sarojini Naidu was one of the most enlightened women of modern India.
She was one among the many men and women who dedicated their lives for the freedom struggle of the counry under the guidance of Gandhiji. At a very young age she wrote many patriotic poems which inspired people in India to throw off the foreign yoke. She joined the Home Rule movement launched by Annie Besant. This was her first step in politics. On the call of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, she joined the Indian National Congress in 1915. She propounded the idea of Swarajya in her powerful speech at the Lucknow Conference in 1916. in 1921 she participated in the Non-Cooperation movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi. She became President of the Congress in 1925. When Mahatma Gandhi started his Civil disobedience movement in 1930, Sarojini Naidu became his principal assistant. She was arrested along with Gandhiji and other leaders. But this did not deter her spirits. In 1931, she was invited along with Gandhiji to the Second Round Table Conference in London. In 1942, Sarojini Naidu joined the “Quit India” movement launched by Gandhiji and again was victim of the wrath of the British government and jailed. The repeated jail terms only gave her more courage and she continued to take active part in the freedom movement. After India became independent in 1947, she was appointed Governor of Uttar Pradesh as a token of recognition of her services.
Sarojini’s daughter Miss Padmaja Naidu devoted herself to the cause of Nation like her mother. At the age of 21, she entered the National scene and became the joint founder of the Indian National Congress of Hyderabad. She spread the message of Khadi and inspired people to boycott foreign goods. She was jailed for taking part in the “Quit India” movement in 1942. After Independence, she became the Governor of West Bengal. During her public life spanning over half a century, she was associated with the Red Cross. Her services to the Nation and especially her humanitarian approach to solve problems will long be remembered.
Vijay Laxmi Pandit
Sister of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru also played a great role in the freedom movement. She was elected to Uttar Pradesh Assembly in 1936 and in 1946. She was the first woman in India to hold a ministerial rank. She was imprisoned thrice for taking part in the Civil Disobedience Movement in 1932. 1941 and 1942. After Independence, she continued to serve the country. She was the first woman to become president of the United Nations General Assembly.
The contribution of Sucheta Kripalani in the struggle for freedom is also worthy of note. She courted imprisonment for taking part in freedom struggle. She was elected as a member of Constituent Assembly in 1946. She was general secretary of Indian National Congress from 1958 to 1960, and Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh from 1963 to 1967. Sucheta Kripalani was in the words of Shrimati Indira Gandhi, “a person of rare courage and character who brought credit to Indian womanhood.”
The most remarkable of women in modern India’s was Indira Gandhi who from her early years was active in the national liberation struggle. During the 1930 movement, she formed the ‘Vanar Sena’. A children’s brigade to help freedom fighters.
She became a member of the Indian National Congress in 1938. Soon after her return to India in March 1941, she plunged into political activity.
Her public activity entered a new phase with India’s Independence in 1947. She took over the responsibility of running the Prime Minister’s House. The Congress, which had been her political home ever since her childhood, soon drew her into leading political roles, first as member of the Congress Working Committee in 1955 and later as member of the Central Parliamentary Board in 1958. In 1959, she was elected President of the Indian National Congress. She oriented Congress thinking and action towards basic issues confronting Indian society and enthused the younger generation the task of nation-building.
In the eventful years of her leadership as Prime Minister, Indian society underwent profound changes. She was unremitting in her endeavour for the unity and solidarity of the nation. A staunch defender of the secular ideals of the Constitution, she worked tirelessly for the social and economic advancement of the minorities. She had a vision of a modern self-reliant and dynamic economy. She fought boldly and vigorously against communalism, obscurantism, re-vivalism and religious fundamentalism of all types. She repeatedly warned the nation that communalism and obscuranatism were the tools employed by the forces of destabilization. She laid down her life in defence of the ideals on which the unity and integrity of the Republic are founded. The martyrdom of Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi for upholding the unity of India will reverberate across the centuries.
Rarely in history has one single individual come to be identifie do totally with the fortunes of a country. She became the indomitable symbol of India’s self-respect and self-confidence. Death came to her when she was at her peak, when her stature and influence were acclaimed the world over.