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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 47 November 12, 2022

Aruna Asaf Ali and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay: Revolutionary Women in the Freedom Struggle | Chaturvedi and Raju

Saturday 12 November 2022


by Nandita Chaturvedi and Archishman Raju *

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Aruna Asaf Ali were two prominent women in the freedom struggle who were near contemporaries. On the surface, their lives took different paths; Kamaladevi is chiefly remembered for her work on handicrafts, and Aruna for her work with the Link and Patriot. Our generation has the benefit of hindsight and can examine their lives together. Doing so uncovers an essential unity in their vision, which may not have been realized during their life-time but serves as an inspiration today.

This year we celebrate the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, and it has become routine to acknowledge the contribution of women to the freedom struggle. However, one must go beyond the token recognition of figures in the freedom struggle for their identity and seriously examine their ideas and vision for the nation. This is best done through a reading of their own works, which are unfortunately difficult to obtain.

Both figures were complex and nuanced in their thinking, and much more work is needed to fully uncover it. Three aspects of their thought particularly stand out: The role of women in Indian civilization and the freedom struggle, the revival of culture and the struggle for peace.

Women in the Freedom Struggle

Both women were remarkably independent in their thinking from a young age. They had unconventional personal lives and faced opposition from family and society. In the freedom movement, both went to prison several times and had to face the inhuman conditions of British prisons. Both faced solitary confinement and its physical and mental brutality. Both participated in the salt march as young leaders and were shaped into revolutionary thinkers with their heroic participation in the Quit India Movement.

Kamaladevi was a student of Gandhi ji and recognized his role in providing the energy, and originality of the Indian freedom struggle. She said “Gandhiji’s humanism and the identification that he had with the common people had drawn me to him”. She was attracted to his interpretation of freedom, to his constructive program and his recognition of the importance of women in the freedom struggle. Aruna would also say of Gandhi “During the lifetime of this epoch making person— the noblest Indian of Indians— even we who were no more than mere specks were given opportunities to work under his direction, This gave us a tremendous measure of self confidence, a belief that our inadequacies notwithstanding we could be instrumental in bringing about historic changes”. Both had a deep personal relationship with Gandhi and saw him as a guide and mentor in all of their political activities.

After independence, both were offered places in government, but refused, instead choosing to stay in service to the people of India. Kamaladevi would say, “I left the highway of politics to step into the side lane of constructive work.”

Aruna Asaf Ali and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya would theorize the place of women in the freedom struggle, and the cause of women’s liberation. Where Kamaladevi was part of forming the All India Women’s Conference, Aruna Asaf Ali would later be part of the formation of the National Federation of Indian Women. They wrote several times on the question of women in India and women in the freedom struggle.

They did not consider India to be civilizationally backward in terms of the place it gave women in society. They defended the place of women in Indian civilization and examined it dialectically in their books “Resurgence of Indian Women” and “Awakening of Indian Women”. Further, both did not conceptualize the question of women as a question of a battle between sexes. Rather, Kamaladevi wanted a scientific examination of the problem facing women and saw it as a social problem. Further, she wanted to examine the question of women from the standpoint of the masses of Indian women, in particular the poor and the working class. She said “The working-class women, both rural and industrial are comparatively freer than the upper class women in India.” and later “The bourgeois leaders of the feminist movement would do well to remember that what these weary hunger-stricken women cry for is not the right to work but the Right to the gains of their labour.” Aruna Asaf Ali particularly criticized the bourgeoisification of the women’s movement after independence. She took the women’s movement to task for not concentrating on the problems of the rural poor. As she said, “We refused to think of ourselves as a class apart from the entire people of our country and insisted on being regarded as citizens who were equally responsible for the well being and freedom of our country”.

Cultural Revival

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya played a historic role in the revival and propagation of Indian crafts. She saw the destruction that British colonialism had wrought on to Indian handicrafts. Speaking on the stifling alienation that modern capitalist society produces, she said “Craftsmanship, on the contrary, involves the entire person, relating the mind and the material to a certain function for a specific purpose.” She saw crafts as an embodiment of the folk tradition of a nation and civilization. The philosophy of handicrafts was totally opposed to the philosophy of art for art’s sake and thus combined aesthetics with utility.

She recognized that culture belongs to the people, and must enrich them. To her, culture was not a commodity for the consumption of the rich, but an instrument of beauty in every human being’s life. She saw in crafts possibilities and modes of thinking that had relevance to broader human society. On the perils of a mechanized society, she said, “It must be remembered that overemphasis on techniques that accelerate speed and swell the quantum of volume but are divorced from imagination and intellect, can result in the loss of that exaltation which stimulates creative activity in craft production. Similarly the pivotal importance accorded to facts in education may draw away all inspiration and leave life too flat to awaken any sense of wonder in the young. Such overemphasis can be just as hard to shake off as the superstitions of the imagination.” Her work in this field was so immense that a list of the institutions she founded and helped start could fill several pages.

Aruna Asaf Ali spent her time building up the publications of Link and Patriot. The writings in Link and Patriot had a huge influence and worked for the political education of the people. In her words, “For many of us the decade after independence was a period of quest and a search for a new theoretical base rooted in the facts of Indian history and social tradition.” Both publications were beacons of clarity and offered a vision for a new India. Aruna would fight for the idea that intellectuals must be accountable to the people and ‘the educated elite must be identified with the working masses at all levels.’

Both women were unhappy with the decline of political and intellectual culture in the country after the generation of the freedom struggle. Kamaladevi said of the changing political structure after independence, “The emphasis quickly shifted from idealism to selfishness, as also from the group, community and party to the individual. It was more and more a question of each for himself rather than the nation or community.”

The Struggle for Peace

Both these revolutionaries were part of the movement for unity among the anticolonial struggles in Africa and Asia and the World Peace Movement. Kamaladevi attended and spoke at the inter-Asian relations conference organized in 1947. She analyzed the common features in the condition of Asian countries which had been exploited and immiserated by Western imperialism and foreign economic interests. She said “The people of Asia and of the world must be made to realise that the political and economic emancipation of retarded continents like Asia and Africa have a direct bearing upon the question of world peace. For it is in direct proportion to the strength, political and economic, generated by these continents that the reactionary forces of exploitation retreat”.

Kamaladevi took a particular interest in Africa. She traveled in Ethiopia and met Haile Sellasie. She was allied with the Egyptian freedom fighters. In particular, Kamaladevi felt deeply about the situation of Afro-America and associated herself with revolutionaries like Paul Robeson.
Kamaladevi also visited China during their war against Japanese and Western imperialism. She met great Chinese revolutionaries like Soong Ching Ling and Zhou Enlai. She fully supported the Chinese struggle and was utterly fearless in associating herself with the Chinese people in a war-torn country.

Whether it was the Vietnamese struggle against the French, or the Egyptian or the Turkish struggle for independence, Kamaladevi fully associated herself with the lot of the darker people. She was the only Asian delegate to the first Conference on Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal.

Similarly, the cause of peace was very dear to Aruna Asaf Ali’s heart. She saw the importance of India’s non-aligned foreign policy and would say “The most convincing testimony to national sovereignty is the capacity to exercise foreign policy. In the final analysis that nation if most independent which can choose most freely and practice without restraint its policy in regard to others. By this test India is one of the most independent nations in the world today and, no amount of sarcasm about our poverty or our dependence on economic support from foreign countries in the press or in pot boiled books can hide that fundamental fact.”

She was one of the leading members of the Indo-Soviet Cultural Society, and the All India Peace Council. She was part of Afro-Asian Solidarity, supporting countries like Bangladesh, Zimbabwe,Vietnam and many others in their struggle against imperialism. For her work, she was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize.

She visited the Soviet Union many times and wrote about the socialist experiment taking place there. She became in many ways a representative of the Indian people who, despite crushing poverty, supported the freedom of peoples around the world with personal sacrifice. She spoke against the Westernized elite which identified with the thinking of elites in America and Europe and instead tried to bring forth the essential unity of India with other former colonies.

Relevance Today

History, as James Baldwin said, is not something merely to be read. The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us. These two women remind us that our freedom struggle produced figures who dealt with every aspect of social problems confronting our society and further dealt with India’s relationship and contribution to the world. Their ideas remain fresh and relevant and to study them is a greatly rewarding experience. Through their life’s work and ideological explorations, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Aruna Asaf Ali were on a quest for a new synthesis of ideas. They were engaged in the work of discovering what form Indian society and the Indian state must take in order to fulfill the aspirations of the Indian people and the dreams of the Indian freedom struggle.

Aruna would write on the need for a new vanguard, a new young leadership which would emerge to take up the work of the earlier generation, “Immediately, this new leadership, individual and collective, will have to hold itself responsible for creating a climate wherein the present vagueness about our objectives will disappear; otherwise confusion in an increasing measure is bound to continue. But to achieve clarity, the theoretical roots of society in which the majority are the worst sufferers and the minority its beneficiaries have to be understood by the masses. An organization to study the history of revolutions and the emergence of socialist thought will be necessary on a mass scale because the days when Nehru wrote and spoke to the people so that they may learn from the past and understand the present are over.” Our generation must take up this work of a deep study of the ideas of figures of the freedom struggle, and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Aruna Asaf Ali are two essential figures.

(Authors: Nandita Chaturvedi and Archishman Raju are associated with the Gandhi Global Family and Saturday Free School, USA.)

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