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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 23, New Delhi, May 22, 2021

Reclaiming a Revolutionary: Sarala Devi Chaudhurani; Interrogating Historiography | Deepti Mehrotra

Saturday 22 May 2021

BOOK REVIEW

Geraldine Forbes—Lost Letters and Feminist History—The Political Friendship of Mohandas K. Gandhi and Sarala Devi Chaudhurani. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2020.

review by Deepti Mehrotra *

Early in 1920, 47-year-old Sarala Devi Chaudhurani and 50-year-old Mohandas K. Gandhi pledged to write each other at least one letter per day. The intensity of their correspondence, and friendship, lasted barely one year. During this time a few hundred letters passed between them, for although there were gaps in letter-writing—as when they were together in the same place—there were also days when more than one letter was penned; for instance on 13 May 1920, Mohandas noted that he had sent Sarala Devi 25 letters in 16 days. Most of the letters are now lost—except five of hers (and a telegram); and 85 of his; the majority of these are published for the first time, in the book under review.

Forbes writes: “These letters suggest that for a few months in 1920, she and Gandhi imagined her emergence as a national leader.... He called her India’s `Shakti’ and designed a program to prepare her for national leadership.” The letters reveal deep mutual attraction between Sarala Devi and Mohandas Gandhi—as potential political partners, with a dimension of emotional and possibly physical, attraction.

It was a complex relationship, if short-lived; to understand it at all, we must be acquainted first with Sarala Devi Chaudhurani. She was in her time a well-known leader—a fierce nationalist who has been credited with setting the stage for the biplabi, revolutionary, movement in Bengal [1].

The ‘Shakti’ from Bengal

Born in 1872, Sarala Devi’s mother Swarnakumari Devi was a novelist, editor of the journal Bharati, founder of the women’s organisation Sakhi Samiti, and one of the few women participants in the 1890 session of the Indian National Congress. Rabindranath Tagore was Swarnakumari’s younger brother. Sarala Devi’s father, Janki Nath Ghosal, was a barrister and active member of the INC.

Activism started young: Sarala Devi with her elder sister Hironmoyee, began an informal school for girls in the early 1880s. She herself studied in Bethune School and, at the age of 19, graduated in English Literature from Bethune College—the seventh woman graduate in Bengal. She was keen to study science, but women were not allowed to: when she challenged the discrimination she was permitted to attend some lectures in physics; two cousins escorted her, and sat with her in class. She did exceedingly well in the exam.

After graduating, Sarala Devi took up a job, a most unusual step—that too in far-off Mysore, at the Maharani Girls’ School. She worked there for a year; back in Calcutta, she mused, “To know oneself, one must be away from the cloying atmosphere of one’s home.... No longer am I restless like a caged bird, for I have seen the outside world and come to understand myself.” En route she visited her brother Jyotsnanath Ghosal, who was in the ICS and posted in Satara. Contrasting Maratha heroes with Bengali men, Sarala Devi found the latter sadly lacking in masculine traits; and determined to awaken Bengali youth to their duty, of protecting India.  

During the 1890s she took up editorship of Bharati, and wrote articles for various journals. Swami Vivekanand, in letters to her, appreciated her patriotism, “liberal mind” and knowledge of Vedanta; and suggested she undertake a speaking tour of England and America to inspire people there to adopt Indian spirituality. While she made no such tour, Sarala Devi worked tirelessly within Bengal to promote militant nationalism. She set up, and encouraged others to set up, youth clubs, to develop physical prowess and mental strength. She established one such in the backyard of her home, appointing Professor Murtaza as ustad or chief trainer; members of other youth clubs would also come here to learn martial arts like sword-fighting and fencing. The training was meant to be a preparation for confronting imperial power: Sarala Devi was exhorting young men towards armed revolt. In effect, she laid the foundations for the revolutionary movement which emerged in the early twentieth century. She extended solidarity, material and financial support to secret societies such as Anushilan Samiti in Dhaka, Suhrid Samiti in Mymensingh and several in Calcutta.

Sarala Devi held strong political convictions and was sharply critical of the INC. An accomplished musician with a powerful singing voice, she sang ‘Vande Mataram’ at the Banaras session of the INC (1905); but observed: “The Congress has never participated in any agitational programs; this has been left entirely to the general public.... The Congress has a session for the duration of three days only each year.... [It] comes alive only during these three days—like our Durga Puja...!” She wanted direct action and, after the Partition of Bengal, got deeply involved in the Swadeshi movement, becoming “the foremost female political leader of her times ... the first woman leader in our nationalist movement” (Bharati Ray).

In Punjab

At the age of 33, Sarala Devi married a nationalist from Punjab, Rambhaj Dutt Choudhary. Her family arranged the marriage and apparently left her with no choice; she wrote in her autobiography, however, that he was “patriotic, well-spoken and handsome... a man I would approve of.” [2] She moved to Lahore to live with him, in a household that included two stepsons from his (late) first wife. Rambhaj, a lawyer, INC member and Arya Samaji, did not prevent her from continuing activist work full-steam. They became allies: she joined him in editing the powerful nationalist newspaper Hindustan. She began physical training programs for youth of Lahore; and canvassed for girls’ education.

In 1910, Sarala Devi founded the very first national women’s organization: Bharat Stree Mahamandal. When some male politicians objected to a separate organization of women, she criticized them as hypocrites, who claimed to be champions of women’s rights but in fact denied them independent action. The BSM had clear-cut aims: promoting education, women’s health and livelihood; it was by women, for women, of diverse religions and regions. Within a year, branches of BSM opened in over a dozen cities from Lahore to Calcutta, Delhi to Hyderabad. Sarala Devi’s vision was of a long-lasting organization, spreading all across India. BSM in fact paved the way for the All India Women’s Conference, which came up a good seventeen years later.

Sarala Devi and Rambhaj were close associates of Lala Lajpat Rai; and had linkages with the Ghadar Party. Sarala Devi set up a secret society, Bharat Mata Sabha, modeled on the secret revolutionary societies she had initiated in Bengal. In 1917, she was part of the women’s delegation led by Sarojini Naidu, which met Montagu and Chelmsford to demand suffrage rights. In 1918, at the INC session in Delhi, she moved the resolution supporting voting rights for women, and made a speech asserting that women had as much right to chart their own destinies as men. The world, she said, had outgrown the idea of the “fanciful division of intellect and emotion being the respective spheres of men and women;” in fact, women’s sphere included “comradeship with men in the rough and tumble of life and... politics.”

Sarala Devi and her husband were prominent nationalists, known for their anti-imperialist stance. After protests in 1919 against the Rowlatt Act, and the Jalianwala Bagh massacre of 6th April, English and Urdu editions of Hindustan were forcibly shut down; Rambhaj was arrested and imprisoned.

‘Political Friendship’: Sarala Devi and Mohandas Gandhi

In October 1919, Gandhi came to Lahore: his first-ever visit to the Punjab. He stayed in the Choudhary joint-family establishment: got acquainted with Sarala Devi and was greatly impressed. Two months later when Rambhuj was released from jail, Gandhi wrote: “Where earlier I had seen a woman, separated from her husband..., the image of a lioness, I saw today a happy couple... I saw a new glow on Smt Sarladevi’s face.” Over the next year or two, Sarala Devi and Rambhaj Choudhary played a vital role in establishing Gandhi, his swadeshi and non-cooperation movements, in Punjab.

By early 1920, Sarala Devi sent their son, 11-year-old Dipak, to Sabarmati for his education. Neither Rambhaj nor her mother-in-law was happy with the decision, but Rambhaj acquiesced. Gandhi’s first letter to Sarala (20 January 1920) discussed Dipak’s education and adjustment in the ashram. In February, Sarala Devi and Gandhi traveled in Punjab and Gujarat, promoting swadeshi and charkha. In April 1920, Sarala wore a khadi sari and blouse, and decided thereafter to wear only khadi. Mohandas was ecstatic: she was the first woman to adopt khadi; moreover, her speeches drew crowds and brought tens of thousands of women into the movement. In June, they traveled together to promote khadi; following a meeting of the Hindu-Muslim Conference in Allahabad, they presided over the opening of the Khadi Bhandar in Bombay. His letters during these months solicited her ideas and advice on political issues; he wrote, “... you have an analytical and clear brain. I therefore love to talk to you about my experiments and prise your helpful criticism of them. Your music is a tonic for me...” (22 March 2020).

Gandhi projected Sarala Devi as potentially India’s Shakti: the woman leader he felt the country needed. She already had decades of independent political activism, strong convictions and a powerful personality. Yet he wished to mould her, and appointed himself her Law Giver—which is how he signed his letters from March onwards—and set up a rigorous program to train her for the role of his co-leader in the national movement. She must spin daily, write and speak Hindustani, live simply, cook, do away with all help for housework and personal grooming, dedicate herself body and soul to the nation: necessitating practice of celibacy, and moving ultimately to live the ashram life. Gandhi thus positioned himself in the driving seat of Sarala Devi’s future career and life—or so he imagined.

Sarala Devi was more than comfortable with the notion of becoming a national leader, in many ways a logical culmination of her three decades of political experience. Initially she allowed his mentoring, though chafing at some of the rules. His letters can be charming, spontaneous, warm and loving; at the same time, tensions surfaced; she could not have accepted his writing, “Great and good though you are, you are not a complete woman without achieving the ability to do household work” (30 April 1920). This, at a time when she was busily and successfully spreading swadeshi, learning and teaching spinning, had opened khadi distribution outlets and was planning to set up handicraft production centers.

The year 1920 was a roller-coaster ride for Sarala Devi and Mohandas Gandhi. There was Swadeshi, Khilafat, Non-cooperation, labor unrest, speaking tours across the country: in the initial months, Gandhi was constantly unwell, and more than once Sarala helped look after him. Complementing—and complicating—their political relationship was the strong affection each felt for the other, and their mutual attraction. He addressed her most often as “My dearest Sarala” after trying out “Sister,” even “Mataji”; there were times when he wished for her presence, yearned for her ministrations, felt haunted by her; he took to calling her his `spiritual wife.’

Several people in Gandhi’s life disapproved of his special bond with Sarala, particularly his elevation of a woman above all male disciples: this contributed his increasingly ambiguous attitude towards her. Perhaps he worried that his protégé would become a rival: she was a commanding, charismatic figure with a distinct identity, built over decades. The two had many differences, including of ideology. She resisted some of the ‘laws’ that were meant to mould her. Always a strong and independent thinker, she questioned his political campaigns too—the rationale underlying Khilafat, and in September, objected to Non-cooperation, which she felt was based on hatred.

By August 1920, he had demoted her from potential co-leader to possible helper. He grew critical, and began to comment frequently and harshly on her ‘shortcomings’— laziness, immaturity, lack of dedication and more! In October, Sarala wrote to him, distressed and accusatory; she had been crying. She was upset because he harbored `harsh thoughts,’ and anger `brutal and deliberate and inlaid with Pride Adamantine.’ She asked him whether he loved her and if not, to state it clearly and give up “a white man’s burden for the uplift of the Black”—a challenge, truly subversive, charging Gandhi with being a tyrant who claimed to uplift Indian womanhood, parallel to British colonists’ claim to uplift their subjects (16 October 1920).

Though he believed that she had most of the characteristics needed to lead the national movement, he would not accept her critique of his views; nor her resisting some of his rules. Finally he demolished the possibility of her becoming his ‘spiritual partner’ writing, in the last letter surviving intimate letter: “... Have we that exquisite purity, that perfect coincidence, that perfect merging, that identity of ideals, that self-forgetfulness, that fixity of purpose, that trustfulness? For me I can plainly answer that it is only an aspiration. I am unworthy to have that companionship with you.... I am too much affected by your weaknesses.... there are sharp differences between me and you so often.... I must lay down the law for you, and thus ruffle you...” (17 December 2019).

Interrogating Historiography

Astonishingly, the literature has trivialized this complex relationship and pushed it into stereotypical male-female frameworks, ignoring its multi-dimensionality. Martin Green’s influential misreading threw up the preposterous claims that Gandhi wanted Sarala to divorce Rambhaj, and was willing to divorce Kasturba in order to marry Sarala. [3] Girja Kumar belittled Sarala Devi as Gandhi’s ‘heart-throb’ and ‘fashion model,’ `a social climber’ who ‘wanted him to sacrifice his public career for her.’ [4]

Forbes closely reads the documents cited as `evidence’ by Green (whose interpretation influenced Rajmohan Gandhi, Madhu Kishwar, Thomas Weber and countless journalists), Girja Kumar and others. Her painstaking analysis shows up extremely shoddy historiography, with a plethora of unsubstantiated claims, misunderstandings, prejudices and narrow-minded misinterpretation of situations, characters, contexts and politics.

Thus a prejudiced formula-story gained currency, in which Sarala Devi was portrayed as seductress or vamp, completely ignoring her gravitas and life-trajectory. Forbes’ analysis demolishes all claims of scurrilous romance as well as the notion of an ultimately victorious Gandhi, akin to proverbial Rishis who escaped the clutches of demonic temptresses. Tragically, truth was sacrificed, a genuine relationship reduced to pulp fiction, and a feminist foremother vilified and denigrated.

In fact the relationship between Sarala Devi and Gandhi defies easy categorization. His early letters were full of admiration—for her intellect, analytic capacities, commitment to Swadeshi, capacity to sway crowds with words and song. She worked round-the-clock to build up the Swadeshi movement; she was a highly respected public figure with a mind of her own. It was precisely this independence that Gandhi could not tolerate: especially when she questioned his political campaigns. Gandhi did not want to hear this: he wanted perfect ‘coincidence,’ `merging’ and `identity of ideals.’ Usha Thakkar, in her preface to Forbes’ book, remarks that “his unbending and unyielding approach comes to the surface in the letters.” Finally, he stepped away from a relationship he could not handle.

Several scholars have appreciated Gandhi for facilitating women’s entry into mainstream nationalist politics. Meera Kosambi too does so, but at the same time notes an unresolved tension between his essentialising women and the realization of their potential for action. [5] Gandhi saw that the traditional roles were problematic, yet time and again reinforced woman’s roles as mother, household worker and help-mate, secondary to man. He did not quite manage to throw off the yoke of his gendered sensibility, and enjoyed power as patriarch of family, community, ashram and nation.

Gandhi’s relationships with many women fell outside conventional frameworks, as indeed Sarala’s relationships with men did. She was undisputed leader of revolutionaries in Bengal, and to some extent Punjab: revolutionary youth were at that time exclusively male. Gandhi, for his part, thrived on relationships of love and intimacy with women, while consciously eschewing sexuality. He recognized sexuality as complex and problematic, but misunderstood it as an exclusively male force, which violated women. Thus he saw sexuality as incompatible with respectful man-woman relationships, and tried to enforce celibacy not only on himself but on all his close followers. Surely this was amongst the several contradictions that poisoned the relationship.

Thus, Gandhi’s inability to accept Sarla Devi as an autonomous individual was a result of his own limitations of understanding and experience. He was honest enough to admit being himself `unworthy to have that companionship.’ Usha Thakkar writes: “We are left with the glow of an association with great political potential that ultimately remained rather subdued and unrealized.”

Sarala Devi beyond Gandhi  

The self-activity and self-fashioning of women is often, indeed routinely, ignored by writers of history. It is a blindness that has not been cured despite powerful critiques of androcentricism for a long time now. A figure of the stature of Sarala Devi Chaudhurani falling into disrepute and ignominy is a travesty and enormous loss. Fortunately feminist scholars are working hard to correct imbalances, and reclaim and restore a figure such as hers.

So-called historic accounts have generally suggested that the turn-off by Gandhi was a crushing blow to Sarala Devi, which she never recovered from; she never returned to public life. This is far from the truth. In 1922, after a prolonged illness she did retire from politics; her husband too was ill and following surgery, died in 1923. She returned to Calcutta, and was active as a writer and activist. She took over the editorship of Bharati (1924-26) and wrote on a range of issues. In an erudite and thoughtful article, she praised the concept of Satyagraha, although criticizing its implementation. She offered a trenchant critique of Gandhian leadership, arguing for instance that since Hindus had supported the Khilafat movement, non-Hindus (Muslims, Sikhs and Christians) should be allowed to participate in the Vaikom movement supporting temple entry for untouchables (May-June 1924).

She continued to emphasize the importance of training young men to be courageous, selfless and disciplined; bemoaning (in a speech, 1925) that the Non-cooperation movement paid little attention to training young men for the fight. And Sarala Devi carried on working actively for women’s education and social reform, through the Bharat Stri Mahamandal and a range of other formations, such as the All-India Women’s Educational Conference (Poona, 1927). She opened a school for girls, the Bharat Stri Shiksha Sadan (Calcutta, 1930), and guided its development.

She made what was perhaps the most forceful feminist speech of the 1930s: at a women’s conference following the Civil Disobedience movement (Comilla, 1931). Sarala Devi summed up women’s experience with Congress politics thus: it “assigned to women the position of law-breakers only and not law-makers”. She argued for a separate Congress for women, since men were not interested in women’s problems. True, men had brought women into the anti-colonial struggle, but she doubted their commitment to improving women’s status. She concluded with a rallying call for legal, economic, social and educational equality.

In 1935, she retired to a life of contemplation. There is evidence of a visit to Sevagram Ashram in 1940, from where Rajkumari Amrit Kaur wrote to Gandhi about Sarala’s ill-health; he replied with advice as to her treatment. From 1944, we have a letter of Sarala’s to Gandhi, indicating she wished to meet and discuss ‘certain ideas.’ His last letter to her, in 1945, was about her pain and suffering—written a day after her death.

* (Author: Deepti Mehrotra is a political scientist, a teacher and has been active in the women’s movement in India)


[1Bharati Ray, 2012. Early Feminists of Colonial India: Sarala Devi Chaudhurani and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. New Delhi: OUP discusses this aspect in some detail.

[2Sarala Devi, 2009. The Scattered Leaves of My Life: An Indian Nationalist Remembers, 2009 (trans Sikata Banerjee, New Delhi: Women Unlimited).

[3Green, Martin, 1983. Tolstoy and Gandhi: Men of Peace. New York: Basic Books; and Green, Martin, Gandhi: Voice of A New Age Revolution, 1993. New York: Continuum Books.

[4Kumar, Girja, 2006. Brahmacharya: Gandhi and his Women Associates. New Delhi: Vitasta Pubishing.

[5Kosambi, Meera, trans. and ed., 2013. Mahatma Gandhi and Prema Kantak: Exploring a Relationship, Exploring History. New Delhi, OUP

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