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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 23, May 29, 2010

Women’s Resurgence: The Gandhi-Nehru Alchemy

Tuesday 1 June 2010, by Aruna Asaf Ali


Jawaharlal Nehru’s contribution in the post-independence years to improving the status of Indian women, specially through the reform of Hindu law, is part of recent history and is fairly well known. In this article I shall attempt, as one who was a witness to and participant in the freedom struggle in an earlier era, to narrate to the present generation the story of how Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, between them, exercised an alchemy that turned the common clay of Indian humanity into heroes and heroines.

The saintly personality of Gandhiji was the single most important factor in overcoming the resistance of men, in the male-dominated families of the upper and middle classes, to their womenfolk venturing outside the domestic walls to take part in public life. Sucheta Kripalani has observed: “Gandhiji’s personality was such that he inspired confidence not only in women but in the guardians of women—their husbands, fathers and brothers. The standard of conduct that he laid down for his work was so high. Therefore when women came out and worked in the political field, their family members knew that they were quite safe, they were protected. Had Gandhiji’s leadership been not there, such a large number of women would not have come.”

Another reason for women joining the successive rounds of the freedom struggle in increasing numbers was their indignation at the jailing of their fathers, brothers, husbands and friends.

It was this participation in the struggle alongside men that won for Indian women full franchise, at one stroke, when India became independent and the Constitution was drawn up. This was in contrast to the prolonged fight that our sisters in Western countries had to wage against men for gaining the right to vote.

Indian women had participated, though in small numbers, in the very first round of the struggle for freedom, namely, the movement against the partition of Bengal in 1905. They also took part in the non-cooperation movement of the early twenties. But the first large-scale participation by women was in the civil disobedience movement launched by Gandhiji in 1930. It took the form of breaking the salt law under which even the poorest had to pay a tax on salt.

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya has recalled that “we had always thought that a revolution was a big uprising of the people” and had therefore wondered “how this could be brought about by breaking the salt laws”. She expressed these doubts to Jawaharlal Nehru and asked him if he could think of some alternative form of civil disobedience. Jawaharlal told her: “Gandhiji is a very intuitive person and his instincts are always fruitful. We are not always able to see what he is leading up to, but usually he is able to achieve something. Therefore we shall have to act accordingly.”


Ironically, Gandhiji had begun by wanting to keep women out of the Salt Satyagraha. Knowing that the breaking of the law by the people making their own salt from sea water would result in strong police action, Gandhiji perhaps wished to spare women and their families the ordeal. In any case, women resented their exclusion from the civil disobedience campaign. Margaret Cousins, who like Annie Besant, had found her spiritual home in India, addressed a spirited letter of protest to Gandhiji: “In these stirring, critical days of India’s destiny there should be no water-tight compartments of service. Women asked that no conference, congresses or commissions dealing with the welfare of India should be held without the presence of women. Similarly, women must ask that no marches, no imprisonments, no demonstrations organised for the welfare of India should prohibit women from a share in them.” Gandhiji yielded.

Women were to the fore in the countrywide movement after Gandhiji inaugurated the Satyagraha by setting out on March 12, 1930 on a 24-day foot march from Ahmedabad to Dandi, on the Gujarat coast, to break the salt law there. The example was followed by hundreds of thousands of persons all over India—city dwellers and village folk, students and elders. There were savage police assaults on the Satyagrahis at many places. Police violence was particularly severe at Dharsana, where volunteers had planned to raid and take off, after impressing on the volunteers that there should be no retaliation against the police. An American newspaper correspondent sent out this eye-witness account of what followed: “In eighteen years of reporting in twentytwo countries, I have never witnessed such harrowing scenes as at Dharsana. Sometimes the scenes were so painful that I had to turn away momentarily. One surprising feature was the discipline of the volunteers. It seemed they were thoroughly imbued with Gandhi’s non-violent creed.”

In Bombay, on the appointed day, thousands of women strode down to the sea like proud warriors. But instead of weapons they bore pitchers of clay, brass and copper; and instead of uniforms, wore simple Khadi sarees. The Satyagrahis appealed to the rich in the city markets with the cries: “Who will buy the salt of freedom?” “Don’t you want the salt of freedom?” The auctioning of the illegally made salt would bring in substantial funds for the movement. Hansa Mehta, Perin Captain and Lilavati Munshi were among those who went to the cotton market and requested the merchants not to sell imported cloth. The Satyagrahis also appealed with folded palms to the customers to desist from buying foreign cloth. In the first ten months of 1930 there were 17,000 convictions of women by the British guardians of Lancashire and Manchester interests in Bombay.

Satyawati Devi was pre-eminent among the women leaders of the civil disobedience movement in Delhi. She was the granddaughter of Swami Shraddhanand, a hero of the Khilafat and non-cooperation movement. Had it not been for Satyawati, I wonder if I would have ventured out of my sheltered domestic life, notwithstanding that my husband was a prominent Congressman who had already gone through the baptism of imprisonment in the non-cooperation movement of the twenties and was now again in the thick of the civil disobedience movement. I had only recently come out of a college run by foreign missionaries. With my Westernised habits I doubted whether I could adjust my way of life and my values to those expected of a Satyagrahi. But Satyawati’s burning zeal was infectious. I was drawn to her and could not stay away from the great fight.

Delhi being land-locked, Satyawati and some of us decided to break the salt law by assembling in a marshy vacant lot in Shahdara, a suburb where the sub-soil water had a high salt content. About fifty of us made illegal and muddy salt, of which we made packets for distribution. This went on for ten days, after which the police swung into action. The Satyagrahis were dispersed with lathi blows and teargas shells, and several were arrested.

In prison we led a self-disciplined life, plying the Charkha, singing patriotic songs in defiance of the jail rules, conducting literacy classes for non-literature inmates of the jail, and improving our own understanding of politics and economics by reading books (many of them smuggled in, like V.D. Savarkar’s India’s First War of Independence).

The part played by women in the Salt Satyagraha earned for them this high tribute in the course of a Resolution of Remembrance adopted at thousands of public meetings all over India on January 26, 1931: “We record our homage and deep admiration for the womanhood of India who, in the hour of peril for the motherland, forsake the shelter of their homes and, with unfailing courage and endurance, stood shoulder to shoulder with their menfolk in the front line of India’s national army to share with them the sacrifices and triumphs of the struggle.”

On the hardship that women political prisoners had to suffer, especially in the further stages of the civil disobedience movement in 1932-33, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in his auto-biography: “The lot of our womenfolk in prison was especially hard and painful to contemplate. They were mostly middle-class women, accustomed to a sheltered life and suffering chiefly from the many repressions and customs produced by a society dominated, to his own advantage, by man. The call of freedom had always a double meaning for them….the desire to rid themselves of domestic slavery also. Excepting a very few, they were classed as ordinary prisoners and placed with the most degraded of companions, and often under horrid conditions. I was once lodged in a barrack next to a female enclosure, a wall separating us. In that enclosure there were, besides other convicts, some women political prisoners, including one who had been my hostess and in whose house I had once stayed. A high wall separated us, but it did not prevent me from listening in horror to the language and curses which our friends had to put up with from the women convict warders.”


When the National Planning Committee was formed in 1938 with Jawaharlal Nehru as chairman, one of its sub-committees was on ‘Women’s Role in Planned Economy’. With Rani Lakshmibai Rajwade as chairman (the feminist pedantry of ‘chairperson’ had not come into vogue), the sub-committee had thirty members, all women. In the report given by the sub-committee there was unanimity on the principle that “an identical standard of morality, which harmonises social welfare with individual freedom, should be expected for both man and woman, and should guide legislation and social convention”. When this recommendation went up before the main body, conservative members of the National Planning Committee, both Muslim and Hindu, opposed the proposal to make monogamy compulsory under law. But the Committee by a majority endorsed the recom-mendation to make monogamy compulsory. This was a giant step forward in the struggle for women’s equality. Monogamy came to be enforced on the Hindu male with the passage of the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955, though the reform is yet to be implemented in respect of Muslim males.

A notable passage from the Introduction to the report of the Women’s Sub-Committee reads: “We do not wish to turn woman into a cheap imitation of man or to render her useless for the great tasks of motherhood and nation-building. But in demanding equal status and opportunity we desire to achieve for woman the possibility of development under favourable circumstances of education and opportunity. We would like to displace the picture so deeply impressed upon the racial imagination, of man striding forward to conquer new worlds, woman following wearily behind with a baby in her arms. The picture which we now envisage is that of man and woman, comrades of the road, going forward together, the child joyously shared by both. Such a reality, we feel, cannot but raise the manhood and womanhood of any nation.”

As during the civil disobedience movement of the early thirties, women participated in very large numbers in the ‘Quit India’ campaign which marked the final round of the freedom struggle. Much has been made of my own part in that movement. I was but a splinter of the lava thrown up by the volcanic eruption of a people’s indignation at the sudden and wholesale arrest of national leaders following the adaptation of the ‘Quit India’ resolution by the All India Congress Committee on August 8, 1942. It is true that during my underground existence for three-and-a-half years, the incessant travel, unaccustomed living conditions, food at irregular hours and the constant tension told on my health. But so many other comrades in the movement suffered similar or greater hardships.

It is remarkable that though some lily-white Gandhians, more loyal to non-violence than the Mahatma, turned up their noses at the underground workers, neither Gandhiji nor Jawaharlal Nehru disowned us. On the contrary, I received from both of them very generous appreciation even if they did not endorse the methods of our underground fight for freedom.

It is to Mahatma Gandhi and to Jawaharlal Nehru that India’s freedom movement owed the distinction of being more than a gut reaction against alien rule, and part of a wider movement of social reform and intellectual reawakening. They wanted women to play their due part in the process of national regeneration. Since this process is far from being complete even four decades and more after independence, let me conclude this article with a quotation each from Gandhiji and Jawaharlal in which they set out the challenge faced by educated women, in terms which continue to be relevant to this day.

Gandhiji wrote in Young India sixty years ago, in May 1929: “Before reform on a large scale takes place, the mentality of the educated class has to undergo a transformation. And may I suggest that the few educated women we have in India will have to descend from their Western heights and come down to India’s plain? These questions of women, liberation of India, removal of untouchability, amelioration of the economic condition of the masses and the like, resolve themselves into penetration into the villages, reconstruction or rather reformation of the village life.”

Jawaharlal Nehru, in a message to the Prayag Mahila Vidyapeeth of Allahabad in January 1934, asked students of the women’s university: “What will you do when you go out? Will you just drift and accept things as they are, however bad they may be? Or will you justify your education and prove your mettle by hurling defiance at the evils that encompass you?”

This question posed by Jawaharlal Nehru will continue to haunt womankind in every continent and beckon them to meet the challenges that confront them. Our mental horizon will expand because the ideal social order that humankind aspires to will continue to evolve over the decades.

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