This week’s post comes from Chandan Mahal, Learning Projects Manager for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.
The figures of Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru are well-known but we should also remember the many women who were active in the struggle to free India from British rule. The contributions of female political activists, including Sarojini Naidu, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Fatima Jinnah and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, greatly influenced how India’s struggle for freedom was achieved. As leaders, these women significantly changed the course of the independence movement.
When Gandhi encouraged women to join the Satyagraha campaigns, which were campaigns of nonviolent civil disobedience, many responded to his call. Women from all backgrounds, including poorer and rural communities, were mobilised through the Swadeshi movement in particular. This was part of a drive to boycott foreign goods, especially foreign cloth, and encourage the use of domestic products including home spun cloth. The aim was to regenerate India’s textile industry, which had been destroyed by the British during colonial rule.
The spinning of cloth had always been important for village women as a source of income, so thousands were encouraged to take it up along with the wearing of home-made cloth (khadi). Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, twice-president of the Indian National Congress, describes the importance of these defiant acts for mobilising women: in many ways they marked both the beginning of women’s emancipation in India, and an important progression towards independence from British rule.
Listen to Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit
Download Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit transcript
Pandit also highlights in this clip the famous Salt March in 1930. The British government had introduced a salt tax which doubled the price of salt and made it illegal for Indians to make their own salt. The tax levies had made salt unaffordable for the poorest. Sarojini Naidu led a march to the salt works at Dharasana in 1930 and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay organised a mass raid on the salt fields in Wadala. Even though Chattopadhyay was arrested, her seven year old son and other marchers continued to execute her plan. At her trial she tried to sell salt in the courtroom and even asked the magistrate to quit his position and join the Satyagraha movement! Sadly she was given a nine month prison sentence.
In this oral history interview sourced from the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay describes how the salt satyagraha was considered a pivotal moment of new mass participation by women in a national movement:
Even though only a few women were chosen officially to take part in the salt satyagraha with which the Indian revolution opened on the morning of April 6 1930, by sunset that first day it had turned into a mass movement and swept the country. On that memorable 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, the simple cotton saris of village India […] Women young and old, rich and poor, came tumbling out in their thousands, shaking off the traditional shackles that held them so long. Valiantly they went forward without a trace of fear and embarrassment. They stood at street corners with little packets of salt, crying out: ‘We have broken the Salt Law and we are free! Who will buy the salt of freedom?’
Taken from the book History of Doing by Radha Kumar (Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1993).
In the clip below, Kamaladevi talks about one of the occasions when she was arrested and how she was kept in solitary confinement.
Listen to Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay
Download Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay transcript
Thousands of women participated in the movement by breaking free from tradition and taking part in strikes and marches, picketing shops that sold foreign clothes, and wearing khadi, which became a symbol of Indian nationalism. Some of the leading political figures in the women’s movement were members of the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC), along with other important organisations like the National Council of Women in India (NCWI) and the Women’s Indian Association (WIA). These organisations provided an important platform where the campaigning for women’s rights could be carried out more broadly.
Members of the AIWC, which was established in 1927 by Margaret Cousins, can be seen in the image below taken in 1930. From left to right; Mrs Hamid Ali, Mrs Brijal Nehru, Mrs P.K. Seu, Mrs Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Mrs Sarojini Naidu, Mrs Hinde-Koper, Mrs Paridoonji, Mrs Margaret Cousins and Mrs Hamsa Mehta. Other prominent members of the AIWC included Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandi, and Muthulakshmi Reddi.
Standing Committee of the All India Women's Conference, Bombay, 1930. Photographer unknown. Taken from The Awakening of Indian Women by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and others (Everyman’s Press, Madras, 1939).
To learn more about the role of women you can visit the Voices of Partition website and hear some rare recordings from political activists including Sarojini Naidu, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Aruna Asif Ali.