The Indian Independence movement spanned over 190 years. The first struggle was against the East India Company’s rule (1757-1858). The Indian Rebellion of 1857 initiated a period of opposing the British Indian Empire, the Raj, which finally ended with Indian independence on August 15, 1947. The most famous freedom fighters are men: Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Bhagat Singh. Women paid a pivotal role, as well, but their contributions are not often recognized. They fought with true courage and underwent torture and hardships for the sake of India’s freedom. They participated in protests, gave speeches, organized boycotts, and contributed writings to inspire political awareness and action. Women, too, were arrested and imprisoned. We have chosen four examples of women freedom fighters to remember on this Indian Independence Day.
Sarojini Naidu was known as the Nightingale of India. In addition to being an independence activist, she was a distinguished poet. After graduating from the University of Madras she went on a scholarship to study first at King’s College, London and later at Girton College, Cambridge. However, she gave up writing poetry and fully devoted herself to the emancipation of women, education, Hindu-Muslim unity etc. She became a follower of Gandhi and accompanied him to England on several occasions. Whenever she was in England, she openly criticized British rule in India.
In 1930 Mahatma Gandhi chose Naidu to join him in leading the famous Salt Satyagraha, a march to protest against the salt tax and salt-harvesting restrictions levied by the British. After Gandhi was arrested she led 2,000 activists under the scorching sun to raid the Dharsana Salt Works, while the police faced them half a mile up the road with rifles and lathis, heavy sticks used as weapons. The volunteers cheered wildly when she shook off the arm of the British police officer who came to arrest her and marched proudly to the barbed wire of the factory.
She played a leading role in the Civil Disobedience Movement and the Quit India Movement. She was jailed along with Gandhi in 1942. She was one of the founders of the Indian Constitution and was the first Indian woman to become President of the Indian National Congress. She was also the first woman Governor of Uttar Pradesh state.
Aruna Asaf Ali was a legendary heroine of India’s freedom struggle. Her first major political action was during the Salt Satyagraha in 1930 when she addressed public meetings and led processions. The British Government charged her with being a “vagrant,” rather than a political prisoner and sentenced her to one year’s imprisonment. When political prisoners were released in the aftermath of the Gandhi-Irwin pact, Aruna was not released. But public agitation in favor of her release forced the British government to let her go. She was arrested again in 1932 and put in Tihar Jail where she went on a hunger strike against the treatment of political prisoners. Her protest caused an improvement in conditions, but she herself was moved to solitary confinement in Ambala.
In 1942 Aruna Asaf Ali attended the Bombay Congress Session with her husband, where the historic Quit India resolution was passed. When the Congress leaders were arrested on the day after the resolution, Aruna presided over the flag-hoisting ceremony at Gowalia Tank Maidan in Bombay. She provided the spark that ignited the movement. She became a full-time activist in the Quit India movement and went underground to evade arrest. Her property was seized by the Government and sold. The Government also announced a Rs. 5000 reward for her capture. Meanwhile, she fell ill and on hearing this Gandhi advised her to surrender. However, Aruna Asaf Ali surrendered only when the warrants against her were cancelled on 26th January 1946.
Madam Bhikaiji Cama was born into an affluent Parsi family. In 1896 Bombay was hit first by famine and shortly after by the bubonic plague. Bhikaiji joined one of the many teams working out of Grant medical college in order to provide care for those afflicted and later to inoculate the healthy. She contracted the plague herself and was sent to Britain for medical care. While there she became involved with members of London’s Indian community who were writing and giving speeches advocating for Indian self-rule. When she was preparing to return to India the British insisted that she sign a statement promising not to participate in any “nationalist” activities. When she refused, she was prevented from traveling home. Instead, she moved to Paris and worked for Indian sovereignty in exile.
Influenced by Christabel Pankhurst and the suffragette movement, Bhikhaiji Cama was vehement in her support for gender equality. Speaking in Cairo, Egypt in 1910, she asked, “I see here the representatives of only half the population of Egypt. May I ask where is the other half? Sons of Egypt, where are the daughters of Egypt? Where are your mothers and sisters? Your wives and daughters?” Cama’s stance with respect to the vote for women was, however, secondary to her position on India’s independence.
Madam Cama fought for the freedom of the country until independence was achieved and helped many revolutionaries with money and materials. She unfurled the first National Flag at the International Socialist Conference in Stuttgart (Germany) in 1907. She declared, “The flag is of Indian Independence! Behold it is born!
Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was the sister of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, and the aunt of Indira Gandhi.
In 1937 Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was elected as the Local Self-Government Health Minister of the United Provinces, making her the first woman to be elected to a cabinet position in pre-independence India. In 1939, when the British volunteered the Indian troops for the Second World War without consulting the government, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, along with the other ministers resigned her post.
She took part in the civil disobedience movement and was arrested once in 1940, and again in 1942.
After her husband’s death, she traveled to the United States of America, to the chagrin of the British government, who tried to get the US to deny her a visa. During her tour, she talked about the problems of colonialism and the impact that imperialism had on colonized countries. She pushed for countries to be held accountable for human dignity, equality, and rights. She believed strongly in equality and condemned the inherent racism that came with colonialism. During the San Francisco Conference, she called out the Indian representatives as being selected by the British to represent the colonized version of India, rather than the real India:
“I desire to make it clear that the so-called Indian representatives attending the Conference have not the slightest representative capacity, no sanction, no mandate from any of the responsible groups in India and are merely nominees of the British Government. Anything they say here or any vote they cast can have no binding effect or force on the Indian people.”
In 1953 Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit became the first woman to be elected president of the UN General Assembly