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Unsung Heroes: Women of the Indian National Movement

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Women in the National Movement

There was a spontaneous and massive participation of women in the National Movement during India’s struggle for independence. Mahatma Gandhi, the main leader of this movement, encouraged women to actively participate. Their involvement helped the removal of social shackles and motivated women to work towards political and social equality. Many of the active participants in their freedom struggle later became the founders of women’s organizations. An outstanding women’s organization in Gujarat, Jyoti Sangh was established in 1934 for this purpose. Gandhiji knew that the strength of India lies in its women because of their maternal influence over their sons and the idealization of the mother in the country’s culture.

Picketing, Liquor Licensing, Boycott of Foreign Goods

In the early part of the independence movement, Gandhi called upon women to fight the evil of drink and to boycott foreign cloth. This proved useful, as women revealed incredible powers of endurance and determination in the practice of picketing, liquor licensing and boycott of foreign goods. For instance, on September 9th, 1930, the Legislative Assembly elections were to take place in Bombay. This was at a time when the non-cooperation movement was at its peak, and the nationalist party wanted the elections to be boycotted. Despite torrential rains, women went out in hundreds to all the polling booths to picket, and the next day they continued picketing for another 12 hours, with contingents taking turns continually in a smooth and organized manner. But the police were ready by then and arrested 400 women for picketing. There was immense jubilation when the women were released.

On the day of the liquor license auction in Bombay, women formed an unbroken line around the entire auction building. Their boycott was so successful that only a fraction of the former revenue was received by the government. The following year, the same auction was announced three times, because the bidders being aware of the previous year's experience were afraid and did not attend. The boycott was effective and the auction could not proceed. The sale had to be done secretly behind closed doors.

Even though the women went unattended and unhindered to all parts of towns at all hours during the boycott movement, they did risk having to face the police. In fact, when the runners came to announce the approach of the police, the shopkeepers, whose businesses these very women had ruined, came forward to protect the women by hiding them inside and closing their booths. The women who courted arrest would chastise these shopkeepers for selling foreign cloth.

Endurance and Determination of Women Volunteers

The women participants in the movement strictly followed the principle of non-violence advocated by Gandhi. Even though they could not retaliate; violence did not deter them in their work. Once in the city of Borsad, 1,500 women were going quietly along a street in a peaceful procession, the police met them with a lathi (baton) charge. The leader of the women was wounded, but with bloodstained clothes, she pressed on again until she was disabled by further beating.

In another incident, during the Salt March in 1930, leader Sarojini Naidu was stopped by the police. She calmly sat down in the dust of the road with all of her followers and refused to budge. Though they could not proceed because of the wall of police barring the way, they would not go back. They sat in the dust in the scorching sun, calmly twirling the thread on hand spindles while the police looked on helplessly. In spite of having to endure great suffering, they unflinchingly and patiently went about their work with determination and perseverance.

During the non-cooperation movement, great opportunities arose for them to demonstrate their organizing powers and endurance. For instance, before the Indian National Congress was declared illegal, more than a thousand people on boycott duty were fed daily at Bombay Congress Headquarters. All the work was done by women, most of them from the highest caste. They did not feel any contempt to cook, serve and scrub with their own hands, nor did the question of caste ever enter their minds. They set a glorious example of unity, integrity and selfless dedication to the country and its people. Their immense contribution will never be forgotten by the nation of India.

In Meerut when Gandhi was arrested, 5,000 women simultaneously came out of purdah (private seclusion) as a protest against his arrest, and never returned. A single well-known incident on "Black Saturday in Bombay illustrates the mettle of the people during that time. Even though 500 people were injured and taken to hospitals, and thousands more beaten mercilessly by the police, not a single policeman was injured or hospitalized.

Another significant incident reflects the strength of character of women during the movement.

In an attempt to stop a truck carrying foreign goods, a young volunteer threw himself before the vehicle and its wheels crushed him to death. His funeral was given all the honors, the nationalists could confer and a big crowd was present, but it was a Brahmin woman who kindled the funeral pyre. This was the first case in probably two thousand years when a woman dared to perform the ceremony, hitherto always done only by men. The spirit in which these women fought is admirable. The nationalist movement for them was a religious movement and filled with a devoted fervor for their country.

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Women’s Participation in the Freedom Movement Intensifies

It was an idealistic and emotional phase for women. Sheltered, unlettered Indian women responding to the call of swaraj (self-government) to spiritualize their aim in selfless service. But the most astounding fact was that their husbands, young volunteers of the movement, were fully supportive of their actions. Women no longer waited for permission to come out in the open in the service of the nation.

In the early years, women’s participation in the freedom movement was practically nil, but by helping in social reform, their sympathy to the national movement was expressed in deeds rather than words. They supported their men in their work as much as they could. This is not surprising, as women were still in the influence of tradition, ignorance, and illiteracy.

Sarojini Naidu's Arrival

The first Indian woman to enter into active politics and live to see India attain freedom was Sarojini Naidu. She was the daughter of a great scientist from a family of scholars. She was brilliant as a student. She was educated at Cambridge, became a well-known poet, and married outside her caste to an eminent doctor.

She became a leader in her own right. She became not only a great asset to the Congress, but her participation in politics became a real inspiration to the hesitant womenfolk of India. The fact that she left her home, husband, and children to identify with the movement for freedom had a tremendous impact on women in determining their future participation in the national movement

Prominent Women in the National Movement

Although women led protected lives during that period, many women like Sarala Devi, Choudharani, Sarala Ray, Lady Abala Bose in Bengal, Vidyagouri Nilkanth, Sharadaben Mehta and Begum Hamid Ali of Gujarat, the Begum mother of Bhopal, and a host of other women, some known all over the country and some respected in their own states like Subbalakshmi, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy of Madras and many others, were actively associated with educational and social work. Their sincere efforts in the welfare of women brought about a silent revolution, but a good deal of their services have been unrecorded. Without their work and sacrifice, political freedom by itself would not have been so effective.

Inspired by Gandhi

The latter half of the independence movement was marked by intense activity for social reform and an expansion of education. During this time the practice of "sati" (a widow throwing herself on her husband's funeral pyre) was abolished. Widow remarriage was legalized and the Special Marriage Act was passed to legalize marriages contracted outside the purview of established religions. Credit must go to these extraordinary women of the national movement, as they paved the way for new avenues of self-expression and achievement for women and also demolished the demons of orthodoxy and illiteracy.

Also, in the field of political struggle, initially few women were associated with the National Congress. They attended the sessions as wives and visitors. It wasn't until Ms. Naidu participated as a distinguished participant. In 1917, Annie Besant became the first woman president to be elected. Eight years later, in 1925, Sarojini Naidu became its second woman president. It was Gandhi who gave direction, strength and inspiration to a vast all-encompassing national movement, which would attract women in large numbers.

National Consciousness Stirred by Gandhi

By identifying himself with the masses, Gandhiji stirred the depths of the Indian people's national consciousness like no other leader had ever done before. With remarkable foresight and his experiences in western countries, he assessed the inherent strength in women. He realized that the only way to rouse them from their traditional bondage and domesticity was to appeal to their sense of patriotism and awaken in them national consciousness and social concern.

Women, literate and illiterate, rural and urban, swelled the ranks of the freedom fighters, took over positions of responsibility, courted imprisonment, were arrested in large numbers, and suffered untold hardships during the movement. The national movement gave women a sense of purpose. A new era had dawned for them, along with recognition of their competence, innate strength, and capacity for sacrifice and dedicated work.


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.


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