[When the men were behind bars, women came to the forefront. Where are they now?]
It was the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1930. The leaders of the freedom movement were in prison, along with tens of thousands of freedom fighters. The British thought they had been able to stamp out the movement, but then, something unexpected happened. In the words of Jawaharlal Nehru (as quoted in Discovery of India)-
Most of us menfolk were in prison. And then a remarkable thing happened. Our women came to the front and took charge of the struggle. Women had always been there of course, but now there was an avalanche of the, which took not only the British Government but their own menfolk by surprise. Here were these women, women of the upper or middle classes, leading sheltered lives in their homes- peasant women, working- class women, rich women- pouring out in their tens of thousands in defiance of government order and police lathi. It was not only that display of courage and daring but what was even more surprising was the organizational power they showed.
That was the decisive moment when the British Government realized they could not hold India much longer. If women, who till a few years back were in purdah and were still not allowed to take part in public life, could come to the forefront to demand freedom, sooner or later they would have to leave the country.
But who were these women?
In the early days, it was only the wives, daughters and sisters of the leaders of the freedom movement who participated in the freedom movement. Since there were no women-only political organisations, it was difficult for common women to negotiate a place in the struggle, and the only women who could were women from elite families.
Though women were initially not allowed to participate in the Dandi March, two women, Sarojini Naidu and Mithuben Petit, stood behind Gandhiji when he violated the Salt Law. However, once the salt Satyagraha began, women from middle class families started pouring out onto the street. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay led a huge contingent of women in Bombay who not only made salt at Chowpathy Beach, they even sold it in the city. The popular story goes that when Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was arrested and produced before the magistrate, she held up a packet of salt and asked if he would like to buy the 'salt of freedom'!
Women, who started coming out in response to Gandhiji's call for the Salt Satyagraha, began coming out in droves once the men started being arrested. They were led by the wives and sisters of the leaders, prominent among whom were Kasturba Gandhi, Kamala Nehru and Nehru's sister, Vijaylakshmi Pandit, but many women also rose to leadership despite not being from political families.
Sucheta Kriplani, Aruna Asaf Ali, and Durgabai Deshmukh, among many others joined the Freedom Struggle during the Civil Disobedience Movement. They all married freedom fighters from different communities (even religion), and continued to serve the nation even after Independence. Sucheta Kriplani became the first female Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. Aruna Asaf Ali was the first lady mayor of Delhi and did a lot of work in education. Durgabai Deshmukh was a lawyer who served as a member of the Constitute Assembly and later of the Planning Commission.
Initially, the police used only moderate violence against women, but when they kept coming out, women too were lathi charged and imprisoned for long terms. None of this, deterred the women, and despite having to manage the home in the absence of their menfolk, they continued being a part of the freedom struggle.
Some of them paid a very heavy price for their rebellion. Rani Gaidinliu, for instance, was arrested when she was seeking to drive the British out of Manipur and Nagaland when she was only 16 years old, and spent 14 years in prison before she was released after Independence.
There were other women who lost their lives in the Struggle. Matangini Hazra, the poor peasant woman who was also known as Gandhi Buri was shot dead by the police during the Quit India Movement when she was leading a procession of over six thousand people. Eighteen year old Kanaklata Barua was shot down while participating in the Quit India Movement.
Despite these setbacks, women were equal participants in the Freedom Struggle. They protested unjust laws, they sang patriotic songs, they hoisted the national flag, they ran radio stations and printing presses, and they provided shelter to freedom fighters fleeing the police. If India was able to gain Independence a lot of the credit should go to these women.
What after Independence?
Unfortunately, after Independence, women were not able to capitalize on these gains. Unlike in other countries, women were given Universal Adult Franchise right after Independence. Women also occupied positions of power, though in small numbers. There were fifteen women in the Constituent Assembly who helped draft the Constitution, there was one women in the first Union Cabinet of Independent India, and a woman headed the Indian delegation to the United Nations and was the first ever woman to be elected the President of the United National General Assembly.
Despite the early head start, even today, the representation of women in public life remains disproportionately low, which results in the framing of policies that do not adequately empower women. India attained her Freedom seventy four years ago, but we will be able to consider ourselves to be truly free only when we are adequately represented in positions of policy making.