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Nationalist Heroines

This book ably captures the nationalist expressions of women in the public and domestic spheres

india Updated: Feb 16, 2006 13:16 IST

Women in the Indian National Movement
Unseen Faces and Unheard Voices, 1930-42
by Suruchi Thapar-Björkert
Sage Publications
Price: Rs 375
Pages: 305
ISBN: 0-7619-3407-3

Most studies of the role of women in the Indian national movement have concentrated on the contribution made by only a handful of prominent women leaders such as Sarojini Naidu, Vijaylakshmi Pandit, Sucheta Kripalani and Aruna Asaf Ali. Less acknowledged but equally forceful was the participation of hundreds of women at the local level—out in the streets as well as inside their homes. This book, significantly, focuses on the nationalist participation of ordinary middle-class women in India’s freedom movement, especially in the United Provinces (modern Uttar Pradesh).

To construct the nationalist narrative of unheard voices, the author goes beyond conventional sources of history such as official and archival records. Instead, she employs a diverse range of materials—including oral narratives, poetry, cartoons, vernacular magazines and private correspondence—in order to let these women speak for themselves.

Here is an excerpt:

On 9 August 1925, a train was held up at Kakori, a village near Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, and looted of its official railway cash. A number of young men were arrested and put on trial by the British government; some of them were hanged (Ashfaqulla Khan, Roshan Singh, Rajendra Lahiri and Ram Prasad 'Bismil') while the others were sent to the Andamans or imprisoned on the mainland.

The poem 'A Martyr's Wish' was written by Ram Prasad 'Bismil', an Arya Samajist and a revolutionary from Shahjahanpur in Uttar Pradesh. He was the leader in the Kakori train dacoity case. Before he was hanged, he wrote it in ambiguous language masking love for country as love for a beautiful beloved. The poem was sent to the magistrate who was trying his case with the plea that it was a romantic poem and so should be allowed to be published. The magistrate after reading the poem agreed to its publication. Ram Prasad 'Bismil' was sentenced to death in 1927.

The extract from 'A Martyr's Wish' captures the fire of sacrifice and intense loyalty for the nationalist cause held by men and women in the Hindi-speaking heartland, whether they were revolutionaries or supported Gandhian non-violence. More importantly, it reflects the trauma of separation from loved ones, the domestic upheavals and the ways in which individuals engaged, experienced and witnessed the nationalist movement. The sentiments captured in the words of Bismil that he did not have time to tell his mother, about 'the tears that fell in her lap from her cheek,' she should 'consider them your children to calm your mind', reflects the way in which women's lives (as daughters, mothers, wives and sisters) were transformed in significant ways within and outside the domestic sphere, whether they were from elite households or ordinary middle-class women, educated or uneducated, Gandhians or revolutionaries. The poem also reflects the nature of 'sacrifice' that was made by individuals 'for the nation' and no particular form of sacrifice was more significant than another - the sacrifice of Bismil or his mother losing her son or the sacrifice of domestic peace.

A lesser-known fact associated with the Kakori robbery is the role of Raj Kumari Gupta of Kanpur. She was in charge of supplying the revolvers to the men during this operation. As she put it, 'I hid the revolvers in my underwear and wore khadi clothes on top. My three-year-old son accompanied me.' She and her husband Madan Mohan Gupta were members of the Congress Working Committee and also worked very closely with Chandra Shekhar Azad, a well-known revolutionary and leader of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association.

Bengal and Maharashtra clearly stand out as the forerunners of the movement and there is no dearth of scholarship on the engagement of elite women with nationalism, their contributions in the 'public' domain and their emergence as 'women in the frontline' or as 'nationalist heroines'. In contrast, the Hindi-speaking heartland is a relatively unexplored area in relation to women's participation in the nationalist movement in the 1930s and 1940s. More importantly, it was one region that was overshadowed by social practices of purdah, high rates of female illiteracy and social backwardness. It is important to investigate what impact it had on women's engagement with nationalist politics, and also how women negotiated their political lives, despite these social constraints.

First Published: Feb 14, 2006 17:30 IST