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Where Are Women In The Indian Freedom Struggle
The entire world has always given historical figures the deep respect and admiration they deserve. Ever since I could remember, perhaps when I was 4 or 5, I have been told stories about great freedom fighters of India. Even today, I see my three and five-year-old cousins being taught about those same freedom fighters. From what I remember and what I see my cousins learning, one thing is strikingly clear; Not a single woman is given any credit in the Indian Freedom Struggle.
The British had arrived in Surat, Gujrat, and set up a trading post in 1613. Soon, The East India Company reached the Eastern Coast of India and established a trading post on the banks of the Hooghly river near Calcutta. The Decline of the Mughal Empire allowed for the prosperity of the East India Company . In 1757, The Battle of Plassey took place. It led to the victory of the East India Company over the Nawab of Bengal. The battle allowed the East India Company to become the administrative authority of Bengal. After the defeat of Tipu Sultan in 1799, most of Southern India also came under the control of the East India Company. In 1857, a large-scale rebellion took place against the East India Company. The rebellion was a massive failure, and by 1858, Crown rule was established in India. The East India Company transferred its powers to the British Raj.
Decades after the onset of the British Raj, Indian leaders emerged both locally & nationally. In 1885, the Indian National Congress was founded. The Indian National Congress went on to be the primary propagator of the Anti-Imperialism Movement. During World War 1, Mahatma Gandhi came to India from South Africa. He went from village to village preaching his view about Civil resistance or Satyagraha. In 1920, Gandhi began the Non-Cooperation Movement. It led to boycotts of British educational institutions, resigning from government employment, refusing to pay taxes, and revoking British titles. Following the Non-Cooperation Movement, the Civil Disobedience Movement began in 1930. It began with the Dandi March and the breaking of the Salt law. The Civil Disobedience Movement led to an increase in Nationalist sentiments and demand for independence. After a series of lengthy negotiations, India formally achieved independence on the 15th of August, 1947. To date, we confer Mahatma Gandhi as the Father of India.
Like Gandhi, many others courageously fought to achieve independence for our nation. The Prime Minister of India, Lal Bahadur Shastri, fought in the Quit India movement. Jawaharlal Nehru was the President of the Indian National Congress and an advocate of Gandhi's philosophy. Nehru eventually became the First Prime Minister of India. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was referred to as the 'Iron Man of India' due to his immense bravery. He made significant contributions to the Satyagraha Movement. After independence, he became the Deputy Prime Minister and was tasked with integrating the Princely States into India. Netaji, or Subhash Chandra Bose, Tanita Tope, and Nana Sahib are some other names that we associate with the Indian Independence Movement.
While we usually associate images of brave men fighting when Movements come to mind, We must not forget the principles of Non-Violence laid out by Gandhi; Non-Violence was the primary strategy Indians used to drive out the British. The Non-Violence Movement empowered women to join the freedom struggle and help achieve independence for their nation. In the early 1900s, Mahila Samitis or Women's Association emerged in cities and small towns. They were inspired by the Swadeshi Movement, which called for a boycott of foreign goods and to rely on Indian-made goods. The Hitkarini Sabha was an association that organized displays of Indian-made goods. Associations were set up as a platform for women to discuss their problems and find ways to resolve them. Rameshwari Nehru had set up and edited Stri Darpan, a Hindi monthly for women, from 1909 to 1924. She was also one of the founders of the All India Women's Conference .
Through Gandhiji's principle of Non-Cooperation, women were able to diminish the British. Women boycotted foreign products and stood with their husbands as they resigned from government jobs and refused to pay taxes. By the end of the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1922, there were strong patriotic feelings among women throughout the nation. Gandhi was able to mobilize women to participate in large numbers. He encouraged them to battle against discrimination and even wanted them to send their girls to school. Gandhi's encouragement allowed women to walk 390 km from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi  and break the salt law alongside himself. With Non-Violence, women were able to protest against the Imperialists without the need for bloodshed. The Non-Cooperation Movement saw an unprecedented amount of women's activism. Educated and Middle-Class women were at the front of the movement in 1920 . As one can see, the role of women during the freedom struggle was not just restricted to their homes.
Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi was the wife of Maharaja Gangadhar Rao, the king of the princely state of Jhansi. She was a leading figure of the Revolt of 1857. She was a symbol of resistance against the East India Company's expansion into India. Rani Lakshmibai, born as Manikarnika, contrasted many of the patriarchal cultural expectations for women in India's society at this time . She was educated at home, learned shooting, practiced fencing, and was very independent. It is believed that the Rani would practice weightlifting, wrestling, and steeplechasing before breakfast. She was an intelligent and simply-dressed woman and ruled in a business-like manner . After the death of her husband in 1853, Lord Dalhousie applied the Doctrine of Lapses. The Doctrine of Lapses stated that if a ruler had no male heir or the next of kin was unfit to rule; their territory would be annexed. Rani Lakshmi Bai was forced to leave her palace. Once the Act Of Rebellion in 1857 began, the people of Jhansi revolted, the Rani ruled over her state once again. Once Again, The British attacked Jhansi, forcing her to flee. She reached Gwalior, where she died in battle against the British. Rani Lakshmi Bai was a mighty warrior, and many respect her because of her acts of rebellion despite being a woman. There are many patriotic poems about her. The most eminent one being 'Jhansi Ki Rani' by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan. This poem describes how the Rani fought as valiantly as a man.
Sarojini Naidu was a renowned figure who aided India during the freedom struggle. She was an advocate for human rights and whom I would call a second-wave feminist. She was a follower of Gandhiji and respected his ideas of Swaraj. In 1925, Naidu was appointed as the President of the Indian National Congress, the second woman ever, after Annie Besant, a human rights activist. Naidu called for progressivist ideas such as inter-regional and inter-caste marriages. Additionally, she wanted to see greater involvement of women in politics.
Madam Bhikaji, also known as Bhikaji Cama, was a philanthropist and social worker. Cama was a prominent supporter of Gender Equality. There is a building tribute to her in Delhi called Bhikaji Cama Place. I pass by the building every single morning on my way to school; not once did I think of finding out about the building, but I now know why there is a building that honors her legacy.
Begum Hazrat Mahal was the Begum of Awadh. She is best known for her leadership and effort to fight against the East India Company in the Rebellion of 1857. During the revolt, Her supporters seized control of Lucknow. She took power as the guardian of her minor son, Prince Birjis Qadr, whom she declared the Wali (Ruler) of Awadh . Begum Hazrat Mahal worked in association with other figures such as Nana Saheb.
Last but not least, I, of course, had to mention one of the best-known women associated with the freedom struggle, Kasturba Gandhi. Kasturba Gandhi was an activist and a great follower of her husband, Mahatma Gandhi's principles and ideology. While in South Africa, Gandhi began her activism, initiating protests. She even ended up in prison, where she encouraged educated women to teach uneducated women how to read and write . During the Satyagraha Movement in 1917, Kasturba Gandhi worked with women in Champaran, Bihar. She taught them about hygiene and health. To honor her sacrifice for the nation above all, even as she battled major illnesses, The Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust was set up. To date, the Trust helps women and children in rural areas concerning healthcare and education. There are many colleges, hospitals, and roads dedicated to her as well.
While learning about the Indian Freedom Struggle in school and from our textbooks, Kasturba Gandhi is usually the only woman to be included as a part of the many men who helped India gain independence. The women are concealed, buried in historical archives. Thus, Students do not get the chance to learn about women such as Bhikaji Cama or Annie Besant. Even when textbooks mention Kasturba Gandhi, it is just one line mentioning her name. Kasturba Gandhi is usually added to Gandhiji's Legacy. She is presented as one of Gandhi's followers. After doing even 3 minutes of basic reading on the internet, one can see that Kasturba Gandhi had an individual of her own. She took part in different situations. Sometimes she even went against her husband's beliefs. So, If History shows us that Kasturba Gandhi had significant achievements apart from the ones she undertook with Gandhiji, why should we learn nothing about her individual identity? Textbooks must be re-edited to show young, impressionable teenagers that Kasturba Gandhi worked hand in hand with her husband, but she had her own individual achievements that greatly impacted India and the world.
Generally, succession to the throne is male-dominated. The throne moves from the Father to the eldest son when the Father abdicates the throne or dies. Succession to the throne is inherently sexist and creates gender inequality in terms of access to resources, land, and wealth. It makes women inferior to men. Even in the Rigveda, it is mentioned that the essential duty of a wife is to produce 'fine sons.' The Doctrine of Lapses is a perfect example of how women were exulted from the royal succession. No one believed that women could lead an entire kingdom. Both Rani Lakshmi Bai and Begum Hazrat Mahal had to confront the patriarchal, sexist society they lived in. Both of these women were in similar situations, yet without hesitation, they could fight for their state. Both of them motivated their subjects to fight. Rani Lakshmi Bai herself fought valiantly in battle. Both of these women are examples of how women broke traditional gender roles and proved to the world that they, too, could be as powerful and brave as their male counterparts.
This discrimination of women being overlooked by their male counterparts is not just limited to India. When we look at the Chinese Communist Revolution, Mao Ze Dong and Chiang Kai Shek come to mind. We associate Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams, and many other Founding Fathers with the United States. All over the world, History is male-dominated. Their names are associated with revolutions and freedom struggles. Women remain in the pages of Historical Archives, while the Common Man remains oblivious to the achievements of women in revolutions and freedom struggles.
Yes, History is male-dominated, but even though women played a minor role as compared to men, is it not worth learning about them? Is it not worth learning about their brave acts, their courage, and their ability to defy the norms of society? If we keep on showing a Male-Dominated History to young teenagers, In their minds, the words such as freedom, bravery, and revolution become associated with men. The History of minorities has always been overlooked, but I firmly believe we must work to give women the recognition they deserve for their act of courage in the Indian Freedom Struggle.
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Madhav University Archives