Saturday, 28 March 2015

Prison Diaries/Writings : Remembering Mridula Sarabhai

From an article ‘Squeezing the Olives’, in the Frontline magazine by K. Satchidanandan, I came to know of the diverse writings that have been done by various people while incarcerated.

Many Indian freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru, Rajaji, etc feature in this article along with several other eminent people from around the globe; who have written on various issues from within the confines of a prison. It was this article that made me curious and I wanted to know if the several Indian women freedom fighters  maintained a diary/wrote while imprisoned during the freedom struggle or not.

It was only when I accidentally came across a book ‘Rebel with a cause’, on Mridula Sarabhai, by Aparna Basu that I came to know in the chapter ‘In Prison’, the following (the book is not easily available in print now and I reproduce some excerpts here):

“...Mridula’s first experience of jail life was in 1930 when she, her mother and Khursedben were arrested picketing shops selling foreign cloth. They were put in Sabarmati jail for three weeks. She kept a jail dairy in Gujarati...”

Mridula Sarabhai. Photo Source:

[On another occasion] “...Mridula, the fourth in line was arrested on 8th January 1932, and taken once again to Sabarmati jail. She was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and fined Rs 300...Mridula, together with Lilavati Desai and Vijyalakshmi Kanuga was put in ‘B’ class , whereas Maniben Patel and Mithuben Petit were made ‘C’ class prisoners...Twenty days later, Mridula and sixteen of her fellow women prisoners were removed from Sabarmati jail to an unknown destination...From Sabarmati, they were moved to Yeravada prison, Poona...Within five days there was an order, once again transferring her, together with six of her fellow women prisoners, from Yeravada jail to one of the rooms for ‘B’ class prisoners were Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, Naju Wadia, Jhaverben Jamnadas, Brijkumari and others. In the other room were Nanduben Kanuga, Lilavati Desai, Maniben Patel, Lilavati Munshi, Manorama Joshi, Mridula and Devyani Desai with her small daughter...She [Mridula] was released on 22nd June 1932. These six months were indeed an important phase in her life..."

"...She was released but the satyagraha was going on and she could not keep away for long...on 17th February, she was arrested again and produced before the district magistrate and kept in Sabarmati jail till 3rd March...after being detained for some weeks in Sabarmati jail, she was shifted to Belgaum where the home secretary to the Government of Bombay, N.W. Maxwell, issued an order directing her to reside and remain within the limits of Belgaum city...As was to be expected, she violated this order by picketing outside a cloth shop in Belgaum and was immediately arrested and sentenced to six months’ simple imprisonment and fined Rs.500...Mridula was eventually released on 26 September. Her next imprisonment was in December 1938 when a satyagraha was launched in Rajkot by the Praja Parishad...

“...Mridula was arrested as a dangerous person within forty-eight hours of her arrival in Rajkot and was sentenced to five weeks’ imprisonment. She and Maniben were kept in Tramba Darbar’s bunglow...”

“... [Later] She [Mridula] was arrested on 20th August and taken to Arthur Road Jail, Bombay. She vividly described the period of her detention: [and Mridula Sarabhai writes] ‘I was arrested at Bombay on 20th August 1942...It took more than ten days to arrest me. Soon after my arrest, I was lodged in the Arthur Road Jail, Bombay. Thereafter, I was transferred to Yeravada Jail, Poona and finally to Belgaum Jail. Nobody was allowed to meet me for six to eight months...The most heartening thing for me was that Maniben Patel, daughter of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, was my companion...I was told by the British authorities that I would be released on parole provided I don’t meet any Congressmen. I did not agree to this condition. I retorted that I do not have acquaintance with anybody except Congressmen. I was released unconditionally in December 1943 on the day I was to be operated upon’... This was her last imprisonment before independence [writes Aparna Basu in her book]. ”

The book by Aparna Basu also accounts for Mridula Sarabhai's relentless public work in most difficult of circumstances during the time of partition and in the work of rescue operations as well as rehabilitation of refugees after independence. She also worked to restore peace when riots broke out in different parts of the country. What is interesting is that while many of the freedom fighters, particularly men, took position of high power and authority in the Indian Government after independence, Mridula Sarabhai did not do so. 

Mridula Sarabhai continued to remain an activist, many times critical of Government polices and was also jailed post independence for her outspoken views and actions. About Mridula Sarabhai, Aparna Basu further writes, “...From 1953 Mridula devoted herself to Kashmir and stood by Sheikh Abdulla and his supporters even when they were accused of treason, as a result she had to resign or leave every organization she was connected with...her phone was tapped, CID watched her house...She was dismissed from the  Congress party in 1958 and was finally detained under the Prevention Detention Act in Tihar Jail from 8 August 1959 till 6 August 1959 and later put under House detention in her home in Ahmedabad under Defence of India Rules...”

It is indeed surprising that so little is known of a person like Mridula Sarabhai. This is particularly intriguing because many other women from the Sarabhai family and their contribution to the society is fairly known.  

In her paper ‘Archiving the Nation- State in Feminist Praxis: A South Asian Perspective’, Uma Chakravarti too acknowledges that not much is known about Mridula Sarabhai as follows: “When I look back on the last years of Mridula’s life, I am struck by the fact that I was already then a teacher, and had close friends among the socialist network who espoused the cause that she had been fighting for; some of these socialists had even taken on the Kashmir issue in a mediating capacity and yet there was little public recognition of Mridula’s long struggle in support of Kashmir in the media, or even in ordinary conversation that was happening around me. Both Gandhi (symbolically) and Nehru whom she cited as her mentors, still dominated the public sphere in the 60’s and 70’s and yet no one talked of Mridula. All I can recall is a hazy connection of her name being associated with some kind of a ‘bee in her bonnet’ about Kashmir.”

In her paper, Uma Chakravarty explains, “Resistance to a blind nationalism and the demands of loyalty from its citizens by a nation-state in South Asia in the post colonial period was indeed a madness if it was the position of a single individual, and that too a woman...”

This certainly is one of the reasons why Mridula Sarabhai does not hold a place of eminence in public discourse. However I also feel that there are other reasons. Mridula Sarabhai was a non conformist woman, critical of Government policies, polices of her own party, the Congress and many of the Congress men in power.  But most importantly the role and the exemplary work of not just Mridula Sarabhai but most of the women freedom fighters of the country, continues to remain less known even today because this space is to a great extent occupied by a few male personalities. The dominance of few names in India’s struggle for freedom I believe is also one reason why it eclipses many others, particularly the names of the women. Thus the scores of women who have played commendable role in India’s struggle for freedom continues to remain less known. 

I have been trying to locate if Mridula Sarabhai’s prison diaries are available or published but in vein. The other memoirs written from within the confines of a prison are by Dr. Sushila Nayar titled, “Mahatma Gandhi’s Last Imprisonment”. Sushila Nayar’s book, “ Kasturba: A personal Reminiscence”, also details the last days of Kasturba and her passing away  while jailed at the Aga Khan palace by the British.Sushila Nayar was also in jail with Gandhi and Kasturba.


Monday, 9 March 2015

Gandhiji and Women’s Issues

On women’s day, a tribute to some of those who are less known or are nameless/faceless but have opined or have raised issues before 
Mahatma Gandhi on the issue of women’s roles and rights:

[Excerpts from Gandhi Series 2, 'To The Women', Edited and Published by Anand T. Hingorani]:Shrimati Sarladevi of Cuttack writes: “Don’t you admit that the treatment of women is as bad a disease as untouchability itself? The attitude of young ‘nationalists’ I have come in contact with, is beastly in ninety cases out of a hundred. How many of the non-co-operators in India do not regard women as objects of enjoyment? Is that essential condition of success-self purification-possible without a change of attitude towards women?”

[Gandhiji]: “I am unable to subscribe that treatment of women is a ‘disease as bad as untouchability?’ Shrimati Sarladevi has grossly exaggerated the evil. Nor can the charge leveled against the non co-operators of mere gratification of lust be sustained...Women must cease to consider herself the object of man’s lust. The remedy is more in her hands than man’s. She must refuse to adorn herself for men, including her husband, if she will be an equal partner with man...”

‘...From a highly educated sister: “I beg you [Gandhiji] to solve the problem of us, the women. Rajajai says that there is no women’s problem. Perhaps, not in the political sense. Perhaps, it could be made by legislation...that is, all professions should be made equally open to men and women...the natural qualities of her sex, the upbringing meted out to her because of her sex, and her environment which is created because of her sex, all are against her. And in her work, these things, mainly her nature, upbringing and surroundings always get in the way and hinder her, and give occasion for the hackneyed phrase: ‘She is only a woman, after all’. This is what I mean by sex hanging round one’s neck...your advice to me was to read Harijan. I do so eagerly. But so far I have not come across, well, the advice for the inner spirit. Spinning and fighting for the national freedom are only some aspects of training. They do not seem to contain the whole solution. For, I have seen women who do spin and do try to work out of Congress ideals, and still commit blunders which are attributed to the fact of their being women...I do not want women to become like men...tell us, please, how to make best use of our qualities, how to turn our disadvantages into advantages...”

[Gandhiji]: “...My opinion is, that just as fundamentally man and woman are one, their problem must be one in essence...each is a complement to the other. The one cannot live without the other’s active help...Nevertheless, there is no doubt that at some point there is bifurcation. Whilst both are fundamentally one, it is also equally true that in the form there is a vital difference between the two. Hence the vocation of the two must also be different. The duty of motherhood, which the vast majority of women will always undertake, requires qualities which man need not possess. She is passive, he is active. She is essentially mistress of the house. He is the breadwinner; she is the keeper and distributor of the bread. She is the care taker in every sense of the term. The art of bringing up the infants of the race is her special and sole prerogative...In my opinion, it is degrading both for man and woman, that woman should be called upon or induced to forsake the hearth, and shoulder the rifle for the protection of that hearth. It is a reversion to barbarity and the beginning of the end. In trying to ride the horse that man rides, she brings herself and him down. The sin will be on man’s head for tempting or compelling his companion to desert her special calling...I have suggested, in these columns, that woman is the incarnation of Ahimsa. Ahimsa means infinite love, which again means infinite capacity for suffering. Who but woman, the mother of man, shows this capacity in the largest measure? She shows it, as she carries the infant and feeds it during nine months, and derives joy in the suffering involved. What can beat the suffering caused by the pangs of labour? But she forgets them in the joy of creation...let her transfer that love to the whole of humanity, let her forget she ever was or can be, the object of man’s lust...”
Sarojini Naidu and one more woman I cannot identify during the Salt Satyagraha/Dandi March in the year 1930. Source of photo:

‘...a letter written on behalf of eleven students to [Gandhiji]:  “Your [Gandhiji’s] comments on the letter of a lady student captioned Student’s Shame and published in Harijan of the 31st December 1938, deserve special attention. The modern girl, it seems, has provoked you [Gandhiji] to the extent that you have disposed of her finally as one playing Juliet to half a dozen Romeos. This remark, which betrays your ideas about women in general, is not very these days when women are coming out of closed doors to help men and take an equal share of the burden of life, it is indeed strange that they are still blamed even when they are maltreated by men...and it cannot or should never be taken that modern girls are categorically all Juliets, or modern youths all Romeos...A statement like this from one revered all over the world seems to hold a brief once more for that worn out and unbecoming saying : “Woman is the Gate of Hell”...To be hated or pitied is what they [modern girls] resent much. They are ready to mend their ways if they are really guilty. Their guilt, if any, must be conclusively proved before they are anathematized. In this respect, they would neither desire to take shelter under the covering of ‘ladies please’, nor would they silently stand and allow the judge to condemn them in his own way. Truth must be faced; the modern girl or ‘Juliet,’ as you have called her, has the courage enough to face it.”

‘ ...Dr. S. Muthulakshmi Reddi, the well known social worker of Madras, has written a long letter [to Gandhiji]... “...Under the present social system, don’t you think that very few women are given sufficient opportunities of education, full development of body and mind, and self expression? Don’t you think their very individuality is being recklessly crushed under the burden of customs and conventions?...should not the members of the Nationalist Party, we mean the Congress, burn with the desire and enthusiasm to find an immediate remedy for all these social evils...or at least educate the masses to liberate their women from the servile bondage to which they are subject...”

[Gandhiji]: “Dr. Muthulakshmi has a perfect right to except Congressmen to shoulder this is not this custom or that which needs condemnation, it is the inertia which refuses to move even in the face of an admitted evil that needs to be removed...And lastly the condemnation is true only of the middle class, the town dwellers, i.e., barely 15 percent of the vast millions of India. The masses living in the villages have no child marriage, no prohibition against widow remarriage. It is true that they have other evils which impede growth...”

[Excerpts from Mahadevbhai Desai’s diary no- 8]: Gandhiji had met fallen/sinful women in Barisal in 1921 and had suggested one or two workers to work for their betterment. But later there was a division between the Congress workers...the dispute in Barisal took an ugly form like in no other place. The workers who had pledged to serve the fallen/sinful women, those women were started to be used for political purpose. They [women] became the members of the Congress- it is not possible to refuse their demand to be the members of Congress - but they also became delegates and their votes were also used in the public meetings!  On the day Gandhiji went, those women requested that he visit their area, they asked to be able to give a letter of honor to Gandhiji and one man started supporting their demand a lot. Initially Gandhiji controlled his anger and only said this, “Inform them that if they wish to meet me they should come here. I cannot go to meet them.” But that man did not understand. He took sides. “You ordered to serve those unfortunates. And today you deprive them of your Darshan [sight] even! They also want to give you a letter of honor.” 

Gandhiji could not tolerate this. “If this is how what I have said is misunderstood, then I should kill myself by drowning. I had told you to serve them. They have not given up their work. And you use such who have not given up their work, in politics? What if they are spinning the wheel? Their yarn is useless to me. Can the spinning wheel be a lid on sins? And by taking a letter of honor from them, would I make their work “respectable”? One should be ashamed of such a suggestion. Leaving their work completely is the first step of their service. Service is impossible unless they give up their giving a letter of honor to me they want to gain respect and gain power. That will never happen.”

[Mahadevbhai]: ‘Earlier the issue of sinful/fallen women had come up twice which one recalls now. In Bengal in order to raise Tilak Swaraj fund, a meeting of women had been organised in a temple. Two sinful/fallen women very hesitatingly came to the temple, put Rs 50/- in the collection bag and had left. Before that incident... a friend in Mumbai talked about the possibility of getting considerable sum from a well-known singer for the swaraj fund.  Gandhiji had clearly said no to the same and said, “It is like acknowledging her work. Let her give up her work and give lakhs of rupees and thereby do penance.” Therefore in Bengal the question arose whether to take that Rs 50/- or not. Gandhiji had said, “Those women gave that money not for fame/publicity but gave with tears of penance and so it can be taken. They did not even have the courage to attend the meeting and that shows that they had nothing to take any pride in.’

[Excerpts from Gandhi Series 2, To The Women, Edited and Published by Anand T. Hingorani]:  [Gandhiji]: “The first occasion I had of meeting those women who earn their livelihood out of their shame, was at Coconada in the Andhra province. There it was few moments’ interview with only half a dozen of them. The second occasion was at Barisal. Over one hundred of them met by appointment. They had sent a letter in advance, asking for an interview and telling me that they had become members of the Congress and subscribed to the Tilak Swaraj Fund, but could not understand my advise not to seek office in the various Congress Committees...The gentleman, who handed me the letter, did so with great hesitation, not knowing whether I would be offended or pleased with the receipt of the letter. I put him at ease by assuring him that it was my duty to serve these sisters, if I could in any way.

“For me, the two hours I passed with these sisters is a treasured memory. They told me that they were over 350 in the midst of a population of about 20,000 men, women and children. They represent the shame of men of Barisal...and what is true of Barisal is true, I fear, of every city. I mention Barisal, therefore as an illustration. The credit of having thought of serving these sisters belongs to some men of Barisal...By the time I had finished with my interview they knew, without my telling them, why they could not be office bearers in Congress Committees if they did not give up their sinfulness. None could officiate at the altar of swaraj who did not approach it with pure hands and a pure heart.”


Monday, 2 March 2015

The contemporary women’s history that is less known

I happened to attend an International conference in Feb 2015 at SNDT women’s university, Mumbai, organised by the Research Centre for Women’s Studies. The main theme of the conference was: Shifting Contours, Widening Concerns: Women’s History, Historiography and Politics of Historical Representation.

In the conference some of the papers were excellent.  To name a few:  

1.     Presentation by Dr. Shalini Shah titled ‘Historical Sources and the Masculine Politics of Representation in Sanskrit Texts.’
2.     Presentation by Prof. Kanchana Mahadevan, titled ‘Feminist Histories and Critical Interpretation.’
3.      Presentation by Prof. Uma Chakravarty, titled, ‘Conjugality and its Discontents: A Story Told Through Photographs.’
4.      Presentation by writer and activist Ms. Urmila Pawar, titled, ‘We also made History.’

However many of the presentations in the plenary session took up far more time than what was allocated to the presenters leaving less than the allotted time for the technical sessions. I was also told by some young researchers that this is often the case in such conferences where the technical sessions are left with less time. However in spite of the limited time, many interesting papers were presented in the technical sessions and to name a few:

1.     Presentation by Ms. Varsha Shenoy titled, ‘Location/Re-location of women in the private/public spheres in the context of the Swadeshi movement.’
2.       Presentation by Ms. Swagata Basu titled, ‘Mapping the Un-represented Self: A Feminist Geographical Exposition of Politics of Naming Places in Colonial and Post Colonial India.’
3.     Presentation by Ms Shazia Salam titled, ‘History,    Fiction and Representation: Muslim Women and Partition of India.’

One another important thing I noticed was that many of the presentations were based either on secondary sources and data or interpretation of writings/research already done in the past. Concern was also raised at the conference by many of the participants regarding the squeeze in resources for the subject of History in general.

I also wish to elaborate a little more on one particular presentation in the plenary session. In the paper titled “Reading Histories of Contemporary Women’s Movement: Diverse Contexts Questions and Narratives”, the presenter, Prof. Indu Agnihotri, Director, Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi, mentioned some of the events that have become important for the women’s movement in the country.  Among these, she mentioned events right from “1984 riots” to the recent Nirbhaya rape case. While the presentation was interesting, the several peoples movements and struggles’ in our country around the issue of life, livelihood, environment, against “developmental” projects requiring large scale acquisition of lands and therefore leading to large scale displacement,  were absent from the narrative.

I was surprised at this omission because in these struggles large number of women – adivasi, peasant, dalit, landless, women from the  middle class, etc. have played exemplary roles, often cutting the caste, class, religious divide in a significant way. Moreover many of these women, while fighting to save their homes, lands, water, forests, and livelihoods have faced brutal repression, at the hands of both, the vested interests and the State. It is important to note here that women have played important roles in these struggles right from the time of the Mulshi Satyagraha in the early 1920s to the more recent Chipko Movement, the Baliapal Movement, the struggles in the Narmada valley, fish workers struggles, the struggle in Nandigram, Singur, the Kalinganagar struggle to name just a few.

A program of Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) in the late eighties against the Sardar Sarovar Project. Photo By Shripad Dharmadhikary.   

Women opposing as part of NBA the Maheshwar dam on the river Narmada, one of the first privatized  projects in the country. Photo Source: Not Known.
I also wish to say here that these people’s movements have contributed significantly to the development-environment-human rights debate in the country. Moreover many of the important ideas that are a part of the discussion today, like right to information, consent and participation of affected people, environmental flows, environment impact assessment, etc. find their roots in the early days of these struggles. Furthermore these non-violent struggles across the country have used several innovative strategies that have demonstrated how mass movements of the marginalized can translate into a powerful force against established and dominant interests.

As an activist and a writer, I would be happy to see the many people’s movements against the so called development projects/model, find a place of significance in the contemporary history of India. I would also be happy to see that the contemporary women's history also recognizes in a significant way the assertive and powerful role women have played in shaping the policies of our country.