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. http://www.frontline.in/columns/K_Satchidanandan/squeezing-the-olives/article6464702.ece
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: www.mkgandhi.org|
[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 Belgaum...in 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.