Saturday, 25 April 2015

Mridula Sarabhai: The struggle within- Part-1

Many of the popular books on Indian history do not have in-depth information on the significant role women have played during India’s struggle for freedom and/or soon after. One has to proactively seek out information even on eminent women to get a fair idea of their work and contribution. For example while one does get some idea of the role Mridula Sarabhai has played in India’s struggle from freedom from books noted below; it is only on reading Aparna Basu’s – ‘Mridula Sarabhai: Rebel with a cause’, that one gets to know the many struggles Mridula Sarabhai had to wage to make room for herself and her work within the organisations she was working/associated with. 

Mridula Sarabhai with Mahatma Gandhi. Photo credit: Old Indian Photos website.

References to Mridula Sarabhai in some of the books on Indian History: 

1. Historian Bipan Chandra in his book ‘India’s Struggle for Independence’ refers to Mridula Sarabhai as follows: “...15th August 1947, dawned revealing the dual reality of Independence and Partition. As always, between the two of them, Gandhiji and Nehru mirrored the feelings of the Indian people. Gandhiji prayed in Calcutta for an end to the carnage taking place. His close follower, Mridula Sarabhai, sat consoling a homeless, abducted 15-year-old girl in a room somewhere in Bomabay...”

2.  In the book ‘India after Independence’, by Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee, the reference to Mridula Sarabhai is as follows: “...Besides, the freedom struggle since the twenties and especially since the thirties, had partaken amply of the creative energies of Indian women. Gandhiji’s statement in the mid thirties to Mridula Sarabhai, a valiant fighter for his causes of women and freedom, ‘I have brought the Indian women out of the kitchen, it is up to you (the women activists) to see that they don’t go back,’ was no empty boast and no thoughtless exhortation...”
3.  Ramchandra Guha in his book ‘India after Gandhi’ makes the following references to Mridula Sarabhai: “...On the Indian side, the operation to recover abducted women [after partition] was led by Mridula Sarabhai and Rameshwari Nehru. Both came from aristocratic homes and both had sturdily nationalist credentials. Their work was encouraged and aided by Nehru, who took deep personal interest in the process. In a radio broadcast to the refugees, the prime minister spoke ...” and then again as follows: “...Like the integration of princely states, the rehabilitation of refugees was political problem unprecedented in nature and scope...The refugees who came to India after independence numbered close to eight million. This was greater than the population of small European countries...Yet both tasks were, in the end, accomplished. Notably, the actors in this complicated and tortuous process were all Indian...Thus it came to be that the heroes remembered in these pages were all Indians- whether politicians like Nehru and Patel, bureaucrats like Tarlok Singh and V.P. Menon, or social workers like Kamladevi Chattopadhyaya and Mridula Sarabhai...” 

4. Achyut Yagnik and Suchitra Sheth in their book ‘The Shaping of Modern Gujarat’, make the following references to Mridula Sarabhai: “...Women In Gujarat were greatly empowered by the Salt Satyagraha and leaders like Mridula Sarabhai, niece of Anasuya Sarabhai, were concerned that ‘women who have been energised and awakened’ should not ‘relapse into apathy and go back to be confined to their homes’. Gandhi wrote to her: “Our women joined the salt satyagraha they came out of their homes. It is now your duty to see that they should not be imprisoned within the four walls of their homes.” 

Later in the book “...More women began to enter public domain and this was reflected in the large participation of women in the Quit India movement in 1942. Later Mridula Sarabhai and her associate Kamlaben Patel worked to rescue and support women abducted during Partition...” and later “...To restore communal harmony Gandhi suggested the formation of Shanti Sevak Ahmedabad...two women members of the newly founded Sangh, Mridula Sarabhai and Indumati Chimanlal went to the affected areas and spread the message of peace and harmony...”

  5. Arun Gandhi in his book ‘Kasturba a life’, makes the following references to Mridula Sarabhai: “In 1938, spontaneous uprisings against arbitrary rule by local princes began erupting across India...But not until protests broke out in Rajkot did the crises reach its climax...and one of the first woman demonstrators to be hauled off to the Rajkot jail was Vallabhbhai Patel’s daughter Maniben...Kasturba was especially disturbed, for Maniben was one of her favourites among younger women in the independence movement...Kasturba, in fact, had left for Rajkot- having hurriedly arranged for another dedicated woman, Mridula accompany her... on February 3, 1939, she [Kasturba] was summarily arrested and...was taken to Tramba to be confined... [later] Ba [Kasturba] was not only released from solitary confinement, but her companions Maniben Patel and Mridula Sarabhai, detained separately in Rajkot jails, were brought to Tramba to share her captivity in the royal bungalow...”

"  "...On March 5, the Thakore’s deputies...freed Kasturba Gandhi from her imprisonment...and escorted her to her husband’s bedside in Rajkot...Ba returned to Tramba that evening at her own request. The guards obliged by taking her in for the night, but next morning Kasturba, Maniben and Mridula were all released...”

From the various books, it is clear that the role Mridula Sarabhai played during the freedom struggle and thereafter was significant. However, in spite of her important contribution, it seems that it was not always easy for Mridula Sarabhai to hold on to positions in the institutions she was associated with. Not just Mridula Sarabhai, but it also seems that women in general who otherwise played important role in public life did not easily get positions of significance in the committees/ institutions/organisations they were associated with as can be understood from Aparna Basu’s book as follows (the book is not easily available in print now and I reproduce some excerpts here):

“ In 1936 Jawaharlal Nehru, as president of the Congress, included in his new Working Committee three Congress Socialists...He did not, however, include any woman. Sarojini Naidu who had been previously a member of the Working Committee was dropped. Mridula was deeply disappointed that, of all persons, Jawaharlal should have done this and she wrote: You have not been able to select even one woman member for your Cabinet. None of us had imagined that such a situation will arise under your Presidentship. Not only was I surprised at such an omission but I was also pained...I have always hoped that we women who are struggling for our development would get blessings from at least Bapu and yourself.’ She [Mridula Sarabhai] made women members of the Gujarat Congress write to Jawaharlal, protesting against the exclusion of women from the Working Committee and the Parliamentary Committee...”.

“...Kasturba Gandhi passed away as a prisoner of the British Government in the Aga Khan Palace Jail, Poona on 22nd February 1944. A plan to raise fund in her name was thought of by Shri Narandas Gandhi...In all, about 100 persons of all shades of public opinion put their signatures to this appeal...A target of collecting seventy-five lakhs of rupees was envisaged by 2nd Oct, 1944...In fact a crore of rupees was collected before that date...On his release from jail on 6th May 1944, Gandhiji was requested and prevailed upon to accept the chairmanship of the Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust (KGNMT) ... Among the persons he [Gandhiji] nominated as trustees was Mridula. For better administration and smooth running, the Board of Trustees resolved to have an executive committee with Mahatma Gandhi as chairman, Sir Purshottamdas Thakurdas as vice-chairman, A.V. Thakkar, popularly known as Thakkar Bapa, as secretary. Mridula was a member of this committee also. At the meeting of the Board of Trustees held in November 1944, Mridula was appointed organising secretary by Gandhiji...Differences developed between Mridula and Thakkar Bapa regarding their method of working, their attitude towards women, the location of the office and generally about the aims of the organisation. According to Mridula, while Thakkar Bapa emphasised relief work, KGNMT’s aim was to create a ‘new’ woman. This ideal he did not share. He was old fashioned, traditional and could not appreciate strong, independent, self-willed women. She wrote to Gandhiji that as long as Bapa was the general secretary, women were not going to be allowed to be in command or take policy decisions...the first clash occurred regarding the appointment of the office secretary. Thakkar Bapa wanted to appoint Shyam Lal, who was serving as secretary of the Harijan Sevak Sangh at Delhi, as he felt that only a man could handle this work. Mridula did not agree and wanted Pupul Jayakar for the post. Thakkar Bapa however was not prepared to appoint Pupul Jayakar. He wrote to the vice-chairman of the Trust, Purshottamdas Thakurdas that Gandhiji wanted Shyam Lal appointed as full-time secretary in the central office of the Trust. The trustees thereupon decided to appoint Shyam Lal. In order not to offend Mridula’s feelings, Gandhiji suggested that Pupul Jayakar could be requested to work in an honorary capacity, and she agreed to do so...”

“...Differences between Thakkar Bapa and Mridula however continued and so she submitted a letter of resignation to Gandhiji in July 1945...He [Gandhiji] held that it was wise for her to resign since she and Thakkar Bapa could not pull along as they were temperamentally so different and he felt that Thakkar Bapa was necessary for the organisation...Mridula continued to take interest in the work of KGNMT. In October 1949, she invited Madam Aung San, the widow of the first prime minister of Independent Burma, to Sevagram to attend the tenth KGNMT meeting...her continuing interest in the work of the Trust despite the fact that she was removed as its organising secretary, reflects her lack of pettiness and her genuine concern for the work which the Trust had undertaken...”