Saturday, 28 April 2018

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay - A woman freedom fighter less acknowledged in the pages of History

Although a student of history, I must admit that I know little about Kamaladevi Chattopadyay. The fault is not entirely mine. Popular books on history throw little light on prominent women freedom fighters and important political activists.  

 This lacuna has also been highlighted by author Devaki Jain while reviewing the book- ‘A Passionate Life: Writings by and on Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’, in EPW dated March 24, 2018. Devakiji writes, “A Passionate Life, a collection of essays on Kamaladevi Chattopadyay…puts to shame scholars of Indian political history, and those writing on Indian women’s movement…she engaged in Indian freedom struggle at the highest level, as a critic who could not be ignored…there are hardly any substantial writings by prominent  modern history scholars on her life…”

Kamaladevi Chattopadyay (center) leading a march during India's struggle for freedom. Photo Source: Hindustan360

One therefore has to dig in more to be able to get further information on someone like Kamaladevi who was the first woman to be jailed in Bombay Presidency to break the salt law way back in 1930[1].  And whose contribution to India’s social, economic, cultural and political sphere is extraordinary. Her life and work is of particular significance for being a woman and as a contemporary of many known figures of our freedom struggle and development history of the country.  I therefore thought it important to bring before the readers whatever little has been written or not written on Kamaladevi in some books of history I have referred to for information on her:

Kamaladevi (center) and Kasturba  Gandhi (right). Photo Source- Codepen

1. Mahadevbhai’s diaries: The references to Kamaladevi in the diaries are few (translated from Gujarati):Volume-14, Karachi Congress (1931)
“…The participation of women in this struggle was appreciated everywhere and as a result the number of Congress women volunteers at the Karachi Congress was huge.  It was heard that those women on guard had forcibly presented the issue of the rights of the women volunteers. In the Congress Mahasamity also several of the women could be seen and at the time of passing an important resolution on Bhagat Singh, the one who opposed Gandhi was Shri Kamaladevi Chattopadyay. The resolution concerning equal rights to women can also be said to have come about because of these women…”

Volume-3, 27-2-1933:
 “…Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay came…It was instructed [instruction was given] to come only over the issue of untouchability and yet ... brought her in without informing her about the condition. She wanted advice from Bapu about her son. How can she who arrived, asked to go out?”

 2. Book- ‘Mridula Sarabhai, Rebel with a Cause’, by Aparna Basu:  Before looking at the reference to Kamaladevi in this book, I wish to point out what Devaki Jain further writes in EPW in her review- A Passionate Life, 
“Lal shares my view and he says that searching for documents which record or signal significant woman leaders in the independence movement, it was shocking to find her absent in most of these, and yet it was she and not Sarojini or Vijyalakshmi or even Aruna Asaf Ali who built the Congress Socialist Party. She challenged Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru critiquing their draft resolutions at the working committee meetings of the Congress party to such an extent that Gandhi warned Nehru that she was a mischievous woman and needed to be dropped from the drafting committee.”
In the book- ‘Mridula Sarabhai, Rebel with a Cause’, the following matches what Devaki Jain has written above:

 “In 1936 Jawaharlal Nehru, as president of the Congress, included in his new working committee three Congress Socialists, Acharya Narendra Deva, Jayprakash Narayan and Achyut Patwardhan. He did not however include any woman. Sarojini Naidu who was previously a member of the working committee was dropped. Mridula [Sarabhai] 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.’  She was not upset at the exclusion of Sarojini Naidu, who, she felt ‘had done nothing actively in the Congress to bring awakening amongst women,’ but said that someone else such as Kamladevi Chattopadhyay should have been taken in.”

 3.  ‘The Autobiography of Indulal Yagnik- Volume -3’: Indulal Yagnik: on Kamaladevi:

 “Before I went to Dahod for the Bhil Conference, Nirubhai had told me that on 16 January the Congress and Congress Socialist workers had assembled at Meerut …it was decided in this meeting that the first All India Kisan Parishad would be held in the month of April in conjunction with the congress sessions. The Congress Socialist Party committee had appointed a Kisan subcommittee and the meeting  called under its auspices was attended by Kamladevi,  Jayprakash  and Mohan Lal Gautam... ever since I had come to Bombay,  Kashalchand bhai continued to write to me from Ahmedabad to find the proper president for the conference of the shop- clerks.  The name of Kamladevi who had taken a lead in Kisan organisation occurred to me and when I contacted her through my socialist friends she accepted.  Kashalchandbhai and his colleagues felt happy at the choice of this president.  Hence the impressive conference of the shop –clerks assembled in Ahmedabad on 12th and 13th March under the presidency of Kamladevi.  She made a spirited speech about the demands of the shop-clerks’ wages, holidays and hours of leave.  For implementing them she called on the entire world of shop-clerks to give support to the - Bakhle-Bill...12 years had passed since I attended the congress session of 1924, I knew only a few congressmen and socialists. Fortunately, comrade Jamaluddin Bukhari whom I knew from Bombay introduced me to several people and arranged for my refreshments.  The top leaders in Congress resented my relations with the Socialists and therefore I kept away from them, but I met Meherali  Batliwala  and other friends from Bombay,  and Kamladevi who had taken the initiative in calling the Kisan Sabha.  I had seen her several years before in the Excelsior theatre in Bombay playing a role on stage along with Rabindranath Chattopadhyay.  Later on I also met her in the non acceptance of office campaign in Bombay.  Now talking at leisure with her about kisans, I was impressed by her serious and powerful personality...during these days the meeting of the Central Kisan Committee was held.  The president and the secretaries, Kamladevi and Jayaprakash attended.  The committee made a demand to pass new pro-kisan laws regarding rent and the land revenue quickly ...and  pass laws cutting down the debt to the sahukars ...”

 4.   ‘Leftism in India 1917 – 1947’, by Satyabrata Rai Chowdhuri: 
“...At Karachi, although the left wing had decided to not to approve the Gandhi –Irwin Pact, they refrained from precipitating a split…among the various socialist groups formed during this period, the most important were those in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Bombay and Punjab….In Bombay similar groups were formed by eminent Socialists such as Yusuf Meherally, M.R. Masani, Achyut Patwardhan and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya…The idea of the Congress Socialist Party first took shape in the Nashik Jail....came to realise that it was only by forming an effective opposition bloc inside the Congress that the drift to neo-constitutionalism could be prevented and the nationalist movement resuscitated to a revolutionary purpose and with a mass base...The South Indian Federation of Peasants to explore the possibilities of forming an all- India organisation from whose platform the peasants could fight for their class demands…it was also decided that the representatives of all peasants’ organisations would meet in another conference at Meerut in January 1936. The Meerut Conference held under the presidency of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, outlined the aims and objectives of the peasant movement and formed an organising committee with N.G. Ranga, Mohanlal Gautam and Jayprakash Narayan as secretaries…from the moment of its inception, the All India Kisan Congress was subjected to pull and pressures from the right and the left. Right wing leaders of the Congress...viewed the formation of a separate peasants’ organisation with misgivings...explaining why the Kisan Congress was formed outside the Congress, Narendra Dev observed that at many places the Congress was controlled by professional men, merchants and city money lenders and as they could not identify with the rural population they could not be expected to safeguard the interests of the peasantry... ”

 5. ‘Women In India’s Freedom Struggle’,  by Manmohan Kaur: 

“...Kamala Devi joined the Congress Socialist Party in 1934 and presided over its All India Conference at Meerut the very next year...after India attained independence, Kamala Devi’s interest was diverted from politics to cooperative movement. She sponsored the Indian cooperative union...”
Although Kamaladevi seems to be at the forefront of Congress Socialist Party and promoting several crucial causes including those of the workers, women and peasants, she is not given the place she deserves in the pages of history.

1. In the book, ‘India’s struggle for Independence’, by Bipan Chandra, I could not find any reference to Kamaladevi in the Index. In the book Bipan Chandra writes, 

“The Congress met at Karachi on 29 March 31 to endorse the Gandhi- Irwin or the Delhi Pact.  Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru had been executed 6 days earlier.  Even though Gandhiji had made every attempt to save their lives there was anger among the people especially the youth, and as to why he had not refused to sign the Pact on this question. All along Gandhiji’s route to Karachi he was greeted with black flag demonstrations.  The Congress passed a resolution drafted by Gandhiji by which it, ‘ while disassociating itself from and disapproving of political violence  in any shape or form,’ admired the bravery and sacrifice of the three Martyrs.’ The Congress endorsed the Delhi Pact…”

In this book by Bipin Chandra,  there is no reference to Kamaladevi’s opposition to the resolution as noted in Mahadevbhai’s diary above.  Similarly, the Congress Socialist Party, its work among the peasants and working class, its ideology and its members like Jayprakash Narayan,   Acharya Narendra Dev, Minoo Masani are detailed at length in the book. But Kamaladevi, her work and role in the Congress Socialist Party or with peasants and workers find no reference. 

2.      In the book titled, ‘From Plassey to Partition- A history of Modern India’, by Shekhar Bandhopadhyay, once again I could not find any reference to Kamaladevi in the Index or in the write up about Congress Socialist Party and Kisan Sabhas. 

3.   In the book titled, ‘India after Gandhi, the history of world’s largest democracy’, by Ramchandra Guha, Kamaladevi has been referred to as follows:

 “The bulk of the migrants from West Punjab were farmers…to accommodate them the Government built brand new townships…among the groups active here was the Indian Cooperative Union (ICU) an organisation headed by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, a socialist and feminist who had been closely associated with Mahatma Gandhi.” And later, while writing about the problem of refugees and their rehabilitation, “…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 Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Mridula Sarabhai.”

Although Guha talks about the Socialist Party, Kamaladevi as one of its important leaders is absent in the pages.

To conclude: Kamaladevi’s role as an important freedom fighter, her differences with the Congress party and taking up leadership role in the Congress Socialist Party, her role in the struggles and organisations of peasants and workers, is generally absent from the popular books of history. So also her contribution and work as the chair person of All India Handicrafts Board for seventeen years, or her role in Bhartiya Natya Sangh, Sangeet Natak Academy, etc has not been highlighted. 

One therefore looks forward to books that are based on in-depth research on women freedom fighters and political activists of our country.

[1] Book: Women Pioneers In India’s Renaissance, National Book Trust