Skip to main content

History less known: Kasturba's role as an independent woman and a freedom fighter in her own right

By Nandini Oza*
Even the most deserving of women do not find a place that equals their worth in history. Kasturba is one such woman whose contribution to India’s struggle for freedom has been exemplary, and yet, it has not received the recognition it deserves. Kastur Makhanji Kapadia was born in the year 1869, the same year and in the same town of Porbandar in Gujarat as Gandhiji. In fact she was older than Gandhiji by a few months.
This is Kasturba’s 150th birth anniversary year too. Popularly known as simply Ba (mother, in Gujarati), passed away while incarcerated in the Aga Khan Palace in Pune by the British.
Kasturba’s life journey was extraordinary, particularly in the context of the era she was born in. It was way back in the year 1913, when not many Indian women ventured out of home that Kasturba was sentenced to three months of hard labor in South Africa for having led a team of satyagrahis. Gandhiji was not a part of the team she led. Kasturba was already a mother when she passed the harsh three months in Martizburg jail.
About this episode, Manmohan Kaur in his book, ‘Women in India’s Freedom Struggle’, writes:
“The women in the Phoenix Farm could not stay back. They joined the struggle. Mahatma Gandhi did not tell his wife Kasturba Gandhi about this programme, but she overheard the conversation and came to Gandhiji and said: ‘I am sorry that you are not telling me about this. What defect is there in me which disqualifies me for the jail?...Gandhiji replied thus: ‘I would be only too glad if you went to jail but it should not appear at all as if you went at my instance.’ She assured her husband: ‘You may have nothing to do with me if being unable to stand jail I secure my release by an apology. If you can endure hardships and so can my boys, why can’t I? I am bound to join the struggle...”

Kasturba was jailed several times thereafter and played an important role in the social and political history our country. Yet, popular books on history of the time either have no reference to her contribution or have cursory references to her role. Even where her contribution is referred to in some detail, it is often her role as a subordinate to Gandhiji that is highlighted. It is only when one digs further that her role as an independent thinking woman and a freedom fighter in her own right comes to light more clearly.
The other issue is, and is rightly put by Ved Mehta in his book titled, ‘Mahatma Gandhi and his Apostles’, while referring to two standard bibliographies of Gandhian literature:
 “...One gets the impression that practically everyone who ever spoke to Gandhi and could put pen to paper has written something about him, and by now his every thought and action has been worked over and preserved by his editors, biographers and bibliographers”
In comparison, about Kasturba he writes:
“...Gandhi’s wife was neglected in life and seems to have been all but overlooked after death.”
It would be important for historians to focus and examine the available records and primary sources to place Kasturba’s contribution to the country first and foremost as an independent woman and a freedom fighter in her own right, and then her role in the context of her extraordinarily challenging life as the wife, in the shadow of her husband, the Mahatma himself. 
It has happened that along with Gandhiji’s political growth, Kasturba’s growth happened too and Gandhiji did help her step out of home to struggle for freedom and against injustice. But soon, she came into her own and became independent in many different ways. The times also demanded that she become self-reliant as Gandhiji, when not in jail, was touring extensively, often leaving Kasturba to fend at home, and the ashrams and even the political struggles.
This conclusion is not difficult to draw from some of the records I quote as examples here.While Mahadevbhai Desai’s diaries in Gujarati in twenty three volumes focus primarily on events around Gandhiji, one gets glimpses of the firebrand freedom fighter that Kasturba was. I highlight some nothings from the diary here (Volume 1, year 1932):
“Yesterday there was news that Ba had gone on a tour of the Bardoli Taluka (in Gujarat). Therefore I [Mahadevbhai ] said, ‘This time Ba will get six months (in jail).’
“Bapu (Gandhi) said, ‘It will not be a surprise if she gets class ‘C’ (jail) and is sentenced to hard labour.’
“Just then the same news appeared. On getting the news, Bapu’s joy knew no bounds. He laughed aloud. He then spoke only this much: ‘Were they not ashamed to sentence a sixty year old woman to hard labour!’”

At another place, Mahadevbhai notes (Volume 17, year 1923):
“Kasturba had promised that, ‘if the soldiers are ready then I will most definitely join you.’ This is because she finds living outside while Gandhiji is in jail worse than death. I have faith that keeping Kasturba in the lead, the army of people going to jail will get Gandhiji released.”
Kasturba’s contribution in addressing meetings especially of women, fund raising, running the ashrams where she and Gandhiji resided, spinning, engaging in political discussions etc during the struggle for freedom has been phenomenal. This comes to light when one reads some of the primary and secondary sources available to us. In the book, ‘Women in India’s Freedom Struggle,’ Manmohan Kaur writes:
“Kasturba... presided over meetings and also toured the various States propagating for the success of the movement. Presiding over the Gujarat Provincial Conference she condemned untouchability and preached Swadeshi... when it was reported to her that her son Devdas Gandhi has been arrested, she took the news saying: ‘Only two of my sons have gone to jail, but twenty thousand sons of mother Hind are in jail; how can I bemoan my lot!’"
In the book, “The Untold Story of Kasturba, Wife of Mahatma Gandhi" Arun and Sunanda Gandhi with Carol Lynn Yellin write:
“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... on February 3, 1939, she [Kasturba] was summarily arrested and...was taken to Tramba to be confined... [Later] Ba 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...”
Further:
“For my grandparents, the year 1933 became a cycle of arrests, jails, fasts, releases and re-arrests...soon Kasturba was arrested again – the sixth time in just two years- and given another six-month sentence to be served in Sabarmati Jail. Apparently the British now regarded Mrs. Gandhi, due to her own unique ability to involve women in the independence movement, as an even more threat to law and order than Gandhi himself..."
The influence that Kasturba wielded on women during the freedom struggle is corroborated in Mahadevbhai’s diaries when he writes in reference to the Nagpur Satyagraha (Volume 18, year 1923-24):
“...The end of Nagpur order will be on August 17. It is to be seen what the Government does. If the new order is not passed, defeat will have to be accepted. If there is a new order, the struggle will continue. And now the new struggle will begin with Kasturba in the lead. By sending women, will the youth remain behind?”
Reading Sushila Nayar’s book titled, ‘Kasturba - A Personal Reminiscence’, one can understand the diverse roles that Kasturba performed and the qualities that she had. I quote:
“I again went to the Ashram during the summer vacations. My brother (Gandhi’s secretary Pyarelal) and Bapu at the time were in jail as a result of Salt Satyagraha. Ba was touring from village to village seeing workers, visiting the victims of police excesses in hospitals, and in their homes and talking to the people to infuse courage and enthusiasm into them...
“In 1935, I went to Wardha...I saw Ba labouring from morning till night at all sorts of domestic chores, visiting the sick, talking to workers...I happened to go to Wardha again in November the same year. At that time Ba’s youngest son Devdas Gandhi was ill. He was suffering from a nervous breakdown. The patience and deep understanding with which she looked after him was extraordinary... she took him to Shimla...my brother (Pyarelal) has told me that her motherly love and commonsense did more for Devdas than all the doctors combined. Her son recovered and she came back to Gandhiji.”
It is not just about looking after their four sons, but when it came to Laxmi, their adopted daughter who also is often absent from books on Gandhiji, Kasturba played an important role after her initial reluctance in accepting her. Recounting her experience in jail in 1932, Laxmi has said in her interview:
“...we were taken to Sabarmati jail where Kasturba was also locked up and since she was an A class prisoner she often passed on to us some bread and butter. The food was horrible so we made do with the supply and we spent 17 days in this jail after which we were transferred to the Yervada jail in Poona. Kasturba protested saying that we were still young and should not be transferred from one jail to another. But no one listened to us and we landed in Yervada where we met Sarojini Naidoo who was serving her sentence there. She was in the next cell and so she took care of us like Kasturba did...”
It was also because Kasturba was a threat to the British and because of the influence she wielded on the masses, particularly women that she too was arrested and jailed along with other leaders during the Quit India movement in August 1942. She was past seventy years of age and yet she was picked up along with Sushila Nayar to be brought first to the Arthur Road jail in Mumbai. About this arrest Sushila Nayar writes:
“The news of Gandhi’s arrest spread like lightening speed. People started pouring to the Birla House and Ba was kept busy talking to someone or the other the whole day...Bapu was to address a public meeting at Shivaji Park that evening. Ba announced that she would address the meeting instead of him and people were thrilled to hear it...the car that was to take us to the meeting was commandeered by the police and was used as a prison van to take us- Ba and myself and my brother to the Arthur Road Prison... 'They won’t let us out alive this time,' she [Kasturba] spoke at last...”
The conditions in Arthur Road Jail were appalling and Kasturba, who was already unwell, had no proper medical care. Later they were shifted to the Aga Khan Palace where Gandhiji had been jailed along with Mahadevbhai Desai. It was here that Kasturba witnessed the passing away of Mahadevbhai, their close aide. She also endured Gandhiji’s twenty days’ fast in captivity. All of this finally took a toll on Kasturba’s already failing health and she breathed her last in British custody on February 22, 1944, never to see her country free for which she had struggled powerfully. 
It is essential that we commemorate the life of Kasturba too, along with Gandhiji on their 150th birth anniversary.
---
*Independent researcher and activist, formerly with Narmada Bachao Andolan. This blog first appeared in http://nandinikoza.blogspot.com/

Comments

Uma Sheth said…
Well-written and well-timed article. We are so jaded with constant flow of bad news that an article like this is refreshing and gives us hope that life mayhas to improve sooner or later.

TRENDING

Green revolution "not sustainable", Bt cotton a failure in India: MS Swaminathan

Counterview Desk
In a recent paper in the journal “Current Science”, distinguished scientist PC Kesaven and his colleague MS Swaminathan, widely regarded as the father of the Green Revolution, have argued that Bt insecticidal cotton, widely regarded as the continuation of the Green Revolution, has been a failure in India and has not provided livelihood security for mainly resource-poor, small and marginal farmers.
Sharply taking on Green Revolution, the authors say, it has not been sustainable largely because of adverse environmental and social impacts, insisting on the need to move away from the simplistic output-yield paradigm that dominates much thinking. Seeking to address the concerns about local food security and sovereignty as well as on-farm and off-farm social and ecological issues associated with the Green Revolution, they argue in favour of what they call sustainable ‘Evergreen Revolution’, based on a ‘systems approach’ and ‘ecoagriculture’.
Pointing out that Evergreen Revol…

Rejoinder: Inescapable to have Central Water Commission as strong technical body in India

By BN Navalawala*
This is with reference to Counterview Blog (December 5, 2018), "Modi govt 'shelves' water reforms report, shows 'no interest' in its recommendations", below mentioned are my comments/observations thereon:
A committee was constituted under the Chairmanship of Dr. Mihir Shah, Former Member, Planning Commission, for restructuring of Central Water Commission (CWC) and Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) for optimal development of water resources in the country in the backdrop of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM).

Some Hindu bodies in US defending BJP-RSS' divisive, violent activities: Agnivesh

Counterview Desk Last week, Washington DC saw speakers at a religious freedom roundtable, chaired by the US Ambassador for Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, express concern over "eroding" space for religious freedom in India. Dr Mike Ghouse, executive director, of the Center for Pluralism in Washington DC, referring to the roundtable, said in an email alert that Indian-Americans have "a moral duty to prevent India from being labeled as a Country of Particular Concern by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)".

World Bank clarifies: Its 26th rank to India not for universal access to power but for ease of doing business

By Our Representative
In a major embarrassment to the Government of India, the World Bank has reportedly clarified that it has not ranked India 26th out of 130 countries for providing power to its population. The top international banker’s clarification comes following Union Power Minister Piyush Goyal’s claim that India has “improved to 26 position from 99” in access to electricity in just one year.

Preventing childhood deaths: India performs worse than Bangladesh, "equals" Pakistan

By Rajiv Shah
A just-released study, “The Pneumonia and Diarrhea Progress Report 2018”, prepared by the International Vaccine Access Centre (IVAC) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has identified India among 15 other countries which are still far off the mark in achieving the targets of the Global Action Plan for the Prevention of Pneumonia and Diarrhea (GAPPD).

India's rewritten textbooks talk of demerits of democracy, praise Hitler, underrate Mughals

Counterview Desk
A detailed, 3,800-word review of the books rewritten under directions of the BJP rulers across India since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014 has suggested that one of aims of the books is to instill a sense of doubt about India’s democratic polity among the country’s young minds. Reviewed in the prestigious US journal, “The New York Review of Books”, in its latest issue (December 6, 2018) by Alex Traub, the scrutiny insists, the effort has also been to paint Indian history from the angle of “Hindu triumphalism”, even as creating “Islamophobia”.

Govt of India "tarnishing" NGO reputation, dossier leaked selectively: Amnesty

Counterview Desk
Amnesty International India has said that a deliberate attempt is being made to tarnish its reputation by leaking a dossier, supposedly made by investigating agencies, to media without giving it access to any such information. The high profile NGO’s claim follows a Times Now report about proceedings launched by investigative agencies, including Enforcement Directorate (ED) against the rights body for “violations” of rules pertaining to overseas donations.

Four children die after poor UP Dalit, Muslim families forced to flee to forest area: PVCHR

Counterview Desk
Peoples’ Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR) has said that the forest department police’s crackdown, allegedly without any prior notice, on Dalit and Muslim households in Dakhin Tola, Churk Bazaar, Sonbhadra district, Uttar Pradesh, beating up “children and old people, women, and men in an inhuman way”, has led to “forced displacement, starvation and discrimination”. This has reportedly affected about 350 people.

Social workers, architects, students, historians, common people come together, protest "politics" of renaming Ahmedabad

By Nandini Oza*
No sooner did the BJP leaders of Gujarat announce the intention of changing the name of Ahmedabad to Karnavati just before Diwali, on November 7, 2018, many people’s mood changed from festivity to heated debate and furor across the state. For many of us, an online petition, initiated by Bandish Soparkar, on change.org protesting name change came to immediate rescue.

Vedanta is out but corporate loot continues in Odisha: Local activists tell NAPM yatra

By Our Representative
Lok Shakti Abhiyan leader Prafulla Samantara, winner of the Goldman Environmental (also known as Green Nobel) Prize in 2017, has regretted that though Sundergarh in Odisha, like other forest areas, is a fifth schedule area, where Forest Rights Act (FRA) and Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) is applicable, but these laws are being “outrightly violated to facilitate corporate loot.”