Wednesday 3 August 2011

Women Warriors of India’s Freedom - II

Sister Nivedita (1867-1911) was the first western woman to be initiated into an Indian monastic order. She came into contact with Swami Vivekananda in England in 1895 when she was the headmistress of the Ruskin School, member of the ‘Free Ireland’ group and Secretary of the Sesame Club. After coming to India in January 1898, she opened a Girls’ School in Calcutta (1898), helped the victims of bubonic plague (1899) and of famine and flood in East Bengal (1906), supported the Swadeshi Movement (1905) and inspired nationalist activity. When the singing of ‘Vande Mataram’ was banned, she made the students of her school recite it as a daily prayer.
Much before Mahatma Gandhi popularised the spinning wheel; she introduced it in her school and appointed a lady teacher (charkha-mai) for the same. She mooted the idea of a national flag, with the embroidered emblem of the thunderbolt (vajra) of Indra, at the annual session of the Indian National Congress held at Calcutta in 1906.
She protested against the illiberal provisions of the Universities Act passed during the viceroyalty of Lord Curzon in 1904. She remained associated with such radical organisations as the Dawn Society and the Anushilan Samiti, and was close to Aurobindo Ghosh(1872-1950), extremist leader of Congress, and Benoy Sarkar(1887-1949), a noted economist.
She exhorted women to worship Mother India: ‘Dedicate some part of every puja to this thought of the mother who is Swadesh. Lay a few flowers before her, pour out a little water in Her name’. ‘Let us realise all that our country has done for us - how she has given us birth and food and friends, our beloved ones, and our faith itself . Is she not indeed our mother?’
Anti-colonial protests and movements in the 19th century were stimulated by a number of factors –political subjugation, impoverishment of peasantry, drainage of wealth, repressive land revenue settlements, destruction of indigenous industries, racial discrimination, cultural subordination, spread of western education, the influx of democratic, liberal and rational ideas, new means of transport and communication, rise of new social classes, socio-religious reform movements and the emergence of new political leadership.
Women did not have much role to play in the pre-Mutiny uprisings in India – of Sannyasis of Bengal and Bihar(1763-1800), of peasants of Rangpur (1783), of Polligars of Carnatic (1801-5), of Killadars of Bundelkhand (1800-12) or of Kols (1831-32), Faraizis (1838-51), Mappilas (1836-54) and Santhals (1855-56), which were concerned with peasant and tribal issues, and were more or less localised in character.
However, women of royal households showed valour during the Rising of 1857. Both Maharani Lakshmi  Bai (1828-1858) of Jhansi and Rani of Ramgarh (d.1858) put a heroic fight against the British; the former died while fighting in the battlefield; the latter after realising that she could not win against the strong might of her enemy, pierced a sword in her body to save her honour. 
Rani Tace Bai was deported to Monghyr (1858) and incarcerated for 12 years as she spearheaded a revolt in Mandala district (Madhya Pradesh).
Rani Jindan (1817-1863) was detained in Nepal as the British learnt about her correspondence with the Maharaja of Kashmir and others which revealed that she was secretly making plans to put up a united fight against the Raj. Begum Hazrat Mahal (1820-1879), wife of the deposed Nawab Wazid Ali Shah of Oudh, took refuge in Nepal after failing to resist the British troops.
Many other women of nobility like Thakurani of Budri, Rani Digambar Koer, and Rani of Tikri  offered oblations in the yajna of freedom.
The Rising of 1857 was suppressed but the embers of discontentment continued to smolder.
Sir John Lawrence who became the first Viceroy of India in 1858 sensed the gravity of the situation and informed the Home Government: ‘Yes,India is quiet. As quiet as gun powder.’
Women participation in the annual sessions of the Indian National Congress was minimal in the beginning. They came from urban areas and attended it as visitors, observers, or wives of delegates.
At the annual Congress session of Allahabad (1888) some women gave their jewellery  for party funds. At its Bombay session (1890) representatives of NGO’s like Women Christian Temperance Association, Bengali Ladies Association, Arya Mahila Samaj (Bombay)  joined as delegates.
The most prominent among them were : Pandita Ramabai,a great social reformer, Swarna Kumari Devi, sister of Rabindranath Tagore, and Kadambani Ganguli, the first woman student of Medical College, Calcutta. Ganguli was officially deputed to felicitate the Congress President, Sir Pherozeshah Mehta. Elite women like Hemant Kumari Sukul, Sushila Mazumdar and Hemant Kumari Chaudharani were  present on this occasion. In 1901, Swarn Kumari Devi, President of the women wing of Theosophical Society, attended the Calcutta session of the Congress to understand its objectives.
The first woman delegate from North India  was Miss Jessie Royce, a medical specialist from Ambala who made her presence felt at Bombay in 1890. Another lady of prominence was Rajkumari Amrit Kaur (1889- 1964) who entered national politics under the guidance of Gopalkrishan Gokhale (1866-1915), a moderate Congress leader, and later served as Secretary to Mahatma Gandhi for sixteen years.
(to be continued)
Article by : Satish K. Kapoor
Source: Bhavan's Journal 30 April 2011
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