Wednesday 3 August 2011

Women Warriors of India’s Freedom - III

Few women figure as delegates in the official records of the Congress in the pre-Gandhian period. Moreover, they did not wield much influence till Annie Besant (1847-1933), a theosophist leader of Irish origin who made India her second home, became the first woman President of the Congress in 1917 followed by Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) in 1925, the first Indian woman to hold this office.
Annie Besant claimed that she had been a Hindu in her previous birth. She launched the Home Rule movement in 1916 and, like her compatriot, Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856  -1920) campaigned for Swaraj or self rule ‘from Village Council through district and Municipal Boards and Provincial Legislative Assemblies to a National Parliament’.
She argued that it was better to have ‘bullock carts and freedom’ than ‘a train deluxe with subjection’. She preached Swaraj and Swadeshi  through her lectures and writings, and launched The Commonwealth, a weekly and New India (earlier Madras Standard), a daily paper, to fulfill her mission. She believed that India had great potential in terms of men and resources, ‘far greater than America’ and that if granted self rule, it could be helpful in countering  German militarism effectively.
Although she was an inveterate critic of the  British bureaucracy in India, and received occasional warnings, she did not intend to sever ties with Great Britain, and wanted the Congress to help the government in implementing the Montague Chelmsford Reforms of 1919.
She dubbed the Non-Cooperation Movement of Mahatma Gandhi in 1920, as a rebellious act , but supported the resolution on Dominion Status at the All Parties Conference, eight years later. Her vast erudition and great ideals, intense love for India and its heritage, and her role in socio-political awakening has few parallels.
Unlike Annie Besant,  Sarojini Naidu, was a staunch Gandhian besides being a poetess (Kokila, ‘Nightingale’ of India), social activist, and a defender of women rights. Inspired by Margaret Cousins (1878-1954), she led a delegation of fourteen women leaders to Lord Montague, Secretary of State for India and submitted a memorandum soliciting the enfranchisement of women on an equal basis with men.
This was followed by a number of requisitions to the Southborough Committee by women organisations like Women Graduates Union of Bombay, Women’s branch of the Home Rule League, Bharat Istri Mandal, Bombay Women’s India Association, and others. The demand for enfranchisement of women was turned aside on the plea that Indian society was not prepared for it.
Sarojini Naidu and Annie Besant pleaded the case again before the Joint Parliamentary Committee in England in 1919, and tried to build public opinion for the same with the support of Herabai A. Tata, General Secretary of Bombay Women’s India Association.
In 1921, Madras became the first province to enfranchise women though in a restricted way, followed by other provinces, in less than a decade. Sarojini Naidu took an active part in Gandhian Satyagraha movements and underwent imprisonment.
She supported the Gurdwara Reform Movement of Akali-Sikhs  in Punjab and stood for Hindu-Muslim unity. She was an official delegate to the second Round Table Conference (1931) in London after the signing of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact(1931).
She visited many countries including England, South Africa, Canada and the U.S. and lectured on various subjects ranging from the ideals of Indian womanhood to the miserable plight  of Indians in India and abroad.
Her amiable disposition, eloquence, literary flights, and depth of feeling and concern for the downtrodden sections of society made her popular even outside Congress circles. Sarojini Naidu was a nationalist to the core and considered herself ‘a loyal daughter of Bharat Mata’.
The extent of participation of women in national movement differed from place to place and from time to time.
Initially, the elite women in Presidency towns alone were conscious of the exploitative aspects of the British Raj. Women in Bengal were the first to condemn the Vernacular Press Act (1878) of Lord Lytton (1876-1880) and to express gratitude to his successor, Lord Ripon (1880-84) for repealing it, through the platform of the Indian National Association established by Surendranath Bannerji (1848-1925) with Anandmohan Bose.
Enlightened women like Kamini Sen and Abala Das along with the youth of Bethune School, Calcutta, expressed public resentment against the withdrawal of the Ilbert Bill (1883) which could have ensured judicial equality between Indian and European judges.
When Surendranath Bannerji was sentenced to two months imprisonment for contempt of court, consequent to his observations in The Bengalee (founded 1879), women consoled his wife, Chandidasi Devi, and supported his cause. There were protests and demonstrations across Bengal, especially  in  northern and western parts of India.
In times to come, even lower-middle class women came into the open to protest against the government policies, whenever an occasion arose.
Women, in many parts of India, took active part in the Swadeshi and boycott movements, discarding foreign jewellery, clothes, kitchen appliances, glass utensils, paper, refined sugar, etc., and joined  protest meetings, picketing groups and public processions with patriotic zeal. Swadeshi, originally thought of as merely the boycott of foreign goods, gradually acquired  a comprehensive meaning, and it became the virtual doorway to the movement for Swaraj or self rule.
(to be concluded)
Article by : Satish K. Kapoor
Source: Bhavan's Journal 30 April 2011
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