By Mahima S. Acttuthan (JD)
The Indian freedom struggle has conventionally been associated with the organized nationalist movement of Satyagraha, non-violence and its major advocates-Gandhi, Nehru and Patel. This perception of the movement has lent to it a monochromatic and patriarchal nature. The organised resistance against the British in fact finds history in the 1800's, when in its infancy pioneers were not only male leaders, but also rebel female leaders like the Rani of Jhansi. However, with the progression of the struggle into a more structured and coherent movement, the role of women and their nationalist contributions also changed. The change, however, cannot be viewed as a linear transformation. Instead, it is a layering or fragmentation that makes the role of women and femininity during the freedom struggle a more complex phenomenon. This can clearly be seen in Gandhi's views on the role of women, where they are encouraged to embody the virtues of the mythological Sita-Draupadi and dismiss the more "situationally" accurate Rani of Jhansi symbol. Thus, this report will attempt to analyze the multifaceted role of the woman freedom fighter in India by contrasting her militant and autonomous contributions to her more passive and "domestic" contributions during Satyagraha. This will be done by contrasting female militant and revolutionary tendencies, as seen in the contributions of the rebel leader Rani Lakshmni Bai, with the Gandhian theory on women's role and contributions during the Satyagraha movement and its subsequent effect on the work of the Gandhian prototype, Sarojini Naidu. However, in studying Naidu's work it is apparent that she tried to rebel from Gandhi's narrowly defined characterization of woman. It is thus conducive to mention that it is difficult to solely view the contributions of the freedom fighters in terms of labels, which in turn renders this complex persona of femininity during the period.
In order to contrast between the aforesaid militant strategies and domestic contributions and understand how the varying roles of woman contributed to the complex perception of Indian femininity, one needs to comprehend Gandhi's philosophy on the nature of women and their role in Swaraj. However, before embarking on a detailed discussion of the Mahatma's theory, it would be essential to first understand the role of Rani Lakshmi Bai in the movement and its impact on his philosophy. The Rani embodied the sort of feminine strength that is usually associated with masculine bravery. Her preference for violence or fighting strategies as a means to attain her goal would have traditionally been associated with masculinity. Additionally, she ruled a kingdom, which in itself was a great feat in the patriarchic socio-political milieu of the time. Consequently, the Rani of Jhansi was able to accomplish what only a few of her female contemporaries such as Begum Hazrat Mahal, Rani of Ramgarh and Rani Tace Bai could, in varying degrees. Her example of feminine bravery thus lends a different perspective to the traditional definition of female heroism as seen in Gandhian philosophy.
Signs of this overt physical bravery and courage that the Rani exuded were cultivated in an unconventional childhood that gave her the necessary training for military leadership. This aspect about her life among others was unique for a woman of her time. Born in 1835 to Morpant Tambe, a Brahmin officer in the Maratha army and adviser to Chimnaji Appa, brother of the Peshwa king Baji Rao II, little Manikarnika, as she was named before marriage, grew up in the Peshwa's court.1 Her playmates were Nana Sahib, the son of the Peshwa, Rao Sahib, Bala Sahib and Tatya Tope -members of the nobility who would later be her allies in the rebellion. Growing up in the company of such males instead of female companions, Manikarnika learned to read and write, unusual even for a Brahmin girl at that time. More importantly, she became an exceptional equestrian and swordswoman. She possible even learned to use a gun. With these skills at hand, demonstrations of her bravery and individuality were quite evident in childhood, as exemplified in popular folklore. Furthermore the young girl came to share games, values and education with her male playmates, as he was deprived of a "traditional nurturing feminine influence" due to her mother's premature death.2 This type of nurturing gave her the military skills that she would, most importantly, need in later year to come. Additionally, though not intentionally, it prepared her emotionally and spiritually for the trials and tribulations of military and political life. The bravery that she would exemplify in later years was being cultivated in childhood.
Rani Lakshmi Bai's leadership was multifaceted, and her military tendencies that she came to be so famous for were enhanced by her political smarts. These qualities, consequently, established her as the decision maker and autonomous leader of her state, upon the death of her husband: Gangadhar Rao, the king of Jhansi, in 1853. However, the couple's adopted son was not recognized as the rightful heir to the throne by Governor-General Dalhousie, because he was not a "direct" or "natural heir" according to the governor's reading of the policies of "ancient Hindu sovereign princes."3 And thus, he put the doctrine of lapse into effect, a process of annexation under which the territory of the East India Company would steadily increase. This was the milestone in the Rani's life that commenced her reign as a capable political leader. In response she made several appeals to the administration, citing a disregard of Hindu traditions in the context of the adoption issue and argued that her adopted son and late husband were in fact blood relatives. After many rejections and oversights, Lakshmi Bai rested her case by pointing out that over the four months that had passed after the raja's death she had most efficiently conducted the affairs of state.4 She accused the government of ignoring her "competence to rule," and asserted, "the people of Jhansi did not desire to be made the subject of the East India Company. On the contrary, and without a single exception they testified their willingness and desire to remain the subject of your memorialist and her ward".5 These petitions against British rule were only the first signs of the Rani's rebellion. She used diplomacy as a tool to gain justice, and when that did not work she induced not only a nationalistic fervour among her people but aroused their "fear and religious passions," by bringing to light the indiscretions of the British.6 This antagonistic feelings towards them led to the eruption of Sepoy mutinies at various locations including Jhansi and subsequently the rebels returned Jhansi back to the queen. Historical evidence does not clarify whether the Rani had a hand in this initial rebellion, but the British, nevertheless, blamed her for the insurgence and sought her out for trail and hanging. The queen resisted and "chose to fight and die in battle" instead.7 She made a decision that few women would in her position. Not only did she come to autonomously rule a principality amidst the prevailing matriarchic society, but also made bold diplomatic decisions in the interest of her state. She thereby achieved the undying loyalty of her subjects, including the men, and single handedly took on the monumental British rule.
The Rani had always appeared to be radical and revolutionary by protesting the British rule, but now she was embarking on a new journey - her reign of martial prowess began, where she assumed the role or the military leader, systematically prepared her entourage for war and implemented her skills on and off the battlefield. The skills that she had acquired in childhood were now proving to be useful. Not only did she personally train, but also put together an army or fourteen thousand men of Hindu, Muslims, Pathans, jagidars and missionaries. She also trained a special regiment of women soldiers, thus directly involving her female subjects in the rebellion. In fact she had begun training them even when she was restricted to the zenana and purdah. The Pathans and Rajputs proved to be an important source of "military power." They were military advisers who helped her in forming strategies or defense. Additionally she also trained sub caste of Ahirs. Not only was she a patriot, but a compassionate ruler who sympathized with the lower classes. The Rani's preparatory work was however limited not only to the training of soldiers. She disclosed the guns and cannons that had been concealed from the British and began to "cast cannons" and produce ammunition. She formed alliances with military leaders and proclaimed that "her reign had commenced and the English Raj was over"8 The siege began in March of 1853, and according to a British source the "Rani bravely defended herself to the last [with no] symptom of weakness".9 With her fellow male rebel leaders being cruelly defeated, her soldiers put up a great resistance, leading Sir Huge Rose, the British general who fought against her, to say "the people of Jhansi fought for the Queen and the independence of the country"10 The Rani catapulted into fame among her subjects even before she assumed the throne due to the misplaced priorities of the raja. Her marked bravery and independence made the young Rani even more popular than her husband. In her military-like garments, the Rani went into battle with her fellow rebel leaders. She conceived plans such as the recuperation or Gwalior, and spearheaded the offense. The city fell in the hands of the rebels in no time, proving not only the Rani's combat but also strategic skills. Through her experience she had learnt to judge the opposition's strategic plans and cautioned the men not to be cavalier about the situation. They unfurl lately dismissed her expert opinion. She continued to fight on the battlefield and fought with English soldiers only to be mortally wounded. Returning to her fort she tried to withstand the open fire, but was shot which culminated in her immediate death.11
Lakshmi Bai's legacy as a revolutionary and military leader of the rebellion, not only perpetuated her as a legend, but also as a symbol of nationalism during the more structured phase or the independence movement. Upon her fall "the whole rebel army mourned her" and she was by far the "best and bravest of the rebel leaders" according to her opponent Sir Rose12 And thus this young woman, who had come to govern the principality of Jhansi, most courageously opposed the oppression of the British rule and heroically defended her state on the battlefield. She was a revolutionary leader who as an autonomous ruler had military leadership over men in her state. Her contribution towards the rebellion, so greatly impacted the freedom struggle, that leaders like Subas Chandra Bose used the legend of the Rani as a symbol of patriotism and dubbed her "the first heroine" of the "first war of independence".13 Her bias towards the use of violence and rebellious tactics as against a more passive approach made her contributions towards the struggle unique. She came to epitomize valor and strength in the individual woman, giving some female freedom fighters, especially Bose's followers, a model to emulate. However, not all national leaders or all women freedom fighters idolized the Rani or turned to her for inspiration. Gandhi was one such leader, who chose to reject the queen's militaristic contributions as a symbol of female strength for women to emulate, and advocated instead an alternative non-violent representation.
Gandhi's views on the woman's role in independence were complex and rooted in the notion that she embodied the spiritual and moral courage of Sita and Draupadi-the mythological heroines of Hinduism. Representing Gandhi's perception of the ideal Indian woman, female followers were encouraged to embody the "pure, firm and self-controlled" virtues symbolized by these heroines, He urged women to be as "self-reliant" as Draupadi and upholders of "superior moral courage" as seen in the chaste Sita. Thus, the Mahatma used the aid of religious and traditional symbols of Indian womanhood to convey a complex "socio-political message"14 He equated the British rule with Ravanraj from the Ramayana, and implored the women to protect their land against British oppression just as Sita "fought" to preserve her chastity. Similarly, it was the women's civic and religious duty to prepare for sacrifice like Sita did. Just as Ravanna "dwindled" when confronted by Sita's superior moral courage, so would the British rule collapse when faced by the female opposition.15 Additionally, on many occasions, he attributed meanings to these symbols that had no bearing with their characterization ill the Hindu epics, For instance. Sita was associated with Swadeshi and anti-imperialists sentiments.16 Gandhi's use of these religious figures was ostensibly a tool to manipulate the system, whereby he could legitimize the entry of women into the political sphere and motivate them to join the movement by equating them with the great mythological heroines. In doing so Gandhi also limited the definition or female strength by restricting it to the passive realm of "moral and spiritual courage." Women were to embody "sacrifice and suffering" through which they would raise the national morale and instill a sense or nationalism and patriotism. They were to act as the "best exemplar" of these virtues. Thus the cultivation or strength on the individual level as seen in the more "situationally relevant" Rani of Jhansi was rejected, Aggressiveness and forceful intervention, as represented by the Rani, was not seen as a viable tool for attaining Swaraj or political power in the movement. Women were to instead use their superior qualities of passivity, patience and self-sacrifice to attain their goals.17
Building on these ideas of the woman's command over the moral realm, Gandhi further defined her role in the movement, by emphasizing the "domestic" and "non-violent" nature of her contributions. He went on to form a connection between nationalism and female emancipation as a further incentive for women to join the movement. Women were to take upon the responsibility of uplifting themselves from the "shackles of domesticity" and male oppression to achieve their aspirations for freedom at a personal as well as national level. Their contributions, however, would not be limited to the cause of political independence alone. Swaraj also meant the reconstruction of society and this reformation was to be led by women, because according to Gandhi "it is their special vocation and privilege"18 [qtd. in Kishwar 1697]. Thus their contribution towards the Satyagraha movement and the subsequent rehabilitation of the country would be from the domestic sphere. While Gandhi arduously campaigned for the emancipation of women and the equality of the sexes, he still held that theirs spheres of contribution were to be kept separate. A dichotomy was formed where the Mahatma insisted on the stereotypical roles of women and men, yet in practice encouraged women to break away from the stereotype. These views would be implemented by directing the women's capacity for non-violent, Satyagraha work from the domestic sphere. Women, according to Gandhi, are the epitome or non-violent restraint; it is in their innate nature to be passive. Thus they of all people, would be able to successfully follow the path of non-violence, and it would behoove men to emulate their great strength.19
In keeping with these non-violent characteristics that Gandhi associated with women, he fully articulated the different types of Satyagraha work that would be appropriate for his women followers. Since women in the traditional sense, were perceived to be homemakers and nurturers, their initiation into the movement would begin with their capacity to influence first the opinions of others in the household. And this would begin with the rearing of children. The mother is considered to be the first teacher of the child, thus it is she who should instill in the child feelings of Indian nationalism and patriotism. Women also conducted Arandhan rites or non-cooking days. This once again enabled them to participate in the movement but still be connected to the household.20
The Swadeshi vow was another aspect of Satyagraha that women needed to maintain in order for it to be effective. Men alone could not uphold it or motivate others, especially children to live by it. This responsibility once again fell in the woman's sphere-she was the one who clothed the children and thus the spirit of Satyagraha within her was paramount. Therefore, women were encouraged to relinquish foreign goods and spin Khadi, the latter being the most essential part of their work. In setting up the first non- cooperative movement of 1921, Gandhi formed a program for women, whereby, they would contribute towards the movement from their homes. The spinning of Khadi became their main activity and the symbol of their contribution.21 Gandhi considered spinning Khadi as the most non-violent protest and the epitome of Satyagraha. Additionally, it was also the answer to the dwindling autonomy of Indians in the economy. Gandhi thus focused the home industry of spinning, as the woman's greatest contribution:
The restoration of spinning to its central place in India's peaceful campaign for deliverance from the imperial yoke gives women a special status ....they have a natural advantage over men [in spinning as it is a] a slow and comparative silent process. Women is the embodiment of sacrifice and therefore, non-violent. Her occupations must therefore be, as they are more conducive to peace than war.22 Yet again Gandhi stereotyped woman as a peaceful being who would have the ability to endure such laborious work. Therefore, because of this inert patience it was advisable that her contributions be of a non-violent nature. The constant reiteration of the "peaceful" nature of women again points to Gandhi's predilection to perceive female strength to be this passive entity. There was no scope for an alternative form of female strength, and this was once again reflected in the nature of the work he assigned to women. With the wearing of Khadi women would also spread the spirit of nationalism in the villages; it was a process that made the complex socio-political Gandhi an ideas of freedom more conducive for the masses to understand. Additionally, women were also asked to sing Bhajans to lend a religious aspect in the spreading of the spirit of Satyagraha. Playing on the notion that women have an inherent bias towards nonÂviolence, Gandhi preferred women as leaders of picketing squads. Their presence in such activities was perceived as a "disciplining force" poised against agitation and possible use of violence. Once again an assumption was made that women would not be violent, since according to Gandhi it was not in their nature.23 It is thus evident from Gandhi's views that he envisioned the role of the woman as being that of a passive, nonviolent entity who spreads the message of Satyagraha and practices it from the domestic sphere. In her capacity as the sacrificing, pure and chaste upholder of virtues in the moral realm she was to spread the values of Satyagraha. This was her defined role as a freedom fighter.
However, in response many women rebelled against this passive "auxiliary, supportive and nurturant role."24 Their impatience with this circumscribed position and desire to have a more active role in the movement was exemplified by their appeals to Gandhi to let them join the Dandi march against salt taxes, Men had been predominantly responsible for political organization of public protests, Women too expressed a desire for shouldering such political responsibilities by accompanying Gandhi in the march, from start to finish, Elite women like Khurshedben Naoroji, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya and Margaret Cousins pleaded with Gandhi to accept the women's appeal.25 There was this inert desire to break away from the division of labor that Gandhi had formed between the men and women. Though Gandhi viewed these pleas as a positive result of female involvement, he declined and insisted that they had a greater role to play within the household. Therefore, by violating salt law at home, he professed that the masses of Indian women would become an essential part of the process of civil disobedience. Thus the number of women participants in the movement increased-yet their position in the political sphere was practically non-existent, at least for the non-elite masses. They were denied positions of "decision-making," and this was also evident in Gandhi's ashrams where women were limited to the service roles. There too, their direct involvement in decision-making was limited only to rare occasions. Gandhi's primary belief still remained that the political world would be too "ruthless" for women and their involvement should best be in educating and transforming the ideas of the masses. He helped form this "active supportive" relationship between the sexes where each complemented the other. This separation of the genders in the domestic and public spheres only served to reinforce his ideology. However, Gandhi was not totally against female leadership in politics, especially in the Congress, This, thus, complicates Gandhi's views on women and their role in the movement. While he emphasized the need for women to operate from the domicile he also facilitated the "patronized" entry of a handful of women into positions of leadership. Thus a contradicting image of Gandhi's thinking is formed.26
To further analyze the reasons behind this contradiction, it is perhaps important to know that those women, who were able to break through the closely fenced political sphere, belonged primarily to the upper middle classes. Even in the genesis of female involvement in the Satyagraha movement, elite, middle class and cultured women were called upon to be models for the others. Thus they became the teachers and mentors, introducing and educating the poor women to passive resistant approaches such as spinning. Furthermore, they would wear Khadi to identify with the poor village woman. This led to a break in the access to the political sphere, where there was a push for distinct upper class educated women as possible leaders, as opposed to poor women. The uneducated woman generally had no access to political power, even on the village panchayats.27 Thus any representation of women was mainly through the group of the educated elite women.
Gandhi's acceptance of a handful of women leaders into political representative bodies like the Congress was primarily based on the belief that they would achieve emancipation and in turn fight for women's rights through selflessly devoting themselves to the national movement. He, however, discouraged them from politically organizing solely for the purposes of discussing women's issues. Hence, while some of the elite women were able to achieve high positions within the Congress they were still on the periphery of the important decision-making processes, as they were not representing an "organized constituency of women."28 Thus even when women some had access to the political arena their contributions were once again of a secondary and relatively passive nature.
One such Congress leader was Sarojini Naidu, who though came to be the prototype of the Gandhian thinking, rebelled against the closely defined status of women in the movement, by exerting herself as an independent individual with a desire to represent her fellow women, involve them in the movement and achieve a position of leadership. However, in this endeavor she adopted and implemented Gandhi's views on women's role as nurturers in the movement. But in order for her to do so, she had to exert her independence and break away from the domestic sphere at least initially, to attain a foothold in the sphere of public affairs. Born in 1879 to a Bengali family settled in Hyderabad, Sarojini enjoyed a relatively affluent childhood. Her father, Dr. Aghorenath Chattopadhyay was a nationalist and a leading scientist in the country. Her mother was a poet and is said to have had a great influence on her. After graduating from Madras College, Sarojini went to study at Kings College and Girton, Cambridge. At England she started writing poetry, and in the years to come earned the title "Nightingale of India". On her return to India she married Govindarajulu Naidu and thereupon embarked on her journey as a women's rights advocate. The fervor of nationalism also seemed to dominate her public life.29 Thus, her independence and strong will to educate herself evidenced her desire to break away from domesticity.
In her earlier work too, before coming under Gandhi's influence, it was apparent that Sarojini preferred to operate from the public sphere instead of the domestic. She took up positions of political leadership and joined such organizations as the Congress, Muslim League and the Indian Social Conference. Becoming an active member, she campaigned for widow remarriage, women's education and women's suffrage. She actively approached British rule for justice by attending meetings, sending in petitions and meeting British officials [Kumar 56]. During the course of her social work she met Gandhi in 1914 and volunteered to work with him. She adopted Satyagraha and non-cooperation and subsequently stopped believing in British justice.30 Perhaps one of the reasons why Gandhi later chose her as a representative of women was because she had entered the political arena, even though in a minimal way, and of her own accord.
While, Naidu adopted Gandhi's ideas, she implemented them through the public sphere. Her feminist assertion of maternal power prevailed and once again played into Gandhi's notions of women as nurturers. In her presidential address to Congress she stated that India was like a "house" where the Indian people were the "children and members of a joint family" and the Indian women were the "mothers." Thus it was the woman's responsibility to reconstruct and maintain the "house."31 She was a great advocate-of Hindu-Muslim unity, and cited it as one of the major sources of inspiration in her decision to join politics. In fact Gandhi himself believed that "women had an important role to play in [this] and in helping the process of national integration by making every household the battlefield of individual Satyagraha."32 In keeping with the nurturing stereotype, Sarojini only upheld this idea and probably urged women to implement it in her 1919 campaign to propagate women's Satyagraha.33 As nurturers in the domestic sphere, they would be able to spread the message of unity, thereby, making the prospect of a unified and cohesive independence movement even more promising. In further enabling women's involvement in the movement, she spread the message of non-cooperation and spinning among them. The spinning or Khadi once again reinforced the theory that women were to contribute via the domestic sphere.
Though a prominent leader, Sarojini was unable to break through the periphery of the hard core decision-making process, just as other female leaders. She did become prominent in Civil disobedience campaigns like the march at Dharsana Salt Works, after which she was imprisoned.34 However, this was one of the few particular cases where she was allowed to have a prominent role in the mainstream movement. Generally her political leadership was for the most part limited to representing women's interests such as in gatherings like the Second Round table Conference in London. And even when she became the first elected Indian woman president of the Congress, she dismissed the apparent "novelty" of the position as "revert[ing] to an old tradition ... [which had] restored to Indian woman the classic position [of the] symbol and guardian of the hearth-fires.35 She had always put forth her individuality and independence, yet probably felt frustrated at the lack of opportunity for her to be a part of main decision-making. Even when Gandhi had articulated Sarojini as being his choice for the presidency, he only saw her as an advocator of the women's cause through the nationalists.36
While still rebelling from the restraints of the Gandhian philosophy and the insecurities of the Congress leaders, she continued to uphold Gandhi's views of the persona of the Indian female entity. As Gandhi had invoked the symbols of the mythical heroines Sita and Draupadi to explain to women their roles as the upholders of the moral realm, Sarojini also used the aid of mythology. In one of her speeches to women on their involvement, she referred to the "spirit of Pad mini of Chittor," a mythical Rajput sati who symbolized the heroic Hindu woman.37 Yet again, she perpetuated Gandhi's definition of female heroism by using similar, mythological figures. In exhorting such examples she propagated Gandhi's message of female involvement through non-violent, passive actions from the domestic sphere. At the same time however she rebelled from the constraints of her guru's teachings, to express her desires for a more involved female leadership in mainstream nationalist politics.
In analyzing the role of women in the independence movement, it thus becomes clear that the perception of the Indian woman, her strength and her subsequent contribution to the movement is not monochromatic. Her changing role, with the progression of the movement has emerged in layers, where each perception of female strength and courage has reinforced or impacted the other. This is evident in Gandhi's thinking where he favored one definition of female heroism over the other. Influenced by his bias towards non-violence he dismissed valor and bravery as exemplified by Rani of Jhansi for a more passive symbol. Her violent approach and resort to a fighting strategy directly contradicted his theory of the "ideal woman." Thus he opted for a Sita-Draupadi representation of female strength where the emphasis was on morality and virtue. Instead of a more historically realistic symbol like the Rani, he included mythological entities into his philosophy, thus giving women this complex task of emulating myths. Furthermore, while he emphasized on how crucial it was for women to break away from the constraints of domesticity, he also perpetuated a separation of the sexes into two different spheres of influence, thereby, leaving limited options for women. His views on women in the political sphere were extremely complex and often times conflicting, which formed a contradiction in his theories. Among his women followers, Sarojini Naidu adopted some of his ideals and implemented them in her work in spreading and mobilizing the Satyagraha movement among women. She came to be associated with the Gandhian prototype and was publicly hailed by Gandhi. Yet at the same time she personally tried to break away from the constraints put forth by his narrow definitions of womanhood. Therefore, even though she attained a position of leadership, it was mainly to advocate women's issues as opposed to mainstream national problems; thus she and others like her were relegated to this passive role in the political movement, at least in contrast to the Rani's more authoritative, rebellious and militant role. Hence, in viewing Naidu's contribution it is evidenced that while she is recognized as the Gandhian prototype, she still appears to reject some of his ideals, which brings to light the fact that it is difficult to only view the women's contributions based on labels. Nevertheless, in conclusion the variegated contributions and views on the female role: the Rani's aggressive and more militant activities, Gandhi's ideas on a more passive and virtuous female identity and Naidu's acceptance of these values while still rebelling from her leader's definition of womanhood together render a complex perception of femininity during the Indian freedom struggle.