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The women who heeded Gandhi’s call

  • On 6 April 1930, as the Dandi March ended, Indian women joined Gandhi’s salt satyagraha
  • They were led by figures like Sarojini Naidu and Matangini Hazra

Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu in Boulogne in 1931
Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu in Boulogne in 1931 (Photo: Alamy)

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As a child growing up in the Capital, I always loved it when my father took us for drives down the impossibly wide diplomatic enclaves of Shanti Path, then past the regal Rashtrapati Bhavan, and then to India Gate for ice cream. But the bit I would wait for on these drives was the Gyarah Murti statue, located where Sardar Patel Marg meets Willingdon Crescent. Devi Prasad Roychowdhury’s acclaimed sculptural representation of Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi March could be seen for at least half a kilometre before one arrived at the crossing, and I would keep my eyes peeled for it.

My mum would invariably ask me who the two women in the installation were. One name I never forgot, Sarojini Naidu. The other I almost always did—Matangini Hazra. My father would jump in to remind me that this resident of a small village near Tamluk in West Bengal, also endearingly known as “Gandhi-buri”, was shot dead during a protest in 1942 by a British police officer. She became a freedom fighter after Gandhi’s Dandi March in 1930.

One of the oft-repeated lines in our NCERT history textbook, when it came to women’s participation in the freedom struggle, reminded us that women “came out on the streets” in larger numbers than ever before after the Dandi March and during the Civil Disobedience Movement that followed. It is less well-remembered or articulated that not a single woman was part of the hand-picked retinue of 71 that accompanied Gandhi on the 240-mile march over 24 days from the Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi, from 12 March-6 April 1930.

The Dandi March in April 1930
The Dandi March in April 1930 (Photo: HT)

This exclusion of women became a point of contention for many of the women leaders of the movement, and Sarojini Naidu ultimately had her way by joining Gandhi on the last stretch to Dandi, where he raised a fistful of salt on 6 April. Another activist, Mithuben Petit, stood behind him when he violated the Salt Law again at Bhimrad on 9 April. And, on 10 April, Gandhi officially called upon women to “come out on the streets and picket liquor and foreign cloth shops…”. Women joined the movement in the thousands, marking the beginning of the women’s movement as a force in public space in west, east and north India.

Many chroniclers and scholars have, therefore, credited Gandhi with inspiring this unprecedented movement of middle-class women out of their homes in the cause of the nation’s struggle. It is undeniable that Gandhi chose the moment through the Salt March, and also that he wanted women to be part of the movement that would follow the Salt March in a visible and prominent manner. However, in keeping women out of the Dandi March, he had also annoyed leaders like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Sarojini Naidu and Perin Captain (Dadabhai Naoroji’s granddaughter), galvanizing them into writing to him and even meeting him to express their displeasure and assure him they would not be happy with just picketing shops.

Historian Geraldine Forbes points out that Gandhi refused to let women participate in the Dandi March on the grounds that the British would call Indians cowards for “hiding behind women”. However, at each of the 24 villages where he stopped for the night during the march, he urged women to step out of their homes and make salt. Hundreds of women also converged on these villages from the surrounding countryside to listen to “Gandhi baba”. These were mostly unlettered rural women, much like the “Gandhi-buri” of Tamluk, who felt inspired to join the movement after hearing him speak about salt, that most unglamorous yet ubiquitous of ingredients in every Indian household, which linked kitchen to nation, and the domestic space to public politics, the ghar to the baire.

Once the salt satyagrahas began, women started pouring out on to the streets. When we speak of women at the satyagrahas of the time, we usually speak of Sarojini Naidu leading the protest at the Dharasana Salt Works, but another glorious group of marching women made its way to Chowpatty Beach on the same day that Gandhi made salt at Dandi, led by the feisty Chattopadhyay. The Bombay Chronicle reported that they carried makeshift stoves and chulhas, and, after a few hours of making salt, were raided by the police. Chattopadhyay was injured in the chaos that ensued, but more housewives reportedly joined in, armed with pots and pans. Later, the salt was sold outside the Bombay Stock Exchange and Bombay high court.

Exhibiting her characteristic irreverence and courage, Chattopadhyay even went inside the high court premises and held up a packet of salt, asking a startled magistrate if he would like to buy “the salt of freedom”. Writer Sakuntala Narasimhan quotes Chattopadhyay from an interview about that day: “…thousands of women strode down to the sea like proud warriors. But instead of weapons, they bore pitchers of clay, brass and copper; and instead of uniforms, the simple cotton saris of village India….”

Gyarah Murti in Delhi
Gyarah Murti in Delhi (Photo: Alamy)

Women started organizing prabhat pheris, or morning processions, on the streets of Bombay and Ahmedabad, where they sang songs about the bounty of the motherland. They helped put together vanar senas, or monkey brigades, consisting of children who supported activists in offering resistance to the British. Writer Horace Alexander reminisces of those heady days: “Day by day, the streets of Bombay would be livened in the early morning with the songs of freedom…. Women could be found all over the city…. Many of them had never taken part in public life before.”

What made this such a strategic management coup by Gandhi and other leaders was that the act of stepping out into the streets was legitimized for middle-class women by extending the concept of the nation as “family”. Historian Gail Minault elaborates on this by describing how the constructs of “extended family” and “nation as family” were used to show that public activities could be perceived as natural extensions of household roles, thus enabling women to step out of their homes.

Further, the fact that many of these women belonged to “respectable” families forced the police to be somewhat restrained, at least at the beginning of the movement, in using force. This strengthened both the movement and the women’s resolve. In many places, as a matter of fact, men would “absent” themselves entirely as a tactic, thereby reducing the potential for violence. When the police raided the Congress headquarters in Bombay on 13 April to shut down the salt pans that had been created on the building’s terrace, it was women who formed human shields on the streets to block their path.

However, as their work in picketing, selling salt on street corners, leading satyagrahas, and participating in processions grew, the police became less restrained. The women faced brutal lathi charges, and a record number ended up in prison for the first time in the history of the subcontinent.

In the more conservative north too, women became mass participants in the struggle—women from the families of male leaders were the first to step out. Owing to the lack of women-only political organizations, the transition to, and negotiation with, public space was fraught with more questions, yet women joined in—although it was mostly elite women.

Jawaharlal Nehru writes in The Discovery Of India, “Here were these women, women of the upper or middle classes leading sheltered lives in their homes, peasant women, working-class women, rich women, poor women, pouring out in their tens of thousands in defiance of government order and police lathi.” Powerful women’s demonstrations occurred in Delhi, often led by Arya Samaj leader Swami Shraddhanand’s daughter Satyavati Devi, which included professional women, students, artists and housewives. In the heartland too, middle-class women poured out, often followed by peasant women.

Sociologist Suruchi Thapar-Björkertinterviewed women around Kanpur and Aligarh in the early 2000s who remembered stories of rural women watching from rooftops as women leaders took out demonstrations—many of them climbed down to join in. They spoke too about unrestrained police brutalities as the movement gathered strength.

Not all older women were happy about their young college-going daughters marching in the streets though. Thapar-Björkert records Uma Dixit of Kanpur reminiscing about her friends being locked up in their rooms by their mothers so they would not be able to get out on the streets. Others, like Kaushalya Devi of Aligarh, spoke about returning to their fathers’ homes to be able to join the processions since their husbands and in-laws would not allow it. Tara Devi Agarwal of Aligarh spoke to Thapar-Björkert about distributing subversive literature while wearing a burqa. As Thapar-Björkert observes, “Metaphorically, the streets were (being) viewed by men and women as moral battlefields.”

However, even though the movement’s success was dependent on the participation of “ordinary”, “simple” and “unsophisticated” women, we rarely hear their voices. And when we assess the public participation of women at the time, another qualifier is the stress on segregation and respectability. All the women Thapar-Björkert spoke to referred to a clear code of conduct in the public space.

Thapar-Björkert writes, “Once women were on the streets, they were expected to maintain the non-violent, self-sacrificing, benevolent image of the domesticated wife and mother.” For instance, women took care to cover their heads while going on prabhat pheris. Married women had to return sooner than unmarried ones, and they could only join processions once their young ones had been fed, or some family member had been recruited to look after them, with the permission of their guardians.

For all the rhetoric of unity and the movement cutting across class barriers, “respectability” was also a reason why some women were not allowed to join the movement. Indeed, middle-class women pouring out on to the streets were at pains to distinguish themselves from “women of the streets”. Sex workers from Kanpur were not allowed to join the movement even though they wanted to. There are references to a meeting between Gandhi and the Devadasi community in Bombay at the time where they contributed financially to the movement but were not allowed to join publicly.

The perception of “respectability” also drew from the class the women belonged to. The Hindu nationalist women’s organization Desh Sevika Sangha in Bombay stressed the importance of recruiting women from the “upper class only” and hesitated to march with even ordinary middle-class or poorer women.

These elite women might have stepped out into the public space and carved their niche within it, but they were not going to share it with those they deemed unsuitable to walk with them.

There can be no denying that Gandhi and other Congress leaders, along with many of the women leaders, were invoking the traditional patriarchal notion of women’s role and femininity even as they urged more and more women to step over the threshold of their homes.

All the same, history bears out that if there was a turning point in the “public” participation of Indian women for a political cause, it was the movement that was sparked by the Dandi March. This powerful, symbolic march by Gandhi through the heart of India thus became the catalyst for women to claim public space in such numbers for the first time in Indian history—the ur-moment for every invocation of “take back the streets” and “reclaim public space” by Indian women since then.

Arpita Das runs the publishing house Yoda Press, and writes on gender, popular culture and book culture.

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