Men are believed to be the movers of history, of time, and therefore, of civilisation. Indeed, considering the pervasive socio-economic and political privilege that men have wielded for millennia, as well as how political the historical act of remembrance is, this is indeed true. Women, too, however, have left their faint imprints on the caricature of time, and these must be acknowledged, remembered, and celebrated. The contribution of women to the national movement and freedom struggle that freed the country from the clutches of the oppressive British rule was enormous.
- Begum Hazrat Mahal
Begum Hazrat Mahal was the celebrated (first) wife of Awadh’s cherished ruler Wajid Ali Shah. Subsequently, the British annexed the kingdom of Awadh for its appeal of arable land, profitable markets, etc, and exiled Wajid Ali Shah. Such was the deep lament that people felt for their beloved Wajid Ali that they followed him to Kanpur, singing songs of lament. The Great Revolt of 1857 was therefore most widespread and intense in the region of Awadh, and it was led by Begum Hazrat Mahal against the British. Although she did manage to seize control of Lucknow, the revolt was subdued. Begum Hazrat Mahal was exiled to Nepal, where she later died.
- Madam Bhikaiji Cama
Madam Bhikaiji Cama is known for her involvement in the Indian independence movement, although very little of the same was ever wrought in the subcontinent. Cama was born to an affluent Parsi family. She was sent to Britain for medical care, but refused to return on the British condition that she would not undertake any nationalistic activities. She wrote and presented the two seminal texts Bande Mataram, and Madan’s Talwar. She was one of the first few to bring the horrific Bengal famine to global attention, and raised the demand for India’s independence. Cama was a proponent of gender equality, placing, however, the nationalistic cause over all others.
- Kasturba Gandhi
Kasturba Gandhi was the wife of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, India’s Father of Nation. Kasturba Gandhi, however, was herself a civil rights activist, as well as a firm proponent of India’s independence. In the often long periods when Gandhi was in jail, it was Kasturba who assumed his position, and performed the role of the leader effectively. She was personally interested in hygiene, and taught the same in the villages that she and the Mahatma visited. She truly believed that independence would come to an India which would be self-sufficient, autonomous, just, and ready to govern itself.
- Sucheta Kriplani
Sucheta Kriplani was a freed fighter, one of the prominent leaders of the national movement, and the first female Chief Minister of the independent republic of India. Kriplani’s involvement with the national movement began with the Quit India movement of 1942, and she was one of the few women who were part of the negotiations for the creation of the Indian Constitution. She was a powerful female voice of the Indian National Congress. Later, in fact, she became a professor of constitutional history. Sucheta Kriplani was the first female Chief Minister of India, being the CM of the state of Uttar Pradesh from 1963 to 1967.
- Annie Besant
Annie Besant was a prominent personality, socialist, and Theosophist associated with the Indian movement. She was part of the Secular Society, before she came into the Theosophical Society headquartered in Madras. Besant helped establish what we today know as the Banaras Hindu University, in Varanasi. Around the World War I, that is, 1914, she came into close contact with the Indian National Congress, and was a vociferous participant of the Home Rule League. She campaigned for democracy in India, as well as dominion status for India within the British Empire. These efforts elevated Besant to the position of president in the Indian National Congress by 1917.
- Hansa Mehta
Hansa Mehta was a celebrated writer, social reformer, activist, and Indian freedom fighter. She was a prominent Gujarati writer of many children’s books, also translating several English books. Mehta was an ardent follower of Mahatma Gandhi, and even went to jail with him in her struggle for India’s independence. She was a vocal advocate of gender equality, and later, got the Universal Declaration of Human Rights corrected to all ‘human beings’ are equal, in lieu of ‘all men.’ Hansa Mehta was a vociferous freedom activist in picketing of shops selling foreign clothes, campaigns against liquor, etc. She will always be remembered as the perpetual voice of reason.
- Kamala Nehru
Kamala Nehru was the wife of the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. She was a women’s activist, and national leader.
It was early on that the British administration realised the threat that Kamala Nehru presented to them, owing to her immense popularity among women’s groups across the country, particularly in the Hindi heartland. Nehru was involved in the Non-Cooperation Movement of 1921, mobilising nonviolent struggle in the region of Allahabad. She gathered women’s groups, organised picketing of shops selling foreign clothes and liquor, and such. Jawaharlal Nehru, her husband, wrote in his autobiography that he almost ‘overlooked’ Kamala. She died with only Indira, her daughter, by her side, of tuberculosis in Switzerland.
- Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit
Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was the sister of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Indian Prime Minister. She was the first woman in India to hold a cabinet post – specifically, in the legislature of the United Province, and was eventually elected to the Constituent Assembly. She further entered diplomatic service, serving as the ambassador to the Soviet Union and other countries. It was then that her long-drawn, illustrious engagement with the United Nations began, eventually making her the first woman President of the United Nations General Assembly. Coming back to India, she was the Governor of Maharashtra; she was even elected to the Lok Sabha from Phulpur. Finally, she became the Indian representative to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, before retiring from public life.
- Aruna Asaf Ali
Aruna Asaf Ali was an Indian independence activist, and further, the Mayor of Delhi in 1958. She was a vociferous participant in the Salt Satyagraha with Mahatma Gandhi, fearlessly going to jail for the nationalist cause. She was further a symbol of the Quit India Movement of 1942, and is popularly known to have hoisted the flag at the Gowalia Tank maidan. Ali controversially supported the navy mutiny at a time when the demand for Pakistan was in full force, drawing Mahatma Gandhi’s ire. As a socialist inspired by Lenin and the Soviet Union, Aruna Asaf Ali emerged as a leader fully committed to the cause of equality, human rights, and socio-economic justice.
- Sarojini Naidu
Sarojini Naidu was a decorated freedom fighter for India, as also a prolific writer who was called the Nightingale of India. Her collection of poems, ‘The Golden Threshold,’ was popularly acclaimed, praised even by the likes of Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Naidu was a participant of the Salt Satyagraha, and most notably, the Civil Disobedience Movement. She was also arrested several times, as also in 1942, with the Quit India movement. After independence was achieved, she became the first woman Governor, specifically of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh. Naidu was also gradually elevated to the position of the president of the Indian National Congress, being the first Indian woman to occupy the position. Sarojini Naidu’s legacy is multifarious, rich, and remains important.
- Pandita Ramabai
Pandita Ramabai was a social reformer, vocal feminist, and an independence activist. She was a renowned Sanskrit Scholar, and was thus conferred with the title of Pandita. She wanted the Hindu society to reform itself, so that when independence came to it, it would be a just, self-reliant society. She spent her life fighting for women’s issues. Ramabai was against the evil of child marriage, and pushed for women’s education with immediacy. She believed that women’s issues could only be attended to by women doctors, urging for a women’s medical college which was eventually granted and built. This led to the first female doctor of India, Anandibai Joshi. In addition to social work, Pandita Ramabai was extremely interested in theology, gradually converting to Christianity.
- Rani Lakshmibai
Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi is a figure who does not need any introduction. She was, and remains, the most important women freedom fighter of India’s struggle for independence. Rani Lakshmibai was the queen of the Jhansi state in central India. The state was taken over by the British applying the Doctrine of Lapse because the Maharaja of the state did not have a natural/biological heir. Thus, Rani Lakshmibai’s state was unfairly annexed in 1854. In 1857, when the Great Revolt was initiated, Rani Lakshmibai became its leader from Jhansi. She is said to have fought valiantly, and the poetic phrase associated with her is still in popular parlance: ‘Khub ladi mardaani wo to Jhansi wali raani thi…’ Rani Lakshmibai stands immortalised in the corridors of history.