An ode to the women who led from the front

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An ode to the women who led from the front

Monday, 06 April 2015 | Anupma Khanna | Dehradun

April 6 marks an important day in the annals of the history of India’s independence movement. For it was on this day in the year 1930 that Mahatma Gandhi culminated his historic 24-day Dandi march and broke the salt laws prevailing at that time, thus sparking a civil disobedience movement that fuelled the country’s political freedom with unprecedented vigour. One of the most distinguishing features of Salt Satyagrah movement was the unusually high participation of women, and this factor had caught the attention of even the British Parliament. Uttarakhand too, with its rich legacy of women having led many a people’s struggle, had females in large numbers come out strongly in protest and bear arrests unflinchingly. In commemoration of the historic event’s 85th anniversary, The Pioneer recognises the spirit and the sacrifice of some of these nationalist heroes.

In Dehradun, the Salt Satyagrah movement among women can be said to have been led by Sharmada Tyagi, wife of Mahavir Tyagi. Inspired greatly by Gandhi, Sharmada had been instrumental in the leader’s visit to Doon in October 1929, in which he had addressed a public rally at Kanya Gurukul imbuing a fierce resolve of political freedom among the multitude of young girls who had gathered there from several places.

As the civil disobedience movement flared, Sharmada organised public meetings to carry out the protest in the region. Vociferous processions were held from Prince Chowk to the area where Jhanda fair is held currently. “In 1930, during a public meeting to mobilise mass support for the movement, Sharmada was taken under arrest. And such was the all-consuming nationalism of the lady that she willfully offered herself for arrest, head held high, along with her 6-month-old daughter in her arms. Resolute not to relent, Sharmada went to jail with her infant,” recounted Doon library and Research Centre’s Manoj Panjani.

Another prominent woman freedom fighter was Chandravati lakhanpal who headed MKP Inter College at that time. A progressive and brave woman, she was appalled at the way Indians were being misrepresented in America and Europe. When the American Katherine Mayo wrote and published the controversial book ‘Mother India’ that provoked outrage of most Indians about the way the country had been allegedly slandered, lakhanpal wrote the famous ‘Mother India Ka Jawab’, her reaction to Mayo’s book published first in 1928 by Gurukul Kangri.

lakhanpal displayed uncommon objectivity and intellect as she urged fellow countrymen to not just rebuff Mayo’s references to the social ills that Indian society was mired in at that time, but to self-acknowledge and take the onus of eradicating those evils. “Do the Hindus accept Miss Mayo’s challengeIJ If they do, then I can see before my eyes the dawn of a new India,” she wrote (Roman transliteration of the original in Hindi).

Then there were many her including Shyam Kumari, Saraswati Devi, Saraswati Soni, Kartar Kaur and Bhagwati Devi who joined millions of Indians in the non-violent protest. In Doon valley, the women had been tasked with picketing against foreign cloth and liquor shops. Such was the effect of the powerful participation of women in the civil disobedience movement of 1930 that two years later when Gandhi resumed the campaign, the British authorities decided to deal stringently with female protestors slapping six months of rigorous imprisonment on those convicted.

Among the women from Dehradun and nearby areas who got this jail term for their non-violent protest were Attar Kumari, Chandra Devi and Haveli Devi from Roorkee; Ashoka Devi, Vidya and Vaidyamati from Haridwar and Surma from laksar, records  the information department of Uttar Pradesh Government. As stated by Panjani, “In 1930s women played a very important role in giving shape to India’s freedom struggle and the English authorities feared that if women got politically conscious, then every Indian household would get politically conscious. And as Sherwood Dodd, the then chief of police of Uttar Pradesh, remarked, it seemed that the Indian woman was fighting for national and personal liberation at the same time.”

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