How Durgabai Deshmukh caught Mahatma Gandhi's attention at age 12 by fighting for the devadasis

Durgabai Deshmukh was one of the many strong-headed women who not only played a significant part in the freedom struggle but also in the fight against social evil. Read on.

India’s struggle for freedom was a long one where men, women and children fought valiantly and side by side before August 15, 1947 ever became a reality.0 Durgabai Deshmukh was one of the many strong-headed women who can be credited with not only playing significant part in the freedom struggle but also in the fight against social evil. Born in a small town of Rajamundry in Andhra Pradesh on 15 July 1909, Durgabai was married at a tender age of eight but resolutely refused to live with her husband until she became an adult. The ‘husband’ in question moved on, while Durgabai dedicated her life to the upliftment of women – especially those in her immediate vicinity.


In 1921, during the Non-Cooperation movement, when Mahatma Gandhi was visiting the nearby town of Kakinada, 12-year-old Durgabai came into his attention. The feisty girl who had been working towards eradication of social evil successfully managed to draw Gandhi’s attention towards the plight of devadasis. Later he became an ardent advocate for the abolition of the devadasi system.

Social activist and revolutionary

At a time when women’s education was not seen as important (or relevant), Durgabai opened Hindi Balika Pathshalas and protested against imposition of English language in schools. In 1930, she got arrested for participating in Salt Satyagraha during the Civil Disobedience Movement.

A dedicated follower of the Gandhian struggle for freedom, she worked really hard for women empowerment as she established Andhra Mahila Sabha in 1937 to improve healthcare facilities for women, and provide them with vocational training.

Impressive beyond compare

And in case you were wondering what her educational qualifications were to be able to all of the above – this survivor of the child marriage did her graduation and post-graduation in Political Science and then went on to obtain a degree in Law from the Madras University. Later, she became a member of the Constituent Assembly and the Planning Commission of India.

Abandoned by the her first husband post her refusal to live with him till she gained maturity, Durgabai married CD Deshmukh, an Indian civil servant and the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India in 1953. He also served as the Finance Minister of the Union Cabinet from 1950-56.  Durgabai died on 19 May 1981.

(Also read: Dr Usha Mehta: The freedom fighter who helped set up a secret radio station for the Indian National Congress)

A number of educational institutions and healthcare facilities have been named after her, such as Durgabai Deshmukh College for Visually Impaired in Delhi and Durgabai Dekhmukh Hospital in Hyderabad and now you know why.

Durgabai did everything to live up to her powerful name and deserves every bit of the reverence she gets for her extraordinary achievements.