How Catherine Mary Heilman became Sarla Behn and went to jail for India's independence

During the 1920s, Sarla Behn came in contact with Indian students in London who introduced her to Gandhi and the freedom struggle in India.

Indian freedom struggle was a mass movement which involved the participation of people from all sections of the society. Women like Rani Laxmibai, Begum Hazrat Mahal, and others played a prominent role ever since the movement for independence started in India. During the Gandhian phase, the contribution of women in the freedom struggle increased tremendously. Sarla Behn, born as Catherine Mary Heilman, was one such woman who actively participated in the freedom movement and later became a renowned environmentalist.


Initial life

Born in 1901 in West London, Catherine Mary Heilman had a mixed English-German parentage. During the 1920s, she met some Indian students, who introduced her to the principles of Mahatma Gandhi and the freedom struggle. Inspired by the movement, she came to India in 1932 and joined a school in Udaipur as a staffer.

Freedom movement

Two years after working in Udaipur, she met Gandhi. She spent the next eight years of her life at Sevagram in Wardha, working on the Gandhian experiments in basic education. As much as she idolised Gandhi, she also admired the rock-solid support that his wife Kasturba Gandhi gave him. It was in fact, Gandhi who named her Sarla Behn. After moving to Kumaon, Sarla Behn continued to associate herself with the cause of India’s freedom movement. In 1942, she led the Quit India movement in the Kumaon district.

Also read: Savitribai Phule, the social reformer who founded India’s first girls’ school

Although she did not openly join the protests, she sympathised with them, visited them in jails and even passed on messaged to and from activists who were underground. She was jailed twice during the Quit India Movement and served time at the Almora and Lucknow jails for nearly two years.

Environmental activist

As an environmental activist, she helped spread awareness and shaped and spearheaded the Chipko movement. Along with Mirabehn, she helped shape a response to the environmental crisis engulfing the Himalayan region.

Apart from environmental activism, she was also associated with the Gandhian movements led by Acharya Vinoba Bhave and Jai Prakash Narayan. She worked with Bhave on the Bhoodan movement in Bihar in the late 1960s and with Narayan and the families of surrendered dacoits in the Chambal river valley in the early 1970s.

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

Girl child education

After her release from jail, she started a girls’ school in the memory of Kasturba Gandhi who lost her life in prison during the Quit India movement. In Uttarakhand, where girls were not encouraged to study, Sarla Behn acquired a cottage and urged Congressmen to send their daughters to study. The girsl in this Lakshmi ashram grew their own vegetables, cooked their food, raised their own cows, and cleaned their premises.

Sarla Behn was an author too. She wrote 22 books in Hindi and English on issues of conservation, women’s empowerment and environment including Reviving Our Dying Planet and A Blueprint for Survival of the Hills.

As India celebrates 70 years of independence, we bring you stories of women who were part of the Indian Independence Struggle. You might have heard about some of them but most do not find a mention in our history books or popular memory. These were ordinary women from all walks of life who managed to make extraordinary contributions to the cause of freedom.  This series is our tribute to these women and their exemplary work. We bring you 70 stories of courage and valour over the next one week leading up to 15th August 2017. Write to us, if you have any names to add to this list. Email:

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