In a time and age when a strict purdah system was observed and female family members were not allowed to venture out unless accompanied by male members, several women played a significant role in driving the British out of India. Coming out of their houses, they fought against the barriers of tradition, against the evils of the society, and proved that they are in no way any less than their male counterparts.
However, it is a sad fact that despite having made remarkable contributions to the Indian freedom struggle, these brave women hardly find a mention in the history books. Not belittling the role of the likes of Sarojini Naidu or Kasturba Gandhi or Kamala Nehru, there have been many other ordinary women who fought valiantly but are now forgotten with little or no information available about them in history books.
As opposed to popular belief that women only wielded charkha and sold khadi, there have been women who took up arms, strategised armed operations and bravely fought standing beside the men, looking the enemy in the eye. This Independence Day, we bring to you the stories of 70 women freedom fighters, the tales of whose indomitable spirit must be heard.
During the 1857 rebellion, Uda Devi climbed up a banyan tree disguised as a man, opened fire on the British Army and killed 32 of its soldiers. Even the British were surprised when they got to know that such a huge number of casualties were caused by a woman.
Everyone can recall the names of Ram Prasad Bismil and Ashfaqullah Khan who planned the Kakori conspiracy where they robbed a train which carried money bags of the British Government Treasury. However, Rajkumari Gupta, the woman who supplied guns and pistols for Kakori robbery, hardly finds a mention in the pages of history. She was later caught with hidden arms and was also abandoned by her own in laws.
To call woman the weaker sex is a libel; it is man’s injustice to woman. If by strength is meant brute strength, then, indeed, is woman less brute than man. If by strength is meant moral power, then woman is immeasurably man’s superior. Has she not greater intuition, is she not more self-sacrificing, has she not greater courage? – Mahatma Gandhi
There have been many stories of how bombs were made within the confines of the house to fight the British, but no one talks of Rani Velu Nachiyar, who is believed to have planned the first ever suicide attack in India to disarm the British. It was back in 1780 that the Queen of the Tamil kingdom of Shivagangai, formed her own army to win back her kingdom from the British rule. It is believed that when Rani Velu Nachiyar got to know where the British had stored their ammunitions and weapons, her adopted daughter Kuyili drenched herself in oil and set herself on fire to destroy the ammunitions stored in the British storehouse.
A young Captain Lakshmi Sehgal was handpicked by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose to lead a women’s contingent – Rani Jhansi Regiment in the Indian National Army.
In 1942, Usha Mehta went underground for a fortnight only to resurface after having set up an underground radio station – Secret Congress Radio. Although it could barely function for a few months, the radio service helped in spreading Mahatma Gandhi’s call to the people to join the freedom struggle.
There are also stories of brave women like Tara Rani Srivastava who did not deter from continuing their fight despite seeing her husband shot at in front of her eyes. When her husband Phulendu Babu led a group to hoist the tricolour on the roof of the Siwan police station, he was shot at and fell to the ground. Tara Rani bandaged his wounds and went marching towards the police station. When she came back to him, she saw that she had lost him to his injuries.
Several women also invoked the people of the country to join the freedom movement through their fiery speeches and poetry. Abadi Bano Begum observed strict purdah all her life and even when she spoke to the country on behalf of her jailed son in 1917, she did not shed away the purdah and wrote history by becoming the first Muslim woman to have addressed a political gathering wearing a burqa.
As India celebrates 70 years of independence, we honour the lives of these women who were part of the Indian Independence Struggle by bringing their stories to you. 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.