Gandhi, Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose are names that we readily associate with our freedom struggles. But there was another group of people, ordinary women who went through extraordinary struggles to make the dream of Independence a reality.
“Women played a big part in our struggle for Independence. While some went out on the streets to protest openly, other secretly acted as messengers to convey important information to the underground movements. There were also those who contributed to the cause with small steps like switching from silk sarees to Khadi sarees to promote the Swadeshi movement. All of these steps together won us our freedom. Yet, the names of most of these women freedom fighters of ours, who would have contributed to at least 50 percent of the protestors, do not come up when we discuss our Independence struggle,” explains Dr Swarna Rajagopalan of Prajnya, who is currently working on documenting Indian women, their contribution and their life during the Independence struggle. Here are a few women from Tamil Nadu who led the movement from the forefront.
Anjalai Ammal was a social worker and reformer from Kadalur. She started her political activism in 1921 with the Non-Cooperation Movement and later took part in the Neil Statue Satyagraha, Salt Satyagraha and Quit India Movement. He courage was so well known that Mahathma Gandhi called her South India's Jhansi Rani. When he came to Kadalur to meet Anjalai Ammal, the British government prohibited him their meet. But Anjalai Ammal still magaed to meet him by dressing up in a burqa. She also encouraged her nine-year-old daughter to participate in the protests, who was named Leelavathy by Gandhi himself. Granddaughter of Anjalai Ammal, Mangai A, explains, “My grandmother, Anjalai Ammal was in jail for more than four and half years and she gave birth to her last son in the jail itself. Her biography is included in the Class 8 second semester Tamil text book. My grandfather, Murugappa, my maternal aunt, Leelavathy, and her husband, Jamadhagni, were also freedom fighters.”
Supriya Cherian, along with her husband, were ardent activists during the freedom struggle. In fact, her husband quit MCC because he was asked to stop participating in the Quit India Movement. When India finally got her freedom on August 15, 1947, Supriya, along with her husband, was in Calcutta. “On 14th we heard that 15th was going to be Direct Action Day (Great Calcutta Killings). H S Suhrawardy was the Chief Minister then and we were all apprehensive. On 14th morning it started. I saw a Hindu man hitting a 17-year-old Muslim boy with a bamboo stick and we started hearing about Hindus and Muslims killing each other. A famous Muslim doctor, Dr Khan, who gave shelter to Hindus during the struggle, was killed on his way to treating a Hindu riot victim. My school, which was run by Christian missionaries, was located in a Hindu area and all our peons were Muslims. The sisters hid the peons under the altar and lied to the Hindu mob to save their life. By nine o’clock we saw lorries full of crying and bleeding Muslims and Hindus being taken in opposite directions. So for us, it was a sad independence day. We didn’t hear Nehru’s speech. There was no flag hoisting. Instead, we volunteered at hospitals to help the wounded and the boys took out a peace procession. During the procession, someone threw a bomb and it fell at my husband’s feet (also a fellow student at the time). But, luckily it didn’t burst. Later, we joined the boys for the procession and the police shot at us. One boy was killed,” says Supriya Cherian.
Rukmini Lakshmipathi was a freedom fighter who went on to become the first woman Cabinet minister and the first Health Minister of Tamil Nadu post-independence. Her first political steps were in the early 1920s, when she took to spinning as part of the Swadeshi Movement. She joined the Indian National Congress in 1923, and was active in organizing the Youth League of the Congress. In 1930, she threw herself into the Civil Disobedience movement and was one of the leaders of the Vedaranyam Salt Satyagraha undertaken by Rajagopalchari in Tamil Nadu. When Rajaji was arrested, she took over leadership of the Satyagraha. She was especially effective in mobilizing women. She was imprisoned for a year for her part in the Vedaranyam Satyagraha. An ardent follower of Mahatma Gandhi, she also participated in the Individual Satyagraha called for by Gandhi when England unilaterally declared war on Germany in 1939 on India’s behalf.
Krishnammal Jagannathan, born into a landless Dalit family, managed to complete her university education, and joined Gandhi’s Sarvodaya Movement. This is where she met her future husband, Sankaralingam, who gave up his rich family fortune to fight for freedom and was arrested during the Quit India movement. Post-independence, she along with her husband, played an active role in Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan Movement, and managed to distribute around 4 million acres to landless peasants. She also started the Land for Tiller’s Freedom in 1981, along with her husband, and set up many NGOs to help the economically-backward sections of society.
- with inputs from Prajnya Archives