Monday, 12 March 2018

Role of Women in the Indian Independence Movement

By Alex Jubb

The current exhibition in the cases in the Harry Fairhurst corridor at the University of York Library tells the story of the road to Indian independence. The exhibition uses books and archives from the university’s collections and themes include the relationship between coloniser and colonised, and Indian literature.  Highlights include a telegram from Gandhi, and books that belonged to former Prime Minister Clement Attlee. The exhibition will remain in the cases until the end of March 2018.

Alex Jubb worked on the India project as an intern in 2017 and has written several blogs (Aug 2017#1)(Aug 2017#2)(Jan 2018) (Feb 2018) about the collection and the history of the Independence movement. Here he examines the role women played in the Indian Independence.

Role of women in the Indian Independence Movement

An often-untold story of the Indian independence movement is that of the role of influential Indian women; whilst stories of Gandhi, the nationalist writer Raja Rao and other important male political and cultural figureheads are commonplace, members of the opposite gender are rarely taught about in the history of Indian independence. Indian women were not only working to gain independence for their nation, but were seeking enfranchisement and political representation in the local, national, and international spheres. It is clear that one of the most important aspects of the movement for independence from a historical point of view is that it saw mass participation by women; women who had till then been confined to the domestic sphere. 

Crucial figures of the Quit India Movement. Image courtesy of  Quirkybyte.
Women were involved in diverse nationalist activities, both within and outside the home. Within the home women held classes to educate other women and contributed significantly to nationalist literature in the form of articles, poems and propaganda material. Moreover, shelter and nursing care were also provided to nationalist leaders who were in hiding from the British authorities. Furthermore, and most importantly, when the nationalist leadership were in jail, the women took over the leadership roles and provided guidance to the movement. The JB Morrell Library at the University of York holds many important works written by leading female members of the Indian nationalist movement, in addition to works from Indian women from every class in society.

Anans and Hutheesing's 1949 work. ©
Female nationalist authors did not let up in their campaign for further empowerment following the granting of independence. The Brides Book of Beauty, written by Mulk Raj Anand and Krishna Nehru Hutheesing, was published in Bombay in 1947. The work served almost as an anthological manual on feminine sensibilities, formulas of female beauty, and female social experience. One critic described the work as the manifestation of Anands affinities with Marxist utopian notions of egalitarian civilisation and womens empowerment. The authors developed a perception of Indian female beauty that was adorned with poetry, prose, folktales and myths. [There is a copy in the exhibition]. It was clear that Anand and Hutheesing saw independence as a springboard with which to further the rights of Indian women. Using the very same myths and folklore that were crucial to creating a nationalist fervour prior to independence in 1947 was essential to Anand and Hutheesings writings.

Nanda's seminal work. ©
Savitri Devi Nanda was the author of The City of Two Gateways: The Autobiography of an Indian Girl; Nanda writes every detail of her early life in a typical Hindu aristocratic family of the pre-partition Punjab. This is an important work that brings to life the beliefs of many young Indian women both before and after partition. For example, Nanda writes that one night her father took her to Lahore to put her in a school; neither her mother nor her grandmother was in favour of educating her. It was this thirst for freedom and knowledge that was encountered in the young female nationalists and marked a distinct difference and a remarkable gulf between this generation and the previous generations before them. Where Nanda excels is in describing her sense of loss or separation; this stemmed directly from her strong awareness that she was an active participant to the exciting events of the national struggle for freedom.

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