By Ishu Gupta and C. Chandrawala
Artwork by Hanifa Abdul Hameed
“For most of history, Anonymous was a woman,” wrote Virginia Woolf, almost a century ago. And while we might believe ourselves to have little in common with an Englishwoman from the late 1800s, Woolf’s concern over women’s disappearance from humanity’s history, from the records of our growth and (questionable) progress as a species remains a salient point. Despite the fact that women make up 50% of the world’s population, they occupy less than 0.5% of recorded history on a good day. As India celebrates its emancipation from colonial rule, it’s worth thinking about how the century-long struggle is overpopulated with the contribution of men, who are normally the image of ‘Bravehearts’ or ‘Freedom Fighters’, while women’s contributions are obscured, neglected and distorted in historical records, available only in very few archival accounts of India’s freedom movement, for use in Netflix documentaries or fringe articles (like this one).
Whereas male figures who have their stories told and celebrated occupy spaces in our everyday lives, from the highways we drive on to the universities we attend, to the airports we (no longer) go to - it never takes a great deal of effort to encounter one of India’s legacy bearing males. But women? Those we have to go looking for, scouring deep recesses of the dark web, or attending feminist poetry nights. Is it too much to say that I just wish it didn’t have to be so hard?
Even in Bollywood, which is a tremendously influential medium for representation in India, but is also an easy avenue for showcasing the narrative that suits narrow interests. There are hardly any movies made depicting the stories of women freedom fighters or contributors of social change, minus only one mainstream Bollywood movie depicting the life of Rani Laxmibai. On the other hand, I have almost lost count of the number of movies made on Bhagat Singh or Subhash Chandra Bose. Pointing this out doesn’t take away from the sacrifices made by these men but highlights the imbalance in how their stories are passed on along generations. And moreover, it speaks to how we tell our daughters and granddaughters that they count. If the best predictor of future behaviour is in fact the past, then the male-driven narrative of independence can only predict a male-driven narrative of national existence. Into forever and beyond.
Isn’t it time that we change this?
And even though there is a better awareness of how history is male-centric, a renewal of historical accounts is only a small step in recognising women’s participation in political struggles. So as we celebrate today, we ought to reflect on how the narrative of national struggle is a gendered one. And take small steps to change that. Let’s make women part of the who’s-who in our dinner table talks about independence day. When our cousins or kids or neighbours ask who they should do a project on for school, let’s be the one to suggest a woman. And when we’re seated at the table of the next airport or stadium naming, let’s suggest a woman’s name instead.
Who Should Be in Your Textbooks
The state has rarely been interested in preserving the truth, instead, it has always been rewriting history to use it for its own purposes of narrative building. The limitation to being recorded in history also gets influenced because of India’s multifarious identities — language, caste, ethnicity, gender, religion, economic status, impacting whose voices get heard in ‘national’ narratives. For those whose stories have been told, such as Kasturba Gandhi, Kamala Nehru, Maniben Patel who significantly contributed in the Indian freedom struggle as individuals are often positioned as either “helpers” to male leaders of that time or reduced as their wives or daughters. Women’s contribution is tokenized, rather than seen as an essential part of liberation struggles.
But from the 1857 freedom struggle to the 1930 Dandi Satyagraha to the 1942 Quit India Movement, women not only participated in these struggles with male rebels, they also led the battalions against the British in many places. An account of the 1857 struggle by Shamsul Islam mentions some of the contributions. In a small town, Thana Bhawan, situated in Muzaffar Nagar district (now in western Uttar Pradesh) 14 women belonging to different religions and castes took up arms against the repressive British rule. Along with them, many women like Asghari Begum, Asha Devi, Bhagwati Devi, Habeeba, Mam Kaur, Umda, Raj Kaur, Inder Kaur, Bakhtawari, Jamila, Bhagwani, Shobha Devi and Beebee were either burnt alive or hanged for organising rebellion in their areas against the British rule. There is nothing much available on their personal stories in the historical accounts. Women who could not participate directly wrote songs and sang them in their neighbourhoods. And while that might not feel substantial, stop for a moment and question whether our automatic default of praising violent narratives, while ignoring less violent means of struggle is altogether gendered in its own right.
And it wasn’t just an undoing of the British and the colonial national structures that was taking place. Whilst women from marginalized communities such as Dalits, Bahujans and Adivasi fought many battles and wars against the colonisers, their fight was not just limited to this, they had to simultaneously fight local and regional forms of marginalisation which were engendered by the upper caste groups. However, due to perpetual historic invisibility, their resistances fail to feature in our historical accounts. Jhalkaribai, a warrior from the kori caste took command of the Rani Laxmi Bai’s army on the battlefield during the 1857-58 rebellion. Uda Devi, a Dalit, made women battalion under the leadership of Begum Hazrat Mehal. Sabitri Devi, a martial hill woman led a rally of thousands of labourers in Kolkata during the noncooperation movement. Rani Gaidinliu at the age of 16, evaded the Britishers, got captured and was sentenced to life imprisonment, which ended only after India’s Independence. Putalimaya Devi Poddar, a Gorkha, organised and led the freedom movement from Kurseong, as well as its neighbouring areas of Darjeeling and Kalimpong.
Even during 1930 Dandi Satyagraha, 17,000 of around 30,000 persons who courted arrest during the Salt Satyagraha were women volunteers is a conspicuous example of their equal role. In the 1942 Quit India Movement, all the male leaders were arrested, leaving the movement leaderless. Women who were already participating in the movement took to the streets, raising slogans, holding public lectures and demonstrations, and making and transporting explosives. Aruna Asaf Ali raised the Tricolour at the Gwalior tank in the midst of police brutality following the Bombay Resolution. Matangini Hazra at the age of 73, led a procession of 6,000 people, mostly women, to ransack a local police station. Sucheta Kripalani travelled from place to place carrying messages between various local leaders. Seeing all these efforts, Mahatma Gandhi had said, “When the history of India’s fight for independence comes to be written, the sacrifice made by the women of India will occupy the foremost place.”
Why We Go Back
What’s important to understand is that reiterating the names of women each year isn’t just to score feminist points. Rewriting our histories to include women isn’t just about settling accounts, because it changes who is given a stake in the liberty that is won and who can claim ownership in the outcome. Amal Amireh points this out when writing about the Palestinian Women’s Movement, noting that gendered issues shouldn’t be postponed or marginalised, but are at the core of the struggle for liberation and justice. We should learn from history that “women’s issues” shouldn’t be considered secondary to the national cause, but rather that women’s visibility within political struggles is essential to grassroots movements and civil disobedience acts whilst additionally challenging gender roles and stereotypes.
And this holds up today as we live through the moments which will be teachable history moments to future generations. When the Hon’ble Chief Justice of India requested women farmers to leave the protest as the cold was setting in January, it signifies that women were just assumed to be supporting their male counterparts. It also reflects our continuous denial of the fact that 73.2% of rural women workers are engaged in agriculture (own only 12.8% of landholdings) and nearly 75% of the full-time workers on Indian farms are women (OXFAM). Despite such presence, there was no representation of women in the core group of farmers who were part of all the rounds of talks with the government. So when we talk about including women in history, what we are actually talking about is the importance of recognizing women’s role in history, their role in the present political struggles, and their role in shaping the future. Without this recognition, they will continue to be sidelined in all three of those aspects. When women are left out of history, they inevitably disappear from our accounts of the present and our formation of the future as well.
There are bigger consequences of this insouciance, tens of thousands of women get excluded from the farmer suicides data in the country just because they are never considered as farmers. But when we saw 50,000 women come to the protest in March 2021 not only to support their male counterparts but to reiterate their own concerns with the farm laws, it speaks to the fact that women are at the core of the struggle.
If history is meant to be an account of the past, then it stands to reason that history should, at the very least, be accountable. Yet without the fullness and nuance of including women within the picture that is painted of our histories, the past remains incomplete at best. There has to be a constant reminder that it is impossible that all women were just sitting and watching or just supporting their male counterparts throughout history. We will have to consciously correct ourselves and restore our history and take support of all the archival accounts and change this perception of imagining just men when it comes to people who led us to or will lead us to emancipation. It is also not about “giving” the space, it is about accepting their presence which they have rightfully claimed.
About the author:
Ishu Gupta is the Research Manager of the Indian School of Democracy. Indian School of Democracy has a mission to nurture principled grassroots political leaders who will work towards sarvodaya (upliftment of all). It is a non-partisan organization that conducts short term and long term programs for young people who want to work in politics, across the geographical, political and ideological spectrum.