August 13, 2017

The Role of Women in the Indian Freedom Moment

This paper attempts to bring out the role of women in a situation when even the best of efforts failed to bear fruit,in their efforts to raise themselves from a position of neglect and disrepute to which history had relegated them. Indeed between 1750 and 1900, when imperial rule was at its peak in India and the sparks of protest against colonial domination had started smouldering, the role of women has to be documented. In a male dominated socio-political discourse, thatwomen like Rani Laxmibai, Pandita Rama Bai, SavitribaiPhule, TarabaiShinde, Anandibai Joshi,Sarojini Naidu andAnnie Besant could become dominant players, is no mean achievement. However the prominence of a few well known figures is a poor index of judgment to show the extent to which even the common women were involved in transcending the barriers to lift the self from the downtrodden state to which posterity had pushed them into.
The research leads us on to changes that were forged on the anvil of socio¬religious reform movement that was taking place in the 19th century. While the socio¬religious reform movement had wider implications, women specific issues formed the backbone of these efforts marking the onset of a new wave of consciousness that started permeating the society as a whole. Efforts at reform during this period not only yielded immediate results in terms of improving women’s position both socially as well as legally but they also produced long term results in terms of opening up more avenues for greater women role in shaping anti-colonial stance of 19th century. The 19th century phenomenon opened up a whole new world for women in the 20thcentury ultimately enabling ‘Gandhian mobilisation’ of women power in the nationalist struggle. Thus, a short narrative of life stories of iconic women helps prove the point how they made a difference to the existing atmosphere and opened up greater possibilities for political mobilisation of women power in the 20th century.

Political Women
At the outset it is important to differentiate between the phrases ‘political women’ and ‘woman in politics’ in order to dispel any doubts as to what is being considered here. The active albeit direct participation of women in the political process in India may be said to have started only around the beginning of the previous century which is generally considered as the period of beginning of political democracy thereby implying the emergence of nation states worldwide. Through their huge participation in the freedom struggle under the guidance of Mahatma Gandhi women not only played an important role in all his movements (the Non-cooperation Movement 1922, the Civil Disobedience Movement 1931 and the Quit India Movement of 1942) but they also kept up their struggle for woman’s enfranchisement and political representation at all levels even after the attainment of independence in 1947. Women’s movements in India have also been struggling to get political empowerment for the Indian womenfolk for nearly seven decades and have only managed to get their demand for reservation in the Indian parliament and state legislatures included in the programme of the political parties.
So what we are essentially discussing is the `politicalness’ of women in the 18th and 19th Centuries. It has often been stated, and has been refuted here, that the personality traits of women (like the lack of self-esteem) and the socio- economic cultural environment along with the political environment is to a great extent responsible for women’s insignificant participation in politics. Another point that needs to be clarified at the outset is that there was a marked division in the public and private spheres, the former being the male stronghold and the latter the feminine domain to which the women were confined .
The question now arises as to what we mean by political power. In general terms it is understood as the activity which aims at bringing the government to bear in a particular direction, to secure particular results. According to Harold D. Laswell political process implies the shaping, sharing and exercise of power.i Politics helps people to protect their interests and rights through political participation and influence. Conventionally, politics meant political structures but it has now evolved to include expressions of political behaviour like movements, protests and struggles. Primarily considered a male activity it has been challenged by feminist scholars who have argued for a redefinition of politics to include the private sphere also since its political nature deeply, though in a concealed manner, influences public life too. However, here it would be relevant to understand the various implications of politics for different groups, communities and nations. Frieda Hauswirth, a Westerner settled in India articulated the Indian character thus:
‘Underlying all the apparent fatalism of India, so much criticised by the Westerners, there rests this tranquil lake of profound optimism, based on ultimate religious trust and faith this realisation of the imminence of divinity in all life on earth, be its fugitive appearance good or evil. The Indian knows that the wheels of God grind slowly; he also knows that they never cease turning and may not be hurried by the fretting will of man.’ii
This statement of Frieda Hauswirth, a foreign national married to an Indian, amply illustrates the truth of India and Indians, the values that they hold dear and their resultant lifestyles.

A Network of Boundaries

Much has been said about the condition of women in India since ancient times. It is a well-known fact that during the entire ages- ancient, medieval and modern their position, as that of other marginalised groups in the society kept on changing for the better or worse. However, the period of study is marked by some features typical to the age. The most important aspect was the appearance of changes in the society and economy that were the direct result of the process of colonialism which had started by now. Mid-18thCentury saw not only the rise of British imperial storm on the Indian horizon but also the waning of the three hundred year old Mughal rule in India. The latter had infused major socio¬cultural changes into the Indian milieu most importantly in the lives of women who were largely confined to their home seldom venturing out into public. Not only were their livespushed back into the darkness of private realm, not to be seen by the outside world but they were also debarred from all types of socio- political opportunities of progress and development. Basics like education and freedom were denied to them and they were relegated into the background. A change came about in their lives, albeit slowly with the changing socio- religious consciousness that emerged in the 19th century known as the Indian Renaissance. It would suffice here to say that this revival of ancient Indian learning was prodded on by the rising spirit of national consciousness that sprang up under the impact of British rule. It would also be relevant to state here that political nationalism grew in a background of socio-political reforms; in fact they went hand in hand.iii Thus the inclusion of women’s issues was part of the political process which was unfolding during the 19th century and quite naturally the lives of women were not untouched by the developments all around them. Some of these women no doubt understood and grasped the implications of the changes that were taking place and gathered courage to leap forward and uplift themselves and their lot.

The Socio-Religious Reform Movement

The movement for reform in the 19th century and early twentieth century all over India is referred to as the Indian Renaissance. Usually, the credit for the onset of this reforming activity is attributed to Raja Ram Mohan Roy and his associates in the region of Bengal.However, the reforming zeal soon spread like wild fire and engulfed the whole country. This phenomenon is marked by an intellectual awakening somewhat similar to the 16thcentury European Renaissance. The main difference in the Indian and European contexts was that the latter did not have to face the onslaught of colonialism by a foreign country, a colonialism that not only perpetrated all sorts of atrocities on the colonised foreign land but also sapped the colony of all its glory and dignity. The Indian Renaissance is quite different from the European one in more ways than one. This term in European history meant ‘rebirth’ and was used in the context of the revival of the Graeco- Roman learning in the 15th and 16thCenturies after a long spell of the ‘dark’ Middle Ages. The Indian model was a Renaissance with a difference, deeply inlaid by a revivalist make-up of pristine Hindu or Aryan religious spirit. Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s Renaissance aimed at resuscitating the pristine Aryan spirit, ‘Unitarianism of God’, with the help of modern Western rationalist spirit.
This movement generated a new consciousness amongst the Indians who were looking for an ideological- political outlet to vent suppressed feelings of anger generated by distrust and betrayal. The biggest task of the reformers was to hit out at the conformists and at established customs and practices, especially with respect to women and the low castes. As a result the system of marriage, dowry, sati or wife burning, age of marriage, female infanticide, women’s education and confinement all came under the scanner and were questioned by the intellectuals and reformers who gave a call for rationalism in order to achieve internal and external freedom. The BrahmoSamaj and the AryaSamaj, the two key movements of the period, gave a call for simplification of beliefs and ceremonies and laid emphasis on the revival of Aryan-Hindu beliefs as outlined in the ancient Indian scriptures represented by the Vedas.ivAs a final point, it appears that it was not so much the phenomenon of decay as of change that was reflected in these attempts at revamping the social structure that gave the nomenclature of ‘Renaissance’ to this phenomenon of Indian history.
The Politics of Reform
Reforms have always had a normative appeal in India. In fact, reforms have been central to our civilisation. Indian society has, over the centuries, constantly thrown up reformers; those who questioned, overthrew the old order and forged genuine change. The phenomenon of reform which swept most of the parts of India from mid-19thCentury onwards is popularly known as the socio- religious reform movement or the Indian Renaissance. Reforming activity was nothing new to the Indian society although feminism developed much later in the East. Dealing with the various debates that brought out conflicting viewpoints an attempt has been made to bring out the reality of colonialism. While the socio-religious reform movement had wider implications,here women specific issues are the point of focus with the objective to show how efforts at reform during this period not only yielded immediate results in terms of improving women’s position both socially as well as legally but they also produced long term results in terms of opening up more avenues for them and broadening their margins. The 19thCentury phenomenon opened up a whole new world for women in the 20th century known as the women’s movement.
19thCentury symbolises the beginning of `women’s movement’ in the West and it saw the emergence of the ‘woman question’ in the East. The implication being that feminism emerged as an organised force in the West much earlier than in the East where it was still in its infancy during the period under review.But this does not mean that the women in the East were not involved with the changes taking place all around them, more so, in a period when India was undergoing the torment of major upheavals which were socio- religious in appearance but were quite political in essence. This period of Indian history can actually boast of being the trend setter for the future shape of things to come, especially for the women’s movement which had started attaining political overtones in the greatly oppressive colonial milieu.
Another reality with which the Indian women were faced with was that by the end of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century, the issue of reforms for women got inextricably mixed up with the movement for national liberation. Colonialism in fact came to exercise a major influence in shaping not only the issues that were taken up to improve the lot of women, for instance the campaign against sati, polygamy, the quest for women’s property rights, stress on women’s education and removal of social malpractices affecting women. Reformers also emphasised a need for reform of laws and subsequent codification to improve the status of women and simultaneously bringing in its wake an alteration of indigenous and customary laws. Thus, issues like sati prohibition, raising the age of marriage, widow remarriage, property rights for women and many more came under the ambit of codification and became the major plank of women’s movement in the Twentieth Century.
While discussing the various attempts at reform, social, religious or legal, the contestations throw up a very interesting triangular tussle between the conservatives, liberals and the official viewpoint. It is generally believed that after 1857, the British abandoned their previous pro- reformist stance and became a lot more cautious about playing the reformer. Another important point that weakens the claims of reformists was that no one was actually interested in improving the lot of the women or in the issue of their rights or status per se. The major motivating factor was the interpretation of scriptures and traditions which directly affected the personal laws. All these developments had major political implications in the sense of setting the stage for politicisation of women and their issues that was going to help the much larger freedom movement for the independence of the country in the 20thCentury.

Some Political Women of the Nineteenth Century

A few case studies like those of Pandita Rama Bai, SavitribaiPhule, TarabaiShinde, Anandibai Joshi and Sarojini Naidu help in understanding the saga of the so called political women and also the related phenomenon of leveraging the self which the present paper tries to unravel.v Through the example of a few notable women of this period, it would be easier to understand the ‘phenomenon of political women’. It would also be the aim to make the point of women’s participation in politics clear and to highlight their contribution in the political process in India.
Maharani VeluNachiyar(1730-1796) is the only female queen in Bharat to defeat the British powers and remain undefeated. Perhaps she is the only one in the world to defeat the western powers and remain undefeated. This 18thCentury queen from SivagangainTamil Nadu, was brought up like a prince and was trained in warfare. Her husband was killed by British soldiers and the son of the Nawab of Arcot. She escaped with her daughter and lived under the protection of Hyder Ali at Virupachi near Dindigul for eight years. During this period she formed an army and sought an alliance with GopalaNayaker and Hyder Ali with the aim of attacking the British. In 1780 Rani VeluNachiyar fought the British and won the battle. When VeluNachiyar found the place where the British stocked their ammunition, she built the first human bomb. A faithful follower, Kuyilidouses herself in oil, lights herself and walks into the storehouse.The Rani then formed a woman’s army named “udaiyaal” in honour of her adopted daughter — Udaiyaal, who died detonating a British arsenal. This was the first women’s army in modern times. Thus she raised a women’s army and defeated the British army with her women’s army. Nachiar was one of the few rulers who regained her kingdom and ruled it for 10 more years.
VeluNachiyar is the first queen who fought for freedom against British in India,thus becoming the first revolutionary to oppose British rule, even before the Great Rebellion of 1857, which is considered as the first war of independence. Queen VeluNachiar granted powers to Marudu brothers to administer the country in 1780. These were the sons of UdayarServai alias MookiahPalaniappanServai and Anandayer alias Ponnathal. On 31st December, 2008 a commemorative postage stamp on her was released.
GauriParvatiBai was one of the two queens of Travancore who ruled from 1810 to 1829. Before her, Gauri Lakshmi Bai (1791- 1814) is credited with modernising the administration of Travancore and ParvatiBai, whose reign saw the extension of the frontiers of Travancore,carried out other revenue related reforms. Her government conceded a revenue settlement and the abolition of export duties on gram gave considerable relief to the farmers. She followed a policy of tolerance towards other religions and gave facilities to Christian missions to build churches and schools. She was a very efficient administrator and ably suppressed all tendencies at usurpation. However her main achievement lay in the field of reform. The Rani realised that social amelioration was not possible unless the people were literate. She was the first ruler of Travancore and one of the first among Indian rulers to spend considerable sums on education with a definite plan to bring it within the reach of the common people.
The 19th century in India was an epoch of upheaval in its first phase, and of reconstruction in the second phase. Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi (1835-58) was a remarkable woman leader of the first epoch which witnessed the outbreak of the all-India revolt of 1857. She was married to SubadarGangadharRao, head of the small Maratha state of Jhansi formed by the Peshwas in 1743. After becoming a widow, the task of looking after the Jhansi estate fell on her shoulders. She not only executed her duties and responsibilities as the head of the state totally but also sacrificed her life while trying to protect her kingdom from the British.
Pandita Rama Bai(1858-1922) is remembered as one of the ‘makers of modern India’ and the ‘greatest woman produced by modern India’. A learned scholar and exponent of Sanskrit she was given the title of `Pandita’ or learned. She travelled widely, nationally and internationally, embraced Christianity and worked incessantly against the social injustice being done to women in the society. She is known for her efforts to provide shelter to widows against all odds and gave them education and vocational training to become self- dependent.
Another outstanding woman who contributed to the emancipation of women in the 19th century was SavitribaiPhule(1831-1897) who along with her husband Mahatma JyotiraoPhule played an important role in improving the condition of women through emphasis on women’s rights in India. She was the first female teacher of the first women’s school in Pune. In 1852 she opened a school for untouchable girls. Both husband and wife worked tirelessly to educate and carry out social struggles for the oppressed.
The Phules got an avid helper in TarabaiShinde, a feminist activist who protested against patriarchy and caste system and helped JyotibaandSavitribai in running their organisation the SatyashodhakSamaj for the upliftment of the downtrodden women. She was a prolific writer and is best known for her work, StriPurushTulana(A Comparison between Women and Men). Published in 1882 it is a critique of upper- caste patriarchy and is considered as the first modern Indian feminist text which challenged the Hindu religious scriptures as the source of women’s ills. The list of women achievers is not small but still they may be counted on fingers. This is not to say that the attempts at breaking their shackles by common women were few or far In fact just the opposite is true for there are numerous instances of women from all castes and classes joining the ranks of nationalists to fight the political battle for freedom at one level and at another there were tales of daily heroism and struggle to fight the political in the personal.
The above narrative of women from a cross section of Indian society between 1750 to 1900 reveals a new dimension of not only the quality of women’s lives but also the attempts, however sparse but strong, to recover their lost dignity and glory. Unlike their imperial counterparts in Britain, the Indian women had to struggle harder and had a longer road ahead. As Antoinette Burton points out, ‘Historically speaking, arguments for British women’semancipationwere produced, made public,and contested during a periodin whichBritain experienced the confidence born of apparent geo-political supremacy as well as the anxieties brought on by challengesto imperial permanenceand stability.’While suggesting that the women’s movement and imperialism are rather mismatched, still Burton points out that the former coincided with the apogee of British imperial pre-eminence.viiThis process has also been seen as the tireless efforts of women through ages to retrieve themselves from the dark abyss into which history had relegated them over the years. Organised feminism was a far cry for Indian women but the die had been cast in the form of early efforts at reform and recovery of the condition of women.
iSinha, Niroj ed. Women in Indian Politics: Empowerment of Women Through Political Partcipation, Gyan Publishing House, New Delhi, 2000, p. 15.
iiHauswirth, Frieda, The Status of Hindu Women, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co. Ltd., London, 1932.
iiiHeimsath, Charles H., Indian Nationalism and Hindu Social Reform, Princeton, OUP, 1964, chapter III. ivNatarajan,S., A Century of Social Reforms in India, Asia Publishing House, New Delhi, 1959 and Charles H. Heimsath, Indian Nationalism and Hindu Social Reform, chapter I.
vMost of the details about the female leaders discussed here are taken from, Great Women of India, eds. Swami Madhavananda and R.C. Majurndar, AlmoraAdvait Ashram, 1953.Chapter II in Antoinette Burton’s, At the Heart of the Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in late Victorian Britain, Univ. of California Press, Los Angeles, London, 1998, gives a detailed analysis of PanditaRamabai’s life and achievements.
viMany instances of women who struggled to make their voices heard may be found in the works of eg. ParthaChatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments, Delhi ,OUP, 1994, Chapter vi- The Nation and its Women and TanikaSarkar, Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation- Community, religion and Cultural Nationalism, Permanent Black, Delhi, 2001.
viiBurton, Antoinette, Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women and Imperial Culture, 1865–1915, University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

(This paper was presented by Dr.Yuthika Mishra, Associate Professor of History, Vivekananda College, University of Delhi at the Seminar on ‘Revisiting Indian Independence Movement’ organised by India Foundation at New Delhi on 18th March, 2017 at New Delhi.)

(This article is carried in the July-August 2017 issue of India Foundation Journal.)


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