Women marched shoulder to shoulder in India’s March to Freedom. They came from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, faced the batons, courted arrested and in doing all this, also managed to break stereotypes about what women could do. Here are some amazing women.
1. Captain Lakshmi Sahgal
Lakshmi Sahgal is commonly referred to as Captain Lakshmi. A doctor by profession she was the leader of the women’s regiment in Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj.
In 1942, during the British armies’ surrender to the Japanese forces in Singapore, what was then Burma, Lakshmi Sahgal aided wounded prisoners of war. She met many Indian nationalist including K. P. Kesava Menon, S. C. Guha and N. Raghavan, who formed a Council of Action, an Indian independence army commanded by Subhash Chandra Bose. From 1943 to 1945, in the jungles of Singapore and what was then Burma, Lakshmi Sehgal commanded a brand-new unit of the Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army) in the hope of overthrowing the British Raj. The Rani of Jhansi regiment, set up by the leader Subhash Chandra Bose, was for women only and the first of its kind in Asia.
She knew how to fire a revolver and prime a grenade, change the magazine on a Tommy gun and wield a sword, for Dr. Lakshmi had been trained beside the men to become a killing machine. She was given the rank of a Colonel, although she was always popularly called ‘Captain’. She recorded the army song Chalo Dilli (On to Delhi) for the Azad Hind Fauz. She was captured and brought to India on March 4, 1946, where she received a heroine's welcome. But soon she was released, after the British authorities realized that keeping her a prisoner would be counter-productive. In 1998, she was awarded the Padma Vibhushan.
2. Kanaklata Barua
Martyred while leading the Quit India programme in Assam with the national flag in her hand, Kanaklata Barua was just 17 years old when she died .
Born on 22nd December 1924, she became an orphan when she was thirteen years old and had to drop out of school after Class Three to take care of her younger siblings. Inspired by the ongoing freedom movement in the nation, she joined the Mrityu Bahini, a death squad comprising groups of youth from the Gohpur sub-division of Assam. On 20th September 1942, the Bahini planned to hoist the tricolour at the local police station. The procession of around 500 unarmed villagers shouting slogans like ‘Freedom is our right’ was led by Barua. When she tried to convince the police about their commitment to non-violence, the police refused to believe them and the marchers received a warning. Undeterred, the procession went ahead, leading to an open fire by the police. Leading the line was Kanaklata Barua . She received a bullet in her chest and died on the spot.
3. Pritilata Waddedar
Pritilata Waddedar (1911-1932) was a Bengali revolutionary and nationalist. She was the woman behind the 1932 attack on the Pahartali European Club at Chittagong which had a signboard that read ‘Dogs and Indians not allowed’. Pritilata was among the revolutionaries who torched it down. Pritilata became part of the independence movement by joining the revolutionary group of Surya Sen. Along with them, Pritilata took part in many raids including the attack of the telephone and telegraph offices and the capture of the reserve police line.
Being a woman, the revolutionaries were confident that the British would not get suspicious of Pritilata. Taking advantage of this, Pritilata was made responsible for transport of arms and ammunition by Surya Sen.
Pritilata Waddedar was asked to lead the attack on the Pahartali European Club. Dressed as a Punjabi male, she and her associates torched down the club and tried to escape. She suffered a bullet wound while escaping and decided to commit suicide by consuming cyanide instead of getting caught by the British. Pritilata Waddedar died at the age of 21.
4. Subhadra Kumari Chauhan
Do you remember the famous poem line ‘Khub ladi mardani woh toh Jhansi wali rani thi’ from school? Written by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, it also inspired countless of Indian freedom fighters. Born in 1904 in Allahabad, Subhadra wrote about nationalism besides participating actively in the movement since a young age. Her poem ‘Jallianwala Bagh mein Vasant’ was well received and extremely popular. She emerged as a leader, along with her husband Thakur Lakshman Singh during the Jhanda Satyagraha (Flag Satyagraha), a campaign of peaceful civil disobedience of hoisting nationalist flags in 1923. Barely 19 and pregnant, she became the first woman Satyagrahi to court arrest in Nagpur. In the 1930s she presided over the women’s section of the State Congress Committee and was elected to the Bihar Legislative Assembly in 1936 (and also in 1945). When she faced jail for the second time in 1941, she had to take along her physically challenged baby. She used this time to work on improving the condition of women prisoners and for writing short stories. For her writings, she was awarded the prestigious Seksaria Prize by the All India Hindi Sahitya Sammelan.
5. Usha Mehta
Usha Mehta (1920 - 2000) was a Gandhian freedom fighter from Gujarat. Her journey in India’s freedom struggle started at a young age of eight when she participated in the protest march against Simon Commission, a commission which arrived in British India in 1928 to study constitutional reform in its colony. It was commonly referred to as Simon Commission after its chairman, Sir John Allsebrook Simon.
During the Quit India movement of 1942, she was among the leaders who hoisted the flag at Gowalia Tank Maidan, today known as August Kranti Maidan in Mumbai. Her major contribution to the freedom movement was the setting up of the Secret Congress Radio which was responsible for broadcasting uncensored news about the freedom movement. The radio broadcast recorded messages from Gandhi and other prominent leaders across India. As a result of this Usha Mehta and her team which included freedom fighter and nationalist Ram Manohar Lohia, Achyutrao Pathwardhan and Purushottam Trikamdas had to keep changing base almost on a daily basis but they were finally caught and arrested on 12th November 1942. Usha Mehta was imprisoned at Yerwada jail, Pune and she was one of the first political prisoners to be released in Bombay, at the orders of Morarji Desai.
It is thanks to the sacrifices of these great women , that the dream of Independent India could become a reality. Some did not even live to see India free. But their names and dreams live on.
Cover Image - Captain Lakshmi Sahgal in Azad Hind Fauz /Wikimedia Commons