In India’s march to freedom, there were many heroes who worked under the radar and out of the spotlight, but their contribution was immense and so worth celebrating. Umabai Kundapur was one such crusader who set up one of the largest voluntary organisations during India’s freedom struggle, activating local women, who had never stepped out of their homes. An inspiration for well-known freedom fighters like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Umabai touched thousands of lives.
She was also lucky. Married into an affluent and progressive family, she managed to make every setback she faced in life, into a chance to work harder, for the cause she lived for.
The early 20th century was a period of awakening in urban centers like Mumbai. There were growing protests against British excesses and the most unlikely people were joining the movement. Born 1892, Umabai’s family had moved to Mumbai where she was married into an affluent family when she was barely nine years old. Her father – in – law Anandrao Kundapur, encouraged her to complete her studies and she enrolled at the Alexandra High School, near today’s CSMT Station in Mumbai.
On the 6th of April,1919 just as the young Umabai was getting ready to take her matriculate examination, Mahatma Gandhi and Congress called for a massive strike to protest against the draconian Rowlatt Act which gave the British government unprecedented powers to arrest and detain people.
As it often happens even today, the strike in Bombay, brought the city’s public transport system to a halt and many young students like Umabai had to walk to the examination center to take her exam. While she successfully completed her exams, an event just a week later, changed the course of her life. The Jallainwalla Bagh massacre, where over 400 peaceful protestors were gunned down, on the 13th April 1919 sent shockwaves across the country.
In Mumbai, the young Umabai joined the ranks of the thousands of protestors. From the early 1900s, Mumbai was the hub of political activity. The headquarters for the protests was the Sardar Griha and the leader Lokmanya Tilak. It is a testimony to his role in the freedom struggle that Tilak’s funeral, just a year later in 1920, attracted over two hundred thousand people, at Mumbai’s Chowpatty beach, including Umbai and her husband. This is when Umabai decided to become a Congress volunteer.
Umabai was encouraged in her political activities by her in-laws as well as her husband, Sanjivrao. Sadly, tragedy struck in 1923, when Sanjivrao died of tuberculosis leaving Umabai widowed at the age of 31. Shattered, Umabai decided to leave Mumbai and move to Hubli, where the Kundapur family, owned large estates as well as a factory. There, in what marked a fresh start, her father in law Anandrao started the Karnataka Press and a school for girls, the ‘Tilak Kanya Shala’, of which Umabai was made in charge. Along with another nationalist, Krishnabai Panajikar, she also founded the ‘Bhagini Samaj’, an NGO for women. However, Umabai retained her association with the Congress and travelled across Karnataka, to encourage women to leave the seclusion of their homes and join the freedom struggle.
Here, she also came in contact with Dr N S Hardikar, who had started the Hindustani Seva Dal in 1924. It was to work under the supervision of the Congress party's Working Committee. Young people from different parts of South India and Maharashtra came to Hubli to receive training in drill, camp life, spinning, weaving and shramadan (voluntary work). The aim was to recruit an army of devoted workers by giving them mental and physical training to endure the hardships freedom fighters usually encountered Jawaharlal Nehru was its first president and Umabai became the chief leader of its women's wing.
To enroll women in public camps for physical training and marches was an unheard-of revolutionary idea back then. But Umabai succeeded in galvanising the women and winning supporters, through innovative techniques like plays and theatre. It worked.
An important force in organizing the All India Congress Committee conference in Belgaum in 1924 (the only time Mahatma Gandhi presided over such a meeting), Umabai made a mark through her sheer organisational skills.
A large number of women, including widows with tonsured heads, who until now had been confined to domestic chores, from the backward Dharwad district attended the session. This was unprecedented. During her campaign to galvanise these women, she also created a 150 strong volunteer network of women. Part of this was Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (Link to Chowpatty Satyagraha story), who years. later played a very important role in the Salt Satyagraha at Mumbai. Kamaladevi impressed by the soft-mannered and iron-willed Umabai, wrote in 1952, “It was the biggest turning point in my life. I joined as a volunteer and I still continue to be her camp follower"
Through the in the early 1930s, Umabai was a powerful force in the Salt Satyagraha for which she was arrested in 1932 and kept in Yerwada jail for four months. Meanwhile, the British confiscated the press, sealed her school and declared her NGO as unlawful. After a stint in prison, the day she was released, her niece informed her that her father-in-law Anandrao, had passed away a week earlier. This was a particularly bitter blow to Umabai. Her father-in-law had been her biggest source of support since childhood, encouraging her in studies, her social work and even in her political activities.
Umabai felt that rededicating herself to social service would be the best tribute to her late father-in-law. During the Salt Satyagraha in 1930, people (including women) had been imprisoned and when they were released they were often homeless, having been disowned by their families due to the fear of the British. Her house became a refuge for them. Again, during the devastating Bihar earthquake of 1934, Umabai and her batch of volunteers persevered day and night in refugee camps. It was during this time that she came in contact with national leaders like Rajendra Prasad and Acharya Kripalani.
While Umabai could not participate in the Quit India movement of 1942, due to ill health, but her house served as a safe house for a number of freedom fighters, escaping arrest. In 1946, Mahatma Gandhi appointed her as the head of the Karnataka branch of the Kasturba Trust which was formed for the upliftment of villages by training volunteers, the Grama Sevikas to educated, run health programs and manage child-welfare.
After independence, prominent political offices were offered to her, but she turned all of them away, adhering to the pledge of service to the Nation as a Desh Sevika. She even refused awards, recognition and even a pension, that freedom fighters were entitled to. She continued her work and retired to a simple cottage in Hubli and died at the ripe old age of 100 in 1992.
Her’s was a life well spent.
Cover Image courtesy: KL Kamat
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