“What will the girls in my class dress as? Did India have any female freedom fighters?” An innocent question by her 4-year-old son sent Priyanka Bhattacharya Dutt on a trip down history lane to look for and reclaim untold stories of brave women who fought alongside men, even led men into battles for freedom.
“Dress up as a freedom fighter” the notice from school said.
Easy enough, I thought. I called the 4 year old and we started looking at pictures of freedom fighters so he could choose what he wanted to be. Mahatma Gandhi and Subhash Chandra Bose were rejected because they wore spectacles. Lala Lajpat Rai’s moustache was too big to cut it with the picky child. We finally settled on Bhagat Singh complete with his trim, smart moustache and a fedora hat.
Easy enough, like I said.
And then my son asked me, “Mama what will the girls in my class dress as? Did we have any female freedom fighters?”
Of course there were, I said, rattling off the first few names that came to mind. And then I stopped. Try as I might, I could not think of any names beyond Sarojini Naidu, Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi and Annie Besant. Why was my (otherwise very female oriented) mind stuck? Was it because there were such few female freedom fighters? Or was it that my own history lessons as a child only made a cursory mention of important female figures? Ok, I only studied history till the 10th standard, so there could be a lot missing there. Next I turned to my ‘History Honours’ husband and asked him to name 5 female freedom fighters. His list was as short and incomplete as mine.
The next day when I went to pick up my son from school, I saw that other mothers had probably faced a similar dilemma. Most little girls were dressed as Jhansi ki Rani or Sarojini Naidu, while some just came in as Mahatma Gandhi.
So where were the women in our freedom struggle? A simple search of important moments from our freedom struggle threw up something interesting. Search for ‘Quit India Movement’ or ‘Dandi March’ and every image that comes up shows both men and women.
So obviously, the women at that time were definitely participating in public life. There’s no way ‘non cooperation’ or ‘civil disobedience’ could succeed without the support of the women. Not just that, search enough and you find inspiring stories of women fighters who were in active combat. Somehow, however, most of these women have remained nameless.
So this independence day, I have decided to be better prepared for my son’s questions. When he asks me if India had any female freedom fighters, I’m going to tell him about these great and amazing women, who may not have gotten their dues in our history books, but definitely need to be remembered and respected.
Rani Channamma of Kittur
The Queen of a small princely state in Karnataka, Kittur, was one of the first female leaders to lead an armed rebellion against the British East India Company, in the 19th century. The story goes that after her husband and son died early, Rani Channamma adopted Shivalingappa to be heir to the Kittur throne. This was rejected by the British who tried to annex the state under the ‘Doctrine of Lapse.’ Simply put, it meant that due to the death of the legal heir, Kittur would now be ruled by the British. To fight this, Rani Channamma went to war, even winning early victories. However, she was eventually betrayed and captured, and imprisoned for life at the Bailhongal Fort.
Lakshmi Sahgal and the Rani Jhansi Regiment
Imagine an almost 5000 member strong regiment of women fighters, militarily trained to fight the British. This was the Rani Jhansi Regiment that fought under Subhash Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj. Women of all ages and from all walks of life rallied under Netaji’s call to join forces and fight British rule.
This regiment was headed by Captain Lakshmi , a doctor by profession, who had met Bose in Singapore when she heard he was keen to recruit a women-only regiment. She was arrested by the British in Burma in 1945, and released only a year later. Captain Lakshmi kept working for the upliftment of refugees and the dispossessed even after independence.
Gaidinliu was a Naga political worker who led a revolt against British rule. She was just 13 when she joined a movement that aimed to end British rule in Manipur and adjoining areas. When she was 16, she was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. She was released in 1947 after India’s independence. It is said that when Jawaharlal Nehru met her in Shillong Jail in 1937, he was so impressed that he gave her the title of Queen or Rani. After independence Rani Gaidinliu continued to work for the political betterment of her people, and was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1982.
Begum Hazrat Mahal
Most of us know the story of Wajid Ali Shah, the deposed Nawab of Awadh. Yes, the same Nawab who introduced the Biryani to Bengal. But what happened to Awadh once he was exiled to Bengal? His wife Begum Hazrat Mahal, not just held fort (literally) but was an important leader in the mutiny of 1857, or India’s First War of Independence. She commanded an entire army of rebel leaders who fought against the British in 1857.
That she was called Gandhi Buri (or ‘Old Lady Gandhi’ in Bangla) by many is testament to high esteem she was held in. She was the daughter of a poor peasant and was never formally educated. However, in 1905 she got involved in the Indian Independence movement. She was an active participant in the Civil Disobedience Movement and had even been arrested a few times. When she was 71 years old, she was at the forefront of the Quit India Movement in Mednipore district in West Bengal, leading a procession of about 6000 mostly female volunteers towards the Tamluk police station. According to a report in a local newspaper then, she was shot at repeatedly by the police, even as she chanted ‘Vande Mataram.’ It is said she died with the flag of the Indian National Congress in her hands.
That’s it … a beginning of a list for now. By the time India celebrates 71, I hope to have many many more names and stories to tell my son. And hopefully, by then, history revisionists who seem to be so busy erasing Mughal history from our textbooks, actually work towards including more female revolutionaries into our narrative.
When not answering the incessant question of her 4-year-old, Priyanka Bhattacharya Dutt is a journalist and co-founder of Tura Turi, an art-inspired children’s merchandise brand