By Nandini Oza*
Even the most deserving of women do not find a place that equals their worth in history. Kasturba is one such woman whose contribution to India’s struggle for freedom has been exemplary, and yet, it has not received the recognition it deserves. Kastur Makhanji Kapadia was born in the year 1869, the same year and in the same town of Porbandar in Gujarat as Gandhiji. In fact she was older than Gandhiji by a few months.
Kasturba’s life journey was extraordinary, particularly in the context of the era she was born in. It was way back in the year 1913, when not many Indian women ventured out of home that Kasturba was sentenced to three months of hard labor in South Africa for having led a team of satyagrahis. Gandhiji was not a part of the team she led. Kasturba was already a mother when she passed the harsh three months in Martizburg jail.
About this episode, Manmohan Kaur in his book, ‘Women in India’s Freedom Struggle’, writes:
“The women in the Phoenix Farm could not stay back. They joined the struggle. Mahatma Gandhi did not tell his wife Kasturba Gandhi about this programme, but she overheard the conversation and came to Gandhiji and said: ‘I am sorry that you are not telling me about this. What defect is there in me which disqualifies me for the jail?…Gandhiji replied thus: ‘I would be only too glad if you went to jail but it should not appear at all as if you went at my instance.’ She assured her husband: ‘You may have nothing to do with me if being unable to stand jail I secure my release by an apology. If you can endure hardships and so can my boys, why can’t I? I am bound to join the struggle…”
Kasturba was jailed several times thereafter and played an important role in the social and political history our country. Yet, popular books on history of the time either have no reference to her contribution or have cursory references to her role. Even where her contribution is referred to in some detail, it is often her role as a subordinate to Gandhiji that is highlighted. It is only when one digs further that her role as an independent thinking woman and a freedom fighter in her own right comes to light more clearly.
The other issue is, and is rightly put by Ved Mehta in his book titled, ‘Mahatma Gandhi and his Apostles’, while referring to two standard bibliographies of Gandhian literature:
It would be important for historians to focus and examine the available records and primary sources to place Kasturba’s contribution to the country first and foremost as an independent woman and a freedom fighter in her own right, and then her role in the context of her extraordinarily challenging life as the wife, in the shadow of her husband, the Mahatma himself.
This conclusion is not difficult to draw from some of the records I quote as examples here.While Mahadevbhai Desai’s diaries in Gujarati in twenty three volumes focus primarily on events around Gandhiji, one gets glimpses of the firebrand freedom fighter that Kasturba was. I highlight some nothings from the diary here (Volume 1, year 1932):
“Yesterday there was news that Ba had gone on a tour of the Bardoli Taluka (in Gujarat). Therefore I [Mahadevbhai ] said, ‘This time Ba will get six months (in jail).’
“Bapu (Gandhi) said, ‘It will not be a surprise if she gets class ‘C’ (jail) and is sentenced to hard labour.’
“Just then the same news appeared. On getting the news, Bapu’s joy knew no bounds. He laughed aloud. He then spoke only this much: ‘Were they not ashamed to sentence a sixty year old woman to hard labour!’”
At another place, Mahadevbhai notes (Volume 17, year 1923):
“Kasturba had promised that, ‘if the soldiers are ready then I will most definitely join you.’ This is because she finds living outside while Gandhiji is in jail worse than death. I have faith that keeping Kasturba in the lead, the army of people going to jail will get Gandhiji released.”
Kasturba’s contribution in addressing meetings especially of women, fund raising, running the ashrams where she and Gandhiji resided, spinning, engaging in political discussions etc during the struggle for freedom has been phenomenal. This comes to light when one reads some of the primary and secondary sources available to us. In the book, ‘Women in India’s Freedom Struggle,’ Manmohan Kaur writes:
“Kasturba… presided over meetings and also toured the various States propagating for the success of the movement. Presiding over the Gujarat Provincial Conference she condemned untouchability and preached Swadeshi… when it was reported to her that her son Devdas Gandhi has been arrested, she took the news saying: ‘Only two of my sons have gone to jail, but twenty thousand sons of mother Hind are in jail; how can I bemoan my lot!’”
In the book, “The Untold Story of Kasturba, Wife of Mahatma Gandhi” Arun and Sunanda Gandhi with Carol Lynn Yellin write:
“In 1938, spontaneous uprisings against arbitrary rule by local princes began erupting across India…But not until protests broke out in Rajkot did the crises reach its climax… on February 3, 1939, she [Kasturba] was summarily arrested and…was taken to Tramba to be confined… [Later] Ba was not only released from solitary confinement, but her companions Maniben Patel and Mridula Sarabhai, detained separately in Rajkot jails, were brought to Tramba to share her captivity in the royal bungalow…”
“For my grandparents, the year 1933 became a cycle of arrests, jails, fasts, releases and re-arrests…soon Kasturba was arrested again – the sixth time in just two years- and given another six-month sentence to be served in Sabarmati Jail. Apparently the British now regarded Mrs. Gandhi, due to her own unique ability to involve women in the independence movement, as an even more threat to law and order than Gandhi himself…”
The influence that Kasturba wielded on women during the freedom struggle is corroborated in Mahadevbhai’s diaries when he writes in reference to the Nagpur Satyagraha (Volume 18, year 1923-24):
“…The end of Nagpur order will be on August 17. It is to be seen what the Government does. If the new order is not passed, defeat will have to be accepted. If there is a new order, the struggle will continue. And now the new struggle will begin with Kasturba in the lead. By sending women, will the youth remain behind?”
Reading Sushila Nayar’s book titled, ‘Kasturba – A Personal Reminiscence’, one can understand the diverse roles that Kasturba performed and the qualities that she had. I quote:
“I again went to the Ashram during the summer vacations. My brother (Gandhi’s secretary Pyarelal) and Bapu at the time were in jail as a result of Salt Satyagraha. Ba was touring from village to village seeing workers, visiting the victims of police excesses in hospitals, and in their homes and talking to the people to infuse courage and enthusiasm into them…
“In 1935, I went to Wardha…I saw Ba labouring from morning till night at all sorts of domestic chores, visiting the sick, talking to workers…I happened to go to Wardha again in November the same year. At that time Ba’s youngest son Devdas Gandhi was ill. He was suffering from a nervous breakdown. The patience and deep understanding with which she looked after him was extraordinary… she took him to Shimla…my brother (Pyarelal) has told me that her motherly love and commonsense did more for Devdas than all the doctors combined. Her son recovered and she came back to Gandhiji.”
It is not just about looking after their four sons, but when it came to Laxmi, their adopted daughter who also is often absent from books on Gandhiji, Kasturba played an important role after her initial reluctance in accepting her. Recounting her experience in jail in 1932, Laxmi has said in her interview:
“…we were taken to Sabarmati jail where Kasturba was also locked up and since she was an A class prisoner she often passed on to us some bread and butter. The food was horrible so we made do with the supply and we spent 17 days in this jail after which we were transferred to the Yervada jail in Poona. Kasturba protested saying that we were still young and should not be transferred from one jail to another. But no one listened to us and we landed in Yervada where we met Sarojini Naidoo who was serving her sentence there. She was in the next cell and so she took care of us like Kasturba did…”
It was also because Kasturba was a threat to the British and because of the influence she wielded on the masses, particularly women that she too was arrested and jailed along with other leaders during the Quit India movement in August 1942. She was past seventy years of age and yet she was picked up along with Sushila Nayar to be brought first to the Arthur Road jail in Mumbai. About this arrest Sushila Nayar writes:
“The news of Gandhi’s arrest spread like lightening speed. People started pouring to the Birla House and Ba was kept busy talking to someone or the other the whole day…Bapu was to address a public meeting at Shivaji Park that evening. Ba announced that she would address the meeting instead of him and people were thrilled to hear it…the car that was to take us to the meeting was commandeered by the police and was used as a prison van to take us- Ba and myself and my brother to the Arthur Road Prison… ‘They won’t let us out alive this time,’ she [Kasturba] spoke at last…”
The conditions in Arthur Road Jail were appalling and Kasturba, who was already unwell, had no proper medical care. Later they were shifted to the Aga Khan Palace where Gandhiji had been jailed along with Mahadevbhai Desai. It was here that Kasturba witnessed the passing away of Mahadevbhai, their close aide. She also endured Gandhiji’s twenty days’ fast in captivity. All of this finally took a toll on Kasturba’s already failing health and she breathed her last in British custody on February 22, 1944, never to see her country free for which she had struggled powerfully.