Edited by Ritu Menon, India On Their Minds: 8 Women, 8 Ideas Of India (Women Unlimited, 2023) is a collection of writings by eight women who witnessed and participated in the events leading up to India’s independence from colonial rule. These women, through their short stories, novels, essays, memoirs, and autobiographies, documented the birth of the nation and its aftermath, reflecting on the impact of these events on individual lives.
The following are excerpts from the book.
The eight women in this slim volume—Nayantara Sahgal, Qurratulain Hyder, Rashid Jahan, Ismat Chughtai, Attia Hosain, Kamlaben Patel, Lakshmi Sahgal and Saraladebi Chaudhurani—all of whom we published, are among those many who witnessed, and participated in, the events leading up to the independence of India, and who wrote about both, the events, as well as their impact on individual lives. They observed the birth of the nation, and the division of the country at first hand, and recorded that epochal moment, as well as its aftermath, in short story, novel, essay, memoir and autobiography.
Time and again, they returned, each in her own way, to the question of what ‘nation’ and ‘country’ meant to them, and to how they understood their location in both. Their preoccupation with this is unsurprising, as all of them had individually experienced the liberation from a colonial power, and the exhilarating potential that autonomy and sovereignty offered. Or not. To be born anew was to realise that one could be an agent of change, that they, like many others, could inscribe, if not their own or their country’s destiny, then at least the rites of passage that both would need to pass through.
They are just eight among many, and their perspectives are a consequence of their particular circumstances and choices; they cannot—and I certainly do not—claim to be representative. Nevertheless, they articulate a shared concern, and I like to think, a shared commitment to ideas of India that best reflect its unique identity.
Lakshmi Sahgal (née Swaminadhan) came from an illustrious family of lawyers and professionals in erstwhile Madras. Her mother, Ammu Swaminadhan, was active in politics, a founder-member of the All India Women’s Conference, as well as part of the Women’s Indian Association founded by the Irish theosophist, Margaret Cousins. The young Lakshmi, influenced by her mother, accompanied her to rallies and protests during the 1930s, ‘burning all mine and other people’s foreign clothes, and I felt that freedom and revolution were around the corner’.
She rejected her father’s suggestion that she pursue her medical studies in England, said, ‘No, I will study here, where there was always the option that if anything really important was going to take place, I would get involved in that.’ But then, around the mid-1930s, she met the charismatic Comrade Suhasini Chattopadhyaya and heard about the Meerut Conspiracy Case, in detail, from her. It turned Lakshmi Swaminadhan off Gandhian non-violence, off Congress politics, as well—but, she said, there was no real possibility or opportunity for her to ‘get close’ to any communists at the time.
She left for Singapore, set up her medical practice there, and came into contact with Subhas Chandra Bose and his army in exile, the Azad Hind Fauj, or the Indian National Army. But how did the whole INA fervour come about? How did Bose manage to mobilise more than 30,000 volunteers, in another country, within a couple of months? This is what Capt. Lakshmi told us:
You see, wherever there were camps, the INA would organise marches through the towns with the tricolour flag, and this gave the Indians a feeling of self-respect and dignity that they never had before. ‘Hamari fauj’ (our force)—they identified with it and they felt that they were the protectors, the buffer between them and the Japanese, that whatever happened, the Japanese could not bully them because they had their own fauj. . . And then, General Tojo also came and inspected the INA and he, too, was told that this is going to be expanded and doubled, and a very impressive rally was held. Then, after that, Netaji called all these Indian Independence League people and said, ‘You know, I’m a very difficult man to satisfy, even now I’m not satisfied, this is still not a revolutionary army.’ So they said, ‘Where are we going to get more revolutionaries for you?’ He said, ‘No, you don’t have to create new revolutionaries, but there’s a whole section of our population you’ve completely ignored.’ They still could not understand, and he said, ‘Women!’ He said, ‘How can you have a revolutionary army, how can you have a revolutionary movement, how can you think of independence for our country without involving women? We must give women the opportunity to join the army, undergo training and fight for the country.’ And they all nearly fell flat on their faces (she laughed) and wondered where they would produce women from! The only kind of women they knew were from the working class, rubber-tappers, and people like that, hardly educated, afraid even to go to the bazaar alone—women kahan se milengi? So then, looking at their faces, he said, ‘Oh, I know you think it is a very impossible kind of idea but it is not an outrageous one! After all, in our Independence movement women have always been involved, they haven’t been given their due recognition, but they have come forward in the thousands, so you will have no difficulty. But first, I must have one person at least who will be able to organise it and take charge.’
So there was this President of the Singapore Indian Independence League who was a great friend of mine and I was always pestering him, ‘Please get me introduced to Netaji, I’d like to speak to him and
all…’ He said to Netaji, ‘I think I can produce someone.’ The next day I was called, and for five-six hours Netaji spoke to me; I was alone, nobody else was there. And, of course, he traced the history of the Indian freedom struggle and of other countries, and the part women had played, and how he felt that unless women were given their rightful place and took part in the struggle…
and then afterwards—because he said, I know women in our country are suffering from very grave social and economic disabilities, but to overcome them freedom is an absolute essential, and even after freedom, women will have to fight for their rights and their proper place in our society, because men won’t give it to them that easily. They’ve had their own way all these centuries, using foreign invasions and things like that as an excuse, it’s so ingrained in them. This, he said, will be an opportunity for women to fight for their rights.
‘So,’ I said, ‘you can’t do this with just one recruit! Because I’ve been here for many years and I know that many of the educated and progressive families have gone away from here, and now we have only these…’ He said, ‘No, but this is the substance from which our country is made, these are the women who will take part in the movement. You start going around from tomorrow. First of all I’ll give you an office, with a headquarters, so you have your own office and staff, and I’ll provide transport and you ask various people in the various localities to interview women and find them out.’ From the next day I started work.
The story of the INA’s aborted attempt to enter India through Burma and take on the British in 1942, to infiltrate with a large guerrilla force through the Arakon range into Chittagong, is well known. The women’s militia, with a strength of 300, was moved to Rangoon and then on to Maymo from where the assault on Imphal was to take place. But the Japanese, in control in Burma, withdrew their support and the Rani Jhansi Regiment was asked to retreat. Capt. Lakshmi was placed under house arrest in Maymo for nine months.
Back in India in 1946, after the surrender of the Japanese and the defeat of Hitler, the British government began the INA trials at the Red Fort. The main one was of General Shah Nawaz, Col. Prem Sahgal (whom Lakshmi would marry) and Major Dhillon, charged with waging a war against the King of England. ‘But,’ chuckled Capt. Lakshmi, ‘because I was not one of the King’s men, and had never taken an oath of allegiance to the King, I was never tried!’
India gained independence, was simultaneously freed and divided, and said Capt. Lakshmi, Partition ‘completely spoilt the joy of independence’, for her. Recalling that time forty years later, she said,
In the Punjab riots of 1947 the entire blame was put on the Muslims—that they were started and sparked off by them. The retaliation from the Hindus came later. This was done to make the Hindus fearful and force them to leave. And the tragedy of it all is that the Muslims have suffered the most in India as a result of Partition. You see what has happened to the poor Muslims who are here—they can’t catch up with the mainstream because of lack of education, and economically, they are much worse than they used to be. The Hindus might not have fled from West Punjab if there had been no violence, so what if Partition was taking place. People like my father-in-law did not even move his library, he didn’t move anything from his house even when the High Court was shifted to Simla as a precaution. If the Naval Mutiny and the Telangana Movement had coincided, the momentum for Independence would have been much stronger. Their ultimate aims were more or less the same, but they were so isolated that the impact of one was not felt anywhere else. How many people even know about the Telangana struggle? The Naval Mutiny has practically been forgotten, and yet the interesting thing is that the working class in Bombay supported it. Hundreds of workers were killed and put in jail—so it could have become a mass movement. But people like Sardar Patel advised the British to put it down with an iron hand. . .
When the final decision regarding Partition had taken place, a delegation of senior INA officers, under the leadership of Col. Habib ur Rehman (he was the officer who accompanied Netaji on his last ill-fated flight from Saigon), called on Pandit Nehru. They told him that as they believed in the unity of India and did not believe in a state built on the basis of religion, they wanted to stay back and not become citizens of Pakistan. Pandit Nehru refused to consider their honourable offer and advised them to remain in the place where they were born and serve the new state of Pakistan with loyalty and devotion. It was after this that some officers helped in the evacuation of Muslim refugees stranded in East Punjab, and also advised the army on guerrilla tactics. Never did they indulge in any kind of atrocity.
Capt. Lakshmi Sahgal’s has been not just a revolutionary life, but an exemplary one. When she wrote her autobiography, women’s political activism was somewhat in the shadow; certainly her brand of radical politics was most unusual—so much so that the CPI refused to let her become a member of the Party when she returned to India. Few women have written as candidly of their personal and political beliefs, and even fewer have been as forthright as her in their assessment of both. Capt. Lakshmi Sahgal’s political career has spanned every major development in the country’s political life. Her own transition from non-cooperation to armed resistance and her subsequent engagement with Marxism and feminism, demonstrate an enviable clarity of purpose and conviction, and a tireless quest for social justice.