On Saturday, Google honoured Anasuya Sarabhai with a doodle on her 132nd birth anniversary. Sarabhai’s name will remain etched in eternal history for championing the women’s labour movement in India. She also founded the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association (Majoor Mahajan Sangh), India’s oldest union of textile workers, in 1920.
Known as ‘Motaben’, Gujarati for ‘elder sister’, she was born in 1885 into the affluent Sarabhai family of Ahmedabad. However, Anasuya lost both her parents when she was only nine and was married off by her uncle at a tender age of 13. She divorced her husband and returned to her own family.
In 1912, Anasuya left for England to continue her studies and it was there the turnaround in her life came. During this time she came in contact with Fabianists like George Bernard Shaw and Sydney Webb, who rejected the revolutionary doctrines of Marxism, recommending instead a gradual transition to a socialist society. From here Anasuya’s journey started to serve the cause of social equality and the next year she returned to India and started working with the marginal and disempowered communities.
She began by opening a school for poor students of all castes and creches and toilets for women. The seeds of her plunge into the labour movement were sown during an incident that is best described by her own words. “One morning, I was sitting outside in the compound combing out the children’s hair when I saw a group of 15 workers passing by as if in a trance. I called out to them, even though I did not know them well, and asked them, “What’s the matter? Why do you look so listless?’
They said, “Behen, we have just finished 36 straight hours of work. We have worked for two nights and a day without a break, and now we are on our way home.” These words filled me with horror. This was no different than the kind of slavery women faced!”
Anasuya took up the task to change the situation. When epidemic hit Ahmedabad in 1914, the condition of the mill workers deteriorated further and they approached Anasuya to take up their cause. She gave an ultimatum to the mill owners and even went against her brother, Ambalal, who was the then-president of the Mill Owners’ Association, demanding better wages and working ambience for the labourers. Her endeavour was successful and the trade union movement in India took its baby steps.
She was supported in her work by Mahatma Gandhi and in 1918, Anasuya managed mill owners to accede to the demand of Ahmedabad weavers for a 35% wage hike. Tens of thousands of workers participated in the protest, laying the foundation for Gujarat’s oldest labour union, Majoor Mahajan Sangh (Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association or TLA), that was established on February 25, 1920. However, Anasuya ensued that the relationship between the mill owners and the union always remained harmonious and any differences were nipped in the bud.
The name of Ela Bhatt is synonymous with Anasuya. It was in the 1950s that she came in contact with Motaben and she became one of her closest aides and their relationship became the backbone of the formation of the Self-Employed Women’s Association of India (SEWA) in 1972. However, only months later Anasuya passed away.