It has been 74 years since Mahatma Gandhi raised the slogan of ‘do or die’ at the Bombay session of the All India Congress Committee, thereby initiating India into the mass uprising that would eventually lead to the nation’s freedom. Gandhi had been striving for self determination of Indians at different levels for the last several decades. However, the significance of the ‘ Quit India movement’ lay in the broadening of his support base to include peasants, students and the lower middle class.
Following Gandhi’s call for civil disobedience on August 8, 1942, the Mahatma along with all the leaders were imprisoned, leaving the movement leaderless. In the absence of any organised structure, people engaged in the most daring and spontaneous acts of protest against British rule. Railway lines were disrupted, police stations were burnt down and telegraph services destroyed. The British retaliated in vehement terms using ‘lathi charges’ and making mass arrests.
An aspect of the movement that is rarely spoken about is the way it encouraged women to come out of the thresholds of their homes and raise their voice against British rule. With majority of the men behind bars, women took to the streets, raising slogans, holding public lectures and demonstrations and even making and transporting explosives.
Women were also one of the worst sufferers of British retaliation. It was common for British officials to forcefully enter households and slap, beat up and rape women. While women numbering in hundreds had participated in agitations, there are some women who left a clear mark when one talks about the role of women in the ‘Quit India movement’.
Aruna Asaf Ali
Any discussion on Quit India is incomplete without mentioning the contributions made by Aruna Asaf Ali. Born into a middle class family in Haryana as Aruna Ganguly, she became an active member of the Congress after her marriage in 1928. The first time she got involved in a political agitation was during the salt satyagraha in 1930 for which she was sentenced to a year-long imprisonment. She is remembered for the daring act of raising the Tricolour at the Gwalior tank in the midst of police brutality following the Bombay Resolution. She was proclaimed an offender by the police and her property was seized. Subsequently, she got involved in the Royal Indian Navy revolt of 1946.
The contribution of Matangini Hazra is a perfect example of the involvement of rural folk in the nationalist struggle of 1942. She was born in the village of Hogla in West Bengal. Being inspired by the ideologies and teachings of Gandhi, she was often referred to as “Gandhi buri” (old lady Gandhi).
In 1942, at the age of 73, Hazra led a procession of 6,000 people, mostly women, to ransack a local police station. When they were nearing their destination, the police opened fire and she lost her life in the process. Reportedly, she died with the Tricolour in her hands.
Born in a family of nationalists in Ambala, Sucheta Kripalani is reputed as being the first woman chief minister of India. Her most active participation in the Indian freedom struggle was during the Quit India movement. Before the inception of Quit India, Kripalani had founded the women’s department of the Indian National Congress in 1940 with the aim to increase political consciousness among women.
When she came to know of the arrest of Congress leaders following the Bombay Resolution, she was entrusted with the job of coordinating efforts among participating groups. Applying every effort to keep out of the eyes of the authorities, she travelled from place to place carrying messages between various local leaders.
There are numerous other names of women associated with acts of extraordinary bravery during the Quit India struggles. In Orissa, Nandini Devi led a procession at the age of 12 and was soon arrested. Sashibala Devi on the other hand was involved in the distribution of pamphlets issued by underground organisations.
In Assam, young girls like Kanaklata Baruah and Kahuli Devi died of police atrocities. Tileshwari Mahanta was another brave woman who successfully hoisted the Tricolour at the Behali thana in Assam.
Though the movement could not succeed in the face of British retaliation, it definitely punched a hole into British governance, making the colonisers realise that the cost of ruling over the Indian subcontinent had risen substantially. Six years down the line, the Tricolour would be raised again to bid goodbye to the British.
Remarking upon the role played by women in the freedom struggle, Mahatma Gandhi had said, “When the history of India’s fight for independence comes to be written, the sacrifice made by the women of India will occupy the foremost place.”