“Kasturba Gandhi is no more. She died at the age of 74 in British jail….I salute this great woman who was like a mother to Indians ….Kasturba was an inspiration for millions of Indian girls with whom she lived and met during the freedom struggle of our motherland. She was party to the many travails and tribulations of life with her great husband since the days of Satyagrah in South Africa.. She went to jail many times, which severely impacted her health but she did not fear going to jail even at the age of 74 years. When Mahatma Gandhi led the Civil Disobedience Movement, Kasturba was in the forefront of that struggle’
With these words Subhash Chandra Bose remembered Kasturba when she expired in detention at Agha Khan Palace – which had in fact been turned into a jail – on 22 nd February 1944. History bears witness to the fact that it was a death precipitated by the callous and ruthless colonial rulers who had refused to release her despite her worsening medical condition. She had been suffering from heart disease for more than four months. She also had a heart attack during this period.
Perhaps this was the reason that in his tribute to Kasturba (1) Bose did not mince any words and underlined ‘Kasturba has died a Martyr’s death.’ and held the callous British government responsible for ‘this ruthless murder’. His words were ‘
I can just express my feeling of revulsion to these vultures who make grandiose claims about independence, justice and morality but are really guilty of this ruthless murder.’
She was detained there for her participation in the Quit India Movement. Thousands and thousands of people have been arrested, fired upon, killed as part of the government’s crackdown to crush the mass upsurge.
Her biographer tells us sensing that the police would stop her on way to the historic meeting at Shivaji Park and imprison her too,
“She, therefore, dictated to Sushila Nayar her message for the public. “Gandhiji poured out his heart to you for two hours at the All India Congress Committee meeting last night. What can I add to that? All that remains for us is to live up to his ideals. The women of India have to prove their mettle. They should all join in this struggle, regardless of caste or creed. Truth and nonviolence must be our watchwords.” (2)
As the nation remembered Kasturba on her 75th death anniversary and 150th birth anniversary one is reminded of the many facets of her sixty plus year public life – as a freedom fighter, as an activist in number of civil actions and protests across India – and her personal life where she focused on helping manage the various ashrams that she helped Gandhi found. The first one of such kind was the Phoenix settlement near Durban established in 1904, which was a cooperative village where residents shared chores and grew their own food. Her first imprisonment also occurred in South Africa when she led a march of women against racial laws (1913)
Her great granddaughter tells how her grandmother Laxmi – Kasturba’s youngest daughter in law – use to narrate her experiences of Kasturba when she had gone to Ceylon (1927) along with her father C Rajagopalachari and was taken care of by Kasturba. (3)
One also gets to know about her inspiring speech to women from Borsad who were protesting police excesses. She also visited few villages after the meeting to declare her support to the women. The press statement issued by her on the occasion is worth giving a read :
Wherever I went, I saw marks of lathi blows on chest, back, head, waist and leg …I was doubly grieved on hearing that police caned children, pulled women by the hair, dealt fist blows on breasts of women, and uttered indecent abuses to women. .. This is the first occasion in my life, when I have seen such inhuman treatment meted out to ladies in Gujarat. Nowhere I have seen such brutalities on women by the police. (4)
It was in the fitness of things that after her death some friends had launched a Kasturba Gandhi Memorial Fund, which was supposed to focus on welfare of women and girls and had launched a fund collection drive. In fact, after his release from jail Gandhi also helped raise funds for it and also laid down guidelines for it (Page 744, -do-). Looking at the ambience then, the formation of trust had evoked a very positive response from various strata of Indian people and contributions were pouring in.
What appears bit strange that the Hindu Sangathanists were not at all pleased with these developments and saw it as an opportunity not only to belittle Gandhi but also deny any role for Kasturba in freedom struggle and reduce her entire life to that of a home maker.
Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, leader of the Hindu Mahasabha – who had once sent mercy petitions to the Britishers for early release from Andaman Jail and had preferred to tour India asking Hindu youth to join the military with a call ‘Militarise the Hindus, Hinduise the nation’ supposedly to strengthen British efforts in the war and actually to help them in the brutal suppression of Indian people when the historic Quit India movement was at its peak – was at his venomous best. He saw it as an opportunity to settle his decade long enmity towards Gandhi.
The press statement issued by him read ‘The Hindu Sangathanists Should Not Contribute A Single Pie to the Congressite Kasturba Fund‘, questioning Gandhi’s alleged silence over the martyred men and women who died in pursuit of ‘armed attempts to overthrow British rule’. (5)
As it was evident it was a sign of deep hatred of Savarkar towards Gandhi and his increasing frustration over the turn of events in India where he had increasingly started appearing as a stooge of the Britishers, that he could not even have an objective assessment of Kasturba’s role as well which was rightly put by Subhash Chandra Bose.
What was ironic that Savarkar had no qualms in questioning Gandhi’s patriotism when he and his party Hindu Mahasabha were running coalition governments in Sind and Bengal sharing power with Muslim league and had unashamedly defended this power sharing
..in practical politics also the Mahasabha knows that we must advance through reasonable compromises. (6)
His then deputy – who later became a President of the Hindu Mahasabha- Shyama Prasad Mukherjee held important post in the Bengal government. Perhaps this belittling of Gandhi-Kasturba was part of this overall strategy to give a push to the Hindu Sangathanists vis-a-vis Congress. Savarkar was of the opinion that with banning of Congress in 1942 and its removal from “..[t]he political field as an open organisation..the Hindu Mahasabha alone was left to take up the task of conducting whatever ‘Indian National’ activities lay within its scope.’ (7)
Savarkar even claimed that the money collected for this fund would be used by Congress for Hindu Muslim unity to which his party is opposed and would ultimately ‘fund Muslim purse’.
Perhaps taking a cue from this ideologue of Hindutva, one of his disciples from Pune went a step further in denigrating Kasturba. S L Karandikar said why open schools for girls and women in memory of Kasturba – who was herself not educated and was not a pioneer of female education and proposed a memorial glorifying the tradition of Hindu Womanhood as Kasturba was ‘ a typical Hindu lady, whose sole joy is to be a part of the life of her husband. Kasturba’s life and death is this beyond anything else.’
- Netaji Sampurna Wangmay, Pages 177-178, Testament of Subhash Bose, Page 69-70
- Page, 371, Gandhi, Ramchandra Guha, The Years that Changed the World, Penguin-Random House
- Page 745 Ramchandra Guha, The Years that Changed the World, Penguin-Random House
- V.D.Savarkar, Samagra Savarkar Wangmaya Hindu Rasthra Darshan , Collected works of V.D.Savarkar) Vol VI, Maharashtra Prantik Hindusabha, Poona, 1963, p 479-480
- V.D.Savarkar, Samagra Savarkar Wangmaya Hindu Rasthra Darshan .Collected works of V.D.Savarkar, Vol VI, Maharashtra Prantik Hindusabha, Poona, 1963, p 475