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Satyagraha and the Feminizing of the Indian National Movement

Saturday 30 September 2017, by siawi3


ANTYAJAA: Indian Journal of Women and Social Change

Satyagraha and the Feminizing of the Indian National Movement

Ruchira Gupta

First Published March 15, 2017


The Indian National Movement put up a successful challenge to the brute masculinity of British power by essentially and deliberately feminizing its freedom struggle. M. K. Gandhi called the struggle Satyagraha,1 or the vindication of truth.

As this came down to us, it was popularly understood as non-violence2 and civil disobedience, but it went far deeper than that.

To Gandhi, this meant that the ends do not justify the means, but the means are the ends; the means we choose dictate the ends we get. ‘If you use violent, coercive, unjust means, whatever ends you produce will necessarily embed that injustice,’ he wrote.3

India’s freedom struggle included an unprecedented number of women, created an unmatched number of women leaders in politics and society, and feminized, through a process of transformation, to a large extent, millions of men who participated. It also transformed the British by appealing to their better selves and their sense of fair play. It would not create the ‘Other’. As Gandhi said, ‘I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion ’ (Orr, 2016, p. 494).

It began in India on 18 April 1917 when Gandhi refused an order of British colonial authorities to leave the district of Champaran, where he was documenting the plight of farmers who had been forced to grow indigo for British planters instead of essential food crops. Under the system known as Tinkathia, one third of the land had to be given for indigo cultivation. This applied to what was called ‘factory land’ and land under the zamindari system, and not all land. He agreed to submit without protest to the penalty of disobedience, ‘in obedience to the higher law of our being, the voice of conscience’ (Prasad, 1949).

Thirty years and multiple satyagrahas later, including the famous Quit India movement, after two hundred years of domination, the British were forced to leave India in 1947. When the British left peacefully, the world learned a new possibility from this first case of a nation that gained its independence without a war.4 It laid the foundation for other struggles of the weak against the mighty and eventually liberated the largest number of humankind in the world—stretching from South Africa5 to the USA (Carson, 1998).

A large and populist women’s movement that had been struggling for almost a century against such customs as child marriage, purdah (veil), sati (burning of widows), temple prostitution (devadasi system), rehabilitation of children of brothels, women’s lack of education, and discrimination against widows had already existed, when, at the age of 45, Gandhi returned to India after 20 years in South Africa.

Also, around that time, Annie Besant, Margaret Cousins and Dorothy Jinarajadasa were working to establish various women’s organizations so that a whole generation of women leaders was created. They established the Women’s Indian Association in 1917 and a decade later inspired Sarojini Naidu, Amrit Kaur, Vijaylakshmi Pandit, Dhanvanthi Rama Rao, Hansa Mehta, Vidyagauri Nilkanth, Rameshwari Nehru, Charulata Mukherjee, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, and Muthulakshmi Reddy6 to establish the All India Women’s Conference. Women like Sarladevi Chaudhrani, Olive Schriner, Millie Graham Polock, Sucheta Kriplani, Anasuyaben Sarabahi, Aruna Asaf Ali, Durga Bai Deshmukh, Begum Hasrat Mohani, Avantikabai Gokhale, Faizi sisters, to name some, were pioneering new avenues for women, especially in the field of education, women’s participation in politics and widow re-marriage (Taneja, 2005).

However, these changes elicited little response or enthusiasm from the masses. Women in the poorest homes still had to be reached.

So what tipped the balance and turned this movement into a mass struggle? It was Gandhi’s emphasis on the means being the end.

Satyagraha made politics spiritual, a truth force, that won over women. Truth, non-violence, fearlessness, ability to manage sexual desire and/or celibacy, control over the possessive instinct, control over greed, control over the palate, manual labour, swadeshi or using of locally made goods, opposition to untouchability and rejection of the caste system, respect for all religions were the tools of the Satyagraha.

Women learnt from participating in Satyagraha that one can be strong, even if seemingly weak, to protest against injustice. They also learned that breaking traditions and social taboos for a higher calling was morally uplifting.

After travelling in rural India and calling on urban independence leaders to do the same, Gandhi chose activities that ‘were specially meant for the villages and women would benefit especially’.7 The three civil disobedience spearheads of the Satyagraha campaigns were the boycott of foreign clothes and foreign goods, shunning of liquor and the breaking of the salt tax. Each of these populist calls for a negative action was matched with a call for positive action. It was what he called ‘constructive programming’, another essential pillar of the Satyagraha. After all, if actions are only against something, however unjust, the result would not satisfy people’s need to see and taste, and live and work for something that is just. Even if the negative effort won, a new negative would replace it because a critical mass of people had not learned to live in a positive way. Gandhi went so far as to say that civil disobedience is ‘worse than useless…without …constructive effort’.8

For example, boycott of foreign clothes required making your own. Once, Gandhi told Rajkumari Amrit Kaur that when he gave the cult of khadi to India, he had in mind the enormous contribution that women would make through it to India’s cause. Spinning was, from time immemorial, a special occupation of woman. ‘The spinning-wheel was ever the widow’s loving companion’ (Sinha, 2008, p. 193).

His argument for the eradication of ‘untouchables’—people outside the caste system whom Gandhi renamed ‘Harijan’ or children of god—included a call for caste Hindus to clean sewage in Harijan colonies; a reversal of their positions and jobs. His rejection of goods whose raw materials were grown in India, then shipped to British factories and sold back to Indians at a high price, was also a call to support village artisans by buying their goods instead.

Millions of volunteers, especially women who could not leave home and did not have an education, were given something tangible to do. Rich and poor, women and men, and entitled and disenfranchised all joined in. Coming to know each other and challenging their customary beliefs about each other changed them. Young high-caste men and women worked in Harijan settlements, housewives spun yarn or threw their foreign-made possessions into bonfires, men and women supported wounded soldiers, aristocrats gave up their inherited titles and became known for their personal actions, and factory owners donated funds and personal services to schools and ashrams. These actions changed not just the poor but also the powerful, not just women but also men and not just teetotallers but also alcohol drinkers.

In 1930, a Parsi woman, Mithuben Petit, reported to Gandhi that habitual drunkards were enthusiastically breaking earthen jars containing toddy and that thousands of persons in Surat who were given to drinking had started having resolutions passed by their castes prohibiting drinking.9

For India, constructive programming became a political tool against the British Empire. Helping wounded and traumatized soldiers meant highlighting the brutality of war, serving a Harijan colony meant challenging the hierarchy of caste and spinning meant promoting Indian-made goods (swadeshi).

Women took to it like a duck to water. With concrete ways to participate, thousands and millions of women, educated and illiterate, housewives and widows, and students and elderly organized public meetings, sold khadi and prescribed literature, started picketing shops of liquor and foreign goods, prepared contraband salt and came forward to face all sorts of atrocities, including inhuman treatment by police officers and imprisonment. They came forward to give all that they had—their wealth and strength, their jewellery and belongings, and their skills and labour—all with sacrifices for this unusual and unprecedented struggle.10

Many women in their individual lives shed their age-old prejudices against the caste system. They had no hesitation in leaving the boundaries of their protected homes and going to jail. They even broke their glass bangles (a sign of ill omen for married women) when they were told that they were made of Czechoslovakian glass.11

Gandhi performed this miracle at a time in India when child marriage was very common and widows were in very large numbers. Only 2 per cent of the women had any kind of education, and women did not have an identity of their own. In North India, they practised the purdah (veil) system. Women could not go out of the house unless accompanied by men and the face was covered with cloth. The fortunate ones who could go to school had to commute in covered carts (tangas).12

Constructive action turned the women’s movement into a mass struggle.13 One English observer noted that, ‘there was a breathtaking abruptness about the energy of the Indian women in political life. One moment they were not there, the next they had sprung like Athena from the head of Zeus fully armed into the forefront of the scene.’14

While spinning and weaving, distributing literature, cleaning toilets and drains, selling salt, picketing foreign shops, serving the wounded, teaching the uneducated and volunteering in ashrams and party offices, they also learned to overcome age-old inhibitions and discard the purdah, postpone marriage, educate themselves and overcome caste. Satyagraha swept aside all taboos and old customs of both men and women.

It created the daily experience of democracy from the bottom up.

It linked the national movement to every home in India. Having pulled women out of passivity to active participation, Gandhi was at first reluctant to completely challenge certain traditional gender stereotypes. For example, he submerged many women’s issues like family planning by promoting abstinence instead, but women who had now begun to enjoy their new-found freedoms realized that they did not have to accept the norms of male-dominated politics. They evolved their own perspectives and formulated their own methods. His own experiments with truth had also taught him to listen.

When Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay15 learned that Gandhi was planning the salt satyagraha, she asked that women be included.

I was told that Gandhiji did not want them as he had other programs reserved for them. I was flabbergasted. I had built up a whole edifice of hopes of involving women in this great adventure. This was to be their breakthrough. They simply had to be in it, I told myself desperately. The only course was to get it clarified by the leader himself. I sought a meeting… My conversation with Gandhiji was fairly brief. As I expressed to him the cause of my unhappiness, he cut me short emphatically disabusing my mind of the suspicion of discrimination. ‘The tasks reserved for women are a tribute to the high qualities they possess… the call for women is not only for slogan shouting but utter dedication which was a natural quality for women’, he explained patiently. But I had to persist. He finally conceded. ‘Let them also participate in direct action. The significance of non-violent struggle is that everyone can take equal part and share the triumph. This struggle is ideally suited for women. Are you content?’ he asked. I have one request to make. I want you to give a call to women asking them to join the freedom struggle. I would like you to carry the message.

At that time Kamaladevi was 27 years old.

Gandhi’s eyes twinkled as he gave a laugh, ‘You don’t know your sisters if you think they need a special message.’ He did issue a call for women’s participation in the Dandi March and the making of salt. The nation was mesmerized to see images of women marching firmly with Bapu, making salt and going peacefully to prison.16

On another occasion,17 Kamaladevi boarded a train Gandhi was taking to ask him about why women were excluded from the All India Congress Committee. He had to confess to her that Sardar Patel had asked that she should not be included as she was a ‘wild card’. He was forced to write a letter to Nehru about this uncomfortable conversation with Kamaladevi.

Kamaladevi was travelling with us from Wardha to Madras. She was coming from Delhi. She came to my compartment twice and had long chats. At last she wanted to know why Sarojini Devi was excluded (from the Congress Working Committee), why Rukmini Lakshmipati was being kept away by Rajaji (from the Madras Ministry), why Anasuyabai was excluded, and so on. I then told her of my part in her exclusion, and told her almost all that I could remember of the note I wrote for you on that silent Monday. Of course, I told her I had no hand in Sarojini’s exclusion at first or inclusion after. I told her also that Rajaji so far as I knew, had nothing to do with L’s exclusion. I thought you should know this.

In 1925, Sarojini Naidu was elected as the first Indian woman to serve as the president of the Indian National Congress. She always credited Annie Besant, the first woman president of the Indian National Congress, for paving the way. In fact, she went so far as to say: ‘If Annie Besant had not been, Gandhiji could not be’ (Chaube, 2005, p. 76). Naidu too walked with Gandhi during the Dandi March to break the salt tax. She went to jail three times. With the independence of India, Naidu became the governor of Uttar Pradesh.

At the dawn of democracy, women were ministers, governors, held party positions, represented India at the United Nations and in public life, and built and led institutions. The population forgot its age-old practices of purdah, sati and child marriage that they had considered normal before the freedom struggle and remembered the active and public role played by women during the freedom struggle.

Interestingly enough, Gandhi had not anticipated all the roles that women took on. But as he continued his ‘experiments’ with ‘truth’, he looked for women to guide him on this journey. He had always been guided by women in his search for truth—starting with his mother, then his wife (Kasturba), the women in Tolstoy Farm and Phoenix Ashram, later social reformers and political leaders as well as the poorest women he met in India.

He had first understood the force of passive resistance from his mother, Putlibai, who would not eat till his father would be converted into understanding her point of view.

Kasturba (Ba), his wife, influenced him over many years to understand that ‘The wife is not a slave of her husband, but a comrade, his better half, colleague and friend. She is co-sharer with him of equal rights and duties’ (Dayal, 2006, p. 261). This is reflected in Gandhi’s actions, like, on one occasion when the white midwife would not show up for his wife’s delivery, he himself delivered his child (Agrawal, 2008, p. 95). He also helped his wife with feeding, bathing and toiletries of the infant, thereby overcoming the conditioning of caste and gender. This is when he learned of the capacity of women to suffer and nourish at the same time.

There is a very touching chapter in his autobiography (The Stories of My Experiments with Truth, part IV, chapter 10 of the autobiography.) where he asks his wife to clean a public toilet and the conflict that ensues between him and his wife because of this. He goes on to admit that he was ashamed of himself for putting her through this, and how he took care not to hurt her anymore for the rest of his life.

After Ba passed away, an older Gandhi kept looking for other women whom he could learn from.

In 1936, Gandhi wrote in a letter to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur,

If you women would only realize your dignity and privilege, and make full use of it for mankind, you will make it much better than it is. But man has delighted in enslaving you and you have proved willing slaves till the slaves and the slave-holders have become one in the crime of degrading humanity. My special function from childhood, you might say, has been to make woman realize her dignity. I was once a slave-holder myself, but Ba proved an unwilling slave and thus opened my eyes to my mission. Her task was finished. Now I am in search of a woman who would realize her mission. Are you that woman, will you be one?18

This quote reveals Gandhi’s struggle with Truth, courage to lay bare the inconsistencies, shortcoming and desires in his life through intense personal scrutiny and change if an idea, he had once held, did not seem true anymore. He internalized his insistence on truth through various experiments in his own life till it became an authentic moral force.

Embracing celibacy, for Gandhi, must have its psychological roots in his regret over how as a sexually hungry teenager, he would compel Kasturba to have sex with him even when his father was dying. An older Gandhi wrote, ‘Without overcoming lust man cannot hope to rule over self, without rule over self, there can be no Swaraj… Soul force only comes through God’s grace and never descends upon a man who is a slave to lust’ (Veeravalli, 2016, p. 123).

He tried to incorporate these values among all Satyagrahis.

His later experiment to demonstrate that men could manage their sexual desire has been much debated. He slept naked with two younger women, also naked, without having any sex, and tried to show the world that there was no shame in nudity and that men and women could control sexual desire. Overcoming fear, shame and guilt, internally and externally, was an integral part of the Satyagraha process.

The late Vina Mazumdar, founder of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, believes that he was the ‘only one who went beyond customs, and individuals, and sought a new social and moral code for women outside sex relationships’.19

His politics was particularly suited to women because he learned, in the most fundamental way, not just strategy and tactics but the very idea of truth from women.

To call a woman the weaker sex is a libel, it is man’s injustice to women. If by strength is meant brute strength, then indeed is a woman less brute than man. If by strength is meant moral power then woman is immeasurably man’s superior. Has she not got great intuition, is she not more self-sacrificing, has she not got more powers of endurance, has she not greater courage? Without her, man could not be. If non-violence is the law of our being, the future is with women.20

In fact, he so essentially believed that the frailness of women was strength that he deliberately ‘feminized’ his personality with each Satyagraha to embody frailness. The image of Gandhi in a knee-length dhoti leaning on two women is now iconic. It highlights not just a frail old man, but two strong women who prop him up.

The seed of this dress code lies not just in the dust he brushed off his suit when he was thrown off a train in South Africa, but in an encounter with a poor female indigo farmer in Champaran. His first act of civil disobedience in 1917 was followed by constructive programmes that included setting up ashrams for promoting women’s education, end of the purdah, cleaning of low-caste colonies and end to bonded labour. In some of the villages where he and Kasturba went, he saw that quite a few women were dirty. He asked Kasturba to teach them to bathe every day and wear clean clothes. When Kasturba went to the women, one of them said,

Ba, look around my hut. Do you see any suitcases or almirahs full of clothes? I have only this saree I am wearing. Tell me Ba, how am I to wash this and what should I wear then? You ask Mahatmaji to give me another saree so that I can wash it everyday.21

This set Gandhi thinking.

Later, on another trip, where he was ‘twitted’ that he ‘was burning cloth utterly regardless of the fact that they [famine-stricken people of Khulna] were dying of hunger and nakedness’, at that moment he felt that he should content himself with a mere loincloth (Annamalai, 2014).

There are other better-reported incidents from Madras and Ahmedabad that lay the grounds for his finally appearing to the public in a knee-length dhoti—the ‘loin cloth’ as it was later called. He writes:

All the alterations I have made in the course of my life have been effected by momentous occasions; and they have been made after such a deep deliberation that I have hardly had to regret them. And I did them, as I could not help doing them. Such a radical alteration— in my dress—I effected in Madura.22

Gandhi then pledged to a group of ladies that he would wear only that much cloth that he could spin in a month.23 His initial spinning wheel was so inefficient that he had only enough yarn for a small piece of cloth—one ‘langoti’ (loin cloth). Shrimati Ganga Ben Majumdar found more efficient spinning wheels in Umar Saubani’s house and taught Gandhi how to use them. Gandhi could now spin enough for his needs in a month and khadi became affordable. Thus, the era of the hand-spinning wheel (the charkha) and khaddar (khadi) began. It was the base for swadeshi.

It extended to everything that could be produced in the country. It emphasized that one must not serve the distant neighbour at the expense of the nearest one. It was aimed basically at serving the local artisans and at encouraging cooperation among the people of different castes and classes. He wrote about the concept of swadeshi in great depth in his classic Gram Swaraj, village independence.

As Judith Brown said: ‘He visualized a total renewal of society from its roots upwards so that it would grow into a true nation, characterized by harmony and sympathy, instead of strife and suspicion, in which castes, community and sexes would be equal, complementary and interdependent’ (Rouner, 1999, p. 157).

Toxic masculinity is, once again, directing the course of politics in our world. It is, therefore, extremely critical to revisit Gandhian Satyagraha in its broadest sense while noting that there are those who insist on the truth, use non-violent means, disobey unjust laws, do constructive civil and political work, who will know of Gandhi’s tactics but may or may not have derived their own satyagraha strategies from his successes consciously but may have been influenced to some extent growing up in the post Satyagraha world free of British colonialism.

The questions we hope to explore are: Is satyagraha relevant to politics and life today? Is it especially suited to the women’s movement and for women leaders? Is that because Gandhi got his main ideas of Satyagraha from women—his mother and wife, besides Thoreau, Tolstoy and the Jain Munis? Was that why it was possible for so many women leaders to emerge from India’s freedom struggle? Why did Gandhi reject the terms passive resistance and civil disobedience? What made King and Mandela publicly announce that they got the essence of their political strategy from him? Why did Gandhi’s assassin, a Hindu high-caste Brahmin, Nathuram Godse, say that the way he brought the masses along with the purdah clad, home-bound women of the country into the folds of freedom struggle was one of the reasons for killing Gandhi?

The main questions for the women’s movement and female leaders at the crossroads of a masculinist politics, as embodied by Modi and Trump, are: What tactics and strategies do we follow? Can Gandhi’s gender fluid personality and politics offer ideas and clues to the women’s movement? Can we as women persist and offer a new critical political theory of satyagraha?


1.Encyclopaedia Britannica translates this as truth insistence, but Gandhi called it the vindication of truth.

2.Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence. Retrieved 19 January 2017, from

3.Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Retrieved 19 January 2017 from

4.Peace-loving Gandhi felt that only women can fight militarism. In Paris, he said, ‘I have no doubt that they can do infinitely more than men against war.’ He elaborated his argument to the women there, ‘Answer for yourselves what your great soldiers and generals would do, if their wives and daughters and mothers refused to countenance their participation in militarism in any shape or form’ (Reference in ‘All Men are Brothers’ by Mahatma Gandhi, p. 158, first published by UNESCO and The Columbia University Press in 1958). Speaking to a group of women in Italy, many years later, Gandhi explained that

the beauty of non-violent war is that women can play the same part in it as men. In a violent war women have no such privilege, and Indian women played a more effective part in ‘our’ last non-violent war than men. The reason is simple. Non-violent war calls into play suffering to the largest extent, and who can suffer more purely and nobly than women.
(from on 19 January 2017).

5.One can refer to Muthal Naidoo’s writings at; Thambi Naidoo and His Family by E. S. Reddy (the story of Thambi Naidoo, a lieutenant of Gandhi in the Satyagraha in South Africa, and of his family which sacrificed for five generations in the struggle for a free South Africa); Gandhi and Mandela by E. S. Reddy.

6.In 1930, Muthulakshmi Reddy introduced, in the Madras Legislative Council, a Bill on the ‘prevention of the dedication of women to Hindu temples in the Presidency of Madras’. The Bill, which later became the Devadasi Abolition Act, declared the ‘pottukattu ceremony’ in the precincts of Hindu temples or any other place of worship unlawful, gave legal sanction to devadasis to contract marriage and prescribed a minimum punishment of five years imprisonment for those found guilty of aiding and abetting the devadasi system. The Bill had to wait for over 15 years to become an Act.

While progressive persons supported the abolition of the system, many conservative nationalists opposed it. While the then Tamil Nadu Congress Committee President C. Rajagopalachari, in the words of Muthulakshmi Reddy, ‘was not very much in favour of abolition of the pernicious practice’, another Congress veteran, S. Satyamurthy, argued that the devadasi system needed to be protected because it was essentially a part of the indigenous Hindu/national culture. The Bill, introduced by a nationalist, was blocked by nationalists themselves for one reason or another until E. V. Ramasamy ‘Periyar’, leader of the Self-Respect Movement and later of the Dravida Kazhagam and one of the progressive nationalists when the Bill was introduced, and Moovalur Ramamirtham Ammaiyar, another veteran of the Self-Respect Movement, campaigned actively among the people for the passage of the Bill.

Muthulakshmi Reddy could not get the support of a section of nationalist leaders in spite of the fact that she got an endorsement from Mahatma Gandhi ‘for liberating the women’ (Frontline (2008, May–June). The Pioneers: Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy (Vol. 25, issue 11).

7.Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Retrieved 20 January 2017 from

8.Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Retrieved 20 January 2017 from

9.Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Retrieved 20 January 2017 from

10.Usha Thakkar, ‘Breaking the Shackles: Gandhi’s Views on Women,’ in ‘Meditations on Gandhi: A Ravindra Varma Festschrift’ edited by Mundackal Paulose Mathai, M. S. John, and Siby K. Joseph, Concept Publishing Company: New Delhi, 2002, pp. 179 – 188.


12.Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Retrieved 20 January 2017 from

13.Sumit Sarkar quotes a white police official from Uttar Pradesh, who wrote:

The Indian woman is struggling for domestic and national liberty at the same time, and like a woman she is utterly unreasonable and illogical in her demands and in her methods, but like a woman she has enormous influence over the stronger sex…Many local officials have suffered more from taunts and abuse from their female relatives than from any other source. (Sarkar, 2014, p. 179)

14.Lyn Norvell, ‘Gandhi and the Indian Women’s Movement’, p. 16, copyright of British Library Journal, property of British Library Board 96. Retrieved 20 January 2017 from

15.One can read about this in Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya’s ‘Inner Recesses, Outer Spaces: Memoirs’, published by Navrang, New Delhi in 1986.



18.Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Retrieved 21 January 2017 from

19.One can refer to ‘Women’s Movement in India: 1970s–1990s’, by Indu Agnihotri and Vina Mazumdar, Writing the Women’s Movement: A Reader, edited by Mala Khullar (Zubaan, 2005).

20.Young India, 4 October 1930. Young India was a weekly paper or journal in English published by Mahatma Gandhi from 1919 to 1931.

21.Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Retrieved 21 January 2017 from

22.Navajivan, 2 October 1921. Its translation in The Hindu was reproduced from the Independent.

23.There is an interesting story reported by author Emma Tarlo around that time. Retrieved 22 January 2017 from


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