With all leaders jailed, Mumbai women kept alive flame of freedom struggle

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Dr. Rohini Gavankar, 92-year- freedom fighter & other experts dosucc the role of Mumbai Women in the Independence Movement.

By Quaid Najmi, When all the main leaders of the Indian Freedom Movement were shunted to jail in the last phases, it was the brave women and plucky young girls of Mumbai who kept the struggle for Independence alive and even suffered for it, said 92-year-old freedom fighter Rohini Gavankar, here on Friday.

A Parsi woman, Bhikaji R. Cama had inspired the country to have its own flag and even hoisted the first flag of India, while grand-daughters of the legendary Dr Dadabhai Naoroji — Perin D. Captain and her sisters — went door-to-door selling Khadi products to weaken the British rule, she said.

Sharing a treasury of memories Gavankar told an official webinar on the 75 years of Indian Independence how the movement had become practically rudderless with the arrest of all prominent leaders in its last phases.

“It was left to the girl students and ordinary women to keep it alive They took up a host of activities on their own, and many were even penalized for it,” she recalled.

Even before the young Indira (Nehru) Gandhi’s famed Vanar Sena (Monkey Army), Mumbai’s Usha Mehta had launched her Manjar Sena (Cat Army) here which was entrusted with mocking and teasing the British Police and the armed forces, said Gavankar.

Later, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had greatly appreciated the role played by Mumbai’s women in the freedom struggle during the 1930-1940 decade and called “their efforts an inspiration for the whole nation”.

On her own personal involvement, Gavankar said when she was around 14 years old, one of her brothers faced jail and a death sentence, another took part in the ‘Prati Sarkar’ – a guerrilla-style movement launched around 1943 – against the British regime.

“I used to mobilise children and sing patriotic songs loudly, I played the role of a messenger in the Prati Sarkar movement,” Gavankar said.

Later, the Prati Sarkar threw up a host of top leaders, legislators, parliamentarians, chief ministers, union ministers and a deputy PM, besides heads of various political parties. The late Shiv Sena founder Balasaheb Thackeray had demanded a memorial for the movement.

Historian and writer Anuradha Ranade said over 300 rebellions occurred during the tyranny of the British East India Company during 1757-1857, and due to the divisive and unjust policies of the British, many organisations emerged across India.

“One of them was Bombay Presidency Association, founded in 1885. The Indian National Congress was originally Indian National Union; however, in the Bombay Session of 1885, it was renamed as ‘Indian National Congress’,” Ranade said.

That historic session took place in Congress Bhavan near Elphinstone Road with 72 participants, of whom 18 were from Mumbai which was the epicentre of India’s freedom struggle. South Mumbai was the prime location to hold demonstrations against British policies.

Academician Aruna Pendse explained how the native residents of Mumbai participated in the Salt Satyagraha.

“Mumbaikars of that era used the locations of Mahalakshmi and Chowpatty to perform Salt Satyagraha. Events in 1942 showed the multi-coloured and multi-ethnic nature of Mumbai,” said Pendse.

Influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, the Mumbai Gujarati trading community plunged into the freedom struggle with the Marathi people also participating in a big way.

“People like Aruna Asaf Ali and Usha Mehta encouraged women to participate in the freedom struggle and the city remained the epicentre but the movement started spreading to other parts of the country,” she added.

Mass scale political rallies first started in the then Gowalia Tank, now the historic August Kranti Maidan from where Gandhiji gave the clarion call for the British to ‘Quit India’ in August 1942. Later, Shivaji Park, Azad Maidan and other venues also became popular for political rallies.

The webinar was organised by I&B Ministry-PIB, to mark the 75-year celebrations of Indian Independence.

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