Today, India celebrates its 72nd Independence Day. While the Gandhis and Nehrus are praised and revered on this day, we often forget some of the women visionaries who paved the way forward for our freedom. Without these pioneers, our freedom struggle may have looked very different. Today, we should not let their legacies be silenced. Whether it’s in our narrative or our history books, we’ve erased their contributions – so it’s time to speak up and educate ourselves. These are (only) three of the many women freedom fighters we should remember this Independence Day.
1. Rani Gaidinliu
Gaindinliu is famously known as Rani Gaidinliu. Born on 26th January in 1915, she joined the struggle against the British at the age of only 13. She belonged to the Rongmei Tribe, one of the three Zeliangrong Tribes in Manipur.
In 1927, she began her journey as a revolutionary when she joined the Heraka Movement for the revival of the Naga Tribal religion. At 17, she organised a movement against the British, consequently resulting in her arrest and imprisonment for 14 years. Following this, British authorities, threatened by Gaidinliu’s strong rebellion and burgeoning following, sent a contingent to capture her. After they launched a surprise attack on her village on October 17, 1932, Gaidinliu and her followers were arrested without any resistance. Convicted on charges of murder and abetment of murder, she was sentenced to a life in prison. Thereafter, she spent another 14 years in prison, only to be released in 1947 after India had gained independence on the orders of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
2. Sarojini Naidu
Sarojini Naidu, born on 13th February in 1879, was an independence activist and poet. She was born to a Bengali Hindu family in Hyderabad and was educated in Chennai, London, and Cambridge. She took part in the National Movement, was the first woman governor of an Indian state (now Uttar Pradesh), and the first Indian woman to be President of the Indian National Congress (INC) party.
In 1905, the partition of Bengal by Lord Curzon, viceroy of India, deeply affected her. It persuaded her to join Indian politics. She met Gopal Krishna Gokhale who encouraged her to join the freedom movement. Following his guidance, she dedicated herself to politics and the freedom struggle.
Upon learning of farmers in Bihar who were forced to grow indigo instead of the crops they needed for their survival in 1916, she fought against the British for the rights of farmers in the region. Naidu also played a major role during the Salt Satyagraha, when she collaborated with many other women protesters at the Dharsana Salt Works in Gujarat. She was also a prominent freedom fighter in the Civil Disobedience and Quit India movements, which ultimately lead to her arrest.
Naidu played an integral part in advancing the rights of Indian women as well; she contributed to the establishment of Women’s Indian Association in 1917 along with Annie Besant and other leaders. A year later, she published a magazine called “Stri Dharma” in partnership with other feminist leaders to discuss global news stories from a feminist approach.
3. Jhalkari Bai
Born into a Koli family, Jhalkari Bai was a legendary woman soldier in Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi’s women’s army. She played an important role in the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Jhalkari Bai rose to the position of a prominent advisor to the Queen, Rani of Jhansi herself. This is especially critical to remember as Dalits were banned from reading for centuries.
At the height of the Battle at Jhansi Fort, she disguised herself as the Queen and fought on her behalf, allowing the Queen to escape safely out of the fort.
Jhalkari Bai’s role as a revolutionary warrior in the Indian Rebellion of 1857 is compelling in numerous ways. Her story is an analytical view of the hegemonic production of Indian history, written and composed by those in the upper-caste, but also highlights the pervasive erasure of prominent Dalit figures in the nation’s history. For example, while Jhalkari Bai’s birthday is celebrated in Uttar Pradesh as Gaurav Diwas (Day of Pride), it is neglected by mainstream upper-caste media and academia.