Forgotten, female, footsoldier: Unearthing the stories of women freedom fighters

How a slim manuscript discovered by chance in the Tamil Nadu archives unveiled a chapter in the freedom struggle that’s not about the Big Men

Published - July 13, 2019 04:02 pm IST

S. Ambujammal (front row, extreme left) takes part in a women’s procession in Chennai in 1965.

S. Ambujammal (front row, extreme left) takes part in a women’s procession in Chennai in 1965.

Among the stacks of documents in the research hall of Chennai’s Tamil Nadu State Archives lies a battered and worn manuscript, its nondescript brown paper cover containing only the words ‘Particulars of Women Freedom Fighters’ in ballpoint ink. The title is vague, but the slim collection’s contents are not. It has details of the women in the former Madras Presidency who participated in the Independence struggle.

The entries are concise almost to the point of being terse. Names, addresses, and dates of birth of individuals are recorded along with a brief description of their activities against the British. Some, like V.K. Lakshmi from Coimbatore, took part in individual Satyagraha protests and also joined the Indian National Congress. Lakshmi spent three months in jails for women in Coimbatore, Cuddalore and Vellore. She was in good company; one of her fellow prisoners was Krishnabai Nimbkar, jailed for six months under the Defence of India Act for boycotting of foreign cloth and who later organised underground activities in Madras during WWII, including operating a wireless radio station.

Other women participated in the foreign cloth boycotts of 1932, influenced by the Swadeshi movement, and actively organised Congress activities across the South Indian province. For example, S. Ambujammal, born in 1899, was the vice-president of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee, and helped disseminate the ideologies of Gandhi and Tilak through Tamil texts.

Armed struggle

Then there were those who rejected the methods of the Home Rule movement in favour of Subhas Chandra Bose’s call for armed struggle. The records show how women from different communities and regions of South India joined the Indian National Army to fight for independence. P. Devaki from North Arcot, Govindammal from Salem, and Velayammal from Vyasarpadi, for example, came from vastly different backgrounds, and all three enlisted as sepoys in the Rani of Jhansi regiment, one of the few all-women combat regiments on any side during WWII.

There are frustratingly few details beyond this; and yet these scant scraps had me instantly interested in how ordinary women engaged with India’s freedom struggle in ways overlooked by traditional historical narratives.

The Big Men paradigm of recording history often ignores the complex involvement of various other sections of people, ideas, and politics inherent in any freedom struggle. Names like Netaji and Gandhi and Tilak are important, of course, but so too are the great number of people who marched, were imprisoned, and fought alongside them.

There are few easy-to-access repositories, physical or digital, of the lesser known freedom fighters. Google ‘women freedom fighters of India’ and you will be beset with a plethora of listicles that are frustratingly lacking in details. The People’s Archive of Rural India has a section titled ‘Footsoldiers of Freedom’ that has interviews with some of the freedom fighters who are still live.

Overall, though, there is still a lack of information, scholarly or popular, on the experiences of those who fought for freedom at the grassroots level.

Drowned-out voices

Perhaps it is because of India’s multifarious identities — language, caste, ethnicity, gender, religion, economic status — and how that impacts whose voices get heard in ‘national’ narratives. Perhaps it is because the state views events of the past as a vehicle for the politics of the present. The current government, for example, is now engaged in rewriting India’s histories and not interested in restoring lost truths.

Or maybe it is just the lack of interest in documenting the lives and contributions of these participants. After all, historians need primary material to analyse. How and who writes these is important too. “Vernacular histories,” as Partha Chatterjee once wrote, “seek their legitimacy in the domain of the popular.”

We can piece together only the fragments of a narrative from the manuscript in the Egmore archive. We know that the Rani of Jhansi regiment was largely made up of the descendants of Indian rubber plantation workers in the Malay peninsula — which makes Velayammal and her peers unique because they were born in India.

We know the regiment trained in Singapore, before being deployed to Imphal as part of Bose’s plan to enter Bengal’s Gangetic plains. But where did they fight? Why did they believe in Bose’s vision and not in the ideas propagated at home? It turns out, we know very little.

Ambujammal would later found the Srinivasa Gandhi Nilayam, a charitable trust for underprivileged children in Mylapore on a street now bearing her name. But the stories of many of the other female freedom fighters from Madras Presidency are missing. They are, presumably, a part of family histories; but are notably absent from national history.

The lesson to be learned from the inconspicuous manuscript is that the stories of many people who participated in the Independence struggle have only been hinted at so far.

How many more such documents lie undiscovered in state and private archives across the subcontinent? Uncovering all of them, and all the participants, may be impossible. But reflecting on these forgotten aspects of history can only enrich our understanding of the past.

The London-based journalist writes on history, arts and politics.

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