by Swati Chaudhary
Today, we are living in historical times when the power balance in the world is undergoing epochal shifts. The West is at its weakest in centuries and new superpowers are emerging in the East. This unprecedented and imminent collapse has engendered a massive wave of paranoia and confusion in the Western world. As a result, the West is employing more sophisticated tools and highly insidious tactics to hold on to the ideas of Western supremacy.
One such example is the rapid increases in intensity of attacks on different anti-imperialist freedom movements across the world. The legacy of the black and Indian freedom movement, especially, is facing vicious attacks from so-called intellectuals who are fed by an agenda of Western supremacy. Even the most prominent figures like Gandhi and King who led these revolutions with a profound love for humanity are put under trial by the media and ultra-leftist intellectuals.
It’s imperative for the youth to understand different undercurrents in these epochal times and find a way to contribute to this New World Order in a positive and constructive manner. The youth of any generation is full of revolutionary potential but the process of mobilizing this revolutionary potential for the betterment of society needs to be understood. We live in a world where even the best intentions of the youth are easily hijacked by the ruling class to serve their agenda. This emasculates the society of their ability to bring a concrete positive change. In such times, it behooves us to learn our history and look at the freedom movement from the eyes of heroes and heroines who sacrificed their lives to break the shackles of centuries long colonial rule. Our history is rife with exemplary heroes who worked tirelessly to empower and uplift the masses. It is only by examining their lives that we can gain some clarity on how to find a purpose in our lives.
Aruna Asaf Ali also commonly known as ‘the heroine of 1942’ is one such fearless but forgotten freedom fighter who dedicated her life to educating and organizing masses who toppled the British empire. She strived throughout her life to empower workers, women, and other oppressed classes. Her revolutionary spirit, social-reform ideas, sacrifice, and idealism inspire us to bend our lives towards a purposeful striving and develop a strategy to address the social crisis of our times.
Early Life : A rebel in making
Aruna was born in 1909 in Kalka, Punjab to a Brahmo Samaj Bengali family as Aruna Ganguly. She was the eldest child of the family and displayed exceptional leadership qualities since her childhood. She received her early education in the Convent of the Sacred Heart at Lahore where her father was working as a journalist. She was a very curious and sincere student. She was quite attracted by the Roman Catholic lifestyle and had decided to become a nun. Perturbed by her unbecoming and impractical religious predilections, her parents sent her to a Protestant school in Nainital where she completed her education. With this, came the pressure of arranged marriage, which the strong-minded Aruna refused to cave in to and instead decided to leave her house. She started teaching at the Gokhale memorial school in Calcutta. This was merely the beginning of the rebellious streak which she kept in her personal and political life. The course of her life was changed completely when she met 41 year old Asaf Ali, a young charming barrister who was a member of Congress party. He was quite well-known mainly because of his participation in the non-cooperation movement in the 1920s. The two of them bonded very deeply and they decided to marry. This union was highly unconventional on the grounds of religion and age difference. As a result, her family strongly opposed the wedding and went to the extent of performing her shradh (remembrance of the dead) when she went ahead with it. The rebel inside her was too strong to be imprisoned by social customs. However, little did she know than in marrying Asaf Ali in 1928, she actually married a cause.
This marriage brought her in contact with the political elite of the day who were striving to make India free from foreign rule. These high profile political connections combined with her revolutionary spirit catapulted her on a remarkable and highly unconventional political career.
Political activity and ideology: A true leader of the masses
Aruna dedicated all her life to different political activities centered around the anti-imperialist revolution. Her political endeavors were always rooted in her love for the masses and she saw a transformatory revolutionary potential lying latent in them. She toured India extensively to organize the masses and mobilize their revolutionary potential. She became immensely popular among workers, peasants, students, and women. Her dynamic personality and the ability to deeply analyze different political ideologies forced her to change her political associations on many occasions during her long career before and after independence. She always prioritized the upliftment and political education of masses throughout her life.
Her first major political involvement occurred during Salt Satyagraha when she made a fiery speech about the revolution of 1857 after the arrest of her husband. In their attempts to suppress Aruna’s rebellious spirit, the British government prosecuted her on the charge of vagrancy. She was sent to Lahore female jail where she started to impart political education to fellow women prisoners. Unlike other political prisoners, she was not released under the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. However, during a few months stay at Lahore jail, she had ignited the revolutionary spirit of other women in the jail. As a result, her prison mates refused to leave until Aruna was set free. This later led to an agitation all over India and the government was compelled to set her free.
It was not very long before she was arrested again in 1932 and was sent to Tihar jail. Wherever she went, she considered it her moral duty to fight against the injustice of the British government and kept on working for the betterment of exploited people. She was outraged by the discriminatory and callous behavior of jail authorities towards political prisoners. As a protest, she went on hunger strike and kept up her fast until her demands were met. However, this rebellious act of hers incurred her a punishment of solitary confinement in Ambala jail.
After her release from Ambala jail, she took a break from active politics for almost a decade. Those were very confusing times for Indian politics. It was difficult for a young revolutionary to figure out the correct ideology which could lead to complete freedom from colonial rule. On the one hand, the young revolutionary Bhagat Singh was executed and on the other hand the memories of the mass movement led by the Congress during the Salt satyagraha were very fresh. She identified the importance of combining the revolutionary potential of youth and their spirit of idealism with the power of disciplined collective action.
During these years, she started working closely with Congress members and got more engaged in work with Rameshwari Nehru who was the founder and president of the Delhi Women’s league. It was a very crucial time as Aruna learnt invaluable organizational skills under Rameshwari Nehru’s mentorship. Her interactions with Rameshwari and other women activists vitalized her interest in political activities. She also participated in the All India Women’s Conference and felt the need to become more engaged in organizing people for the Freedom Struggle.
She also utilized this time to understand the connection between Gandhism and socialism. Socialist ideas resonated very strongly with her spirit to bring together the masses. She kept on analyzing different ideologies for a very long time. It was only later when she came in contact with Jayaprakash Narayana that she made up her mind and said “towards Socialism shall I march”.
In the meantime, she also became a follower of Mahatma Gandhi. She had now become an active member of Congress and also managed to win Mahatma Gandhi’s trust. She was selected in the list of Satyagrahis when Gandhi launched the Individual Satyagraha movement in 1940. Her participation in this movement led to her arrest and she was again sent to Lahore jail. Now, she was very well-equipped to organize women and continued her mission of political education of women.
The most important period of her life came in August 1942, where she came into prominence due to her participation in the Quit India movement and earned the title ‘Heroine of 1942’. On August 8, 1942 she accompanied her husband who was participating in the 45th session of AICC in Bombay. The main goal of this session was to launch the Quit India movement which Gandhi called "An Orderly British Withdrawal" from India. However, on the morning of August 9, all prominent Congress leaders were arrested by the government and imprisoned without trial. She compared this brutal and lawless action of police to Pearl Harbor and said”
“Pearl Harbour methods are anathemic when practiced by yellow-skinned Japs. When employed to crush a revolt they signify forethought, courageousness, and rulership. Entrenched authority, an usurper authority had decided not to allow freedom of movement, speech or action to natives demanding its withdrawal.”
It was during that momentous hour that Aruna stepped forward and decided to preside over the Flag hoisting ceremony in the absence of all important Congress leaders. Soon after the flag hoisting ceremony, the police released gas and lathi-charging on an otherwise peaceful crowd in Gowalia Tank Maidan. What infuriated Arun the most was the trampling of the flag by a White sergeant. It was at this moment she vowed that she would help to tear up British rule.
Her revolutionary spirit became unstoppable after the Gowalia Tank Maidan incident and she knew very well that she would be arrested any day. Those were critical times as all prominent Congress leaders were already in jail so she had to continue her work under any circumstances. After her short stay in Delhi where she addressed some Congress workers and students to instigate hope and courage among them, she went underground to escape arrest. After hearing the news of her escape, Gandhi wrote
“I have been filled with admiration for your courage and heroism. I have sent you a message that you must not die underground. Do come out and surrender yourself.”
Aruna responded by saying
“please forgive me if I say that the word surrender in your letter has surprised me. It hurts my pride to think that I should be expected to humiliate myself. I am in no mood to surrender to an unrepentant enemy. That would imply voluntary submission and willing renunciation of my revolt.”
To which Gandhi replied
“My whole heart goes out to you. I consider myself to be incapable of asking anyone, much less you, to do anything that would hurt your pride…This struggle has been full of romance and heroism. You are the central figure.”
This phase where she lived the life of a fugitive revolutionary tested her mettle to the core and she epitomized the spirit of idealism and sacrifice. She lost her health and couldn’t even attend to her sick husband and dying mother. However, she did very useful work during this period. She visited many famine-stricken villages with her colleagues and tried to help the poor families in whatever ways she could. She connected with people from different walks of life and continued to educate them about political activities. Her own political views evolved a lot during this period. She was in the movement along with Jayaprakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia, Achyut Patwardhan, and Edatata Narayanan and committed herself fully to a socialist vision.
The warrant of arrest against Aruna was canceled in January 1946 and she resurfaced in public life after it. She toured many different cities and she usually addressed the crowd with the words:
“Do not glorify me. You must glorify the martyrs of 1942. There is no occasion for rejoicing over the removal of restrictions on me. Until all the political prisoners and detenus are released, I shall not consider myself free. The truth is that I feel myself less free than I felt before January 25, 1946 when I was underground and refused to recognize the laws of the British Government that stand in the way of our struggle for freedom.”
As Aruna’s socialist bent became more prominent, she became very popular among workers. As a result, soon after coming out in public, she got embroiled into another controversy when she joined the strike of Royal Indian Navy Ratings who were protesting against the discriminatory and unjust treatment by the government. It started as a small peaceful strike but the situation worsened and it turned into complete hartal in Bombay. She requested the support of Congress to control the situation and RIN ratings were advised to lay down arms and surrender. She had a huge disagreement with Gandhi about this RIN rating strike and didn’t like the fact that they were forced to surrender. She was always invited to many different worker unions across the country. She addressed many strikes against the ill treatment of workers by the British government. She always urged them to lead their struggle with unity, solidarity, and organization. Contrary to what many might believe she always warned the workers not to resort to violent methods. She also appealed to them to place their grievances before the Congress Working Committee prior to resorting to hartals.
She always connected very deeply with workers, peasants, women, and students. Her moving speeches roused the ardent fervor of independence in the minds of many youths and she was able to engage and organize masses including women.. Being a part of Muslim household, she also developed a deeper understanding of Hindu-Muslim issues. Aruna always strived for Hindu-Muslim unity and held the Muslim League responsible for instigating hatred between Hindus and Muslims. She asked Congress ministers to win Muslim hearts by action. She described the Hindu-Muslim problem as a farce
“I do not concede such a thing as a Hindu Muslim problem. All this is a farce. What I find is a fight among a certain section of the people for loaves and fishes of office.”
while alluding to the behavior of Muslim league. For Congress, she suggested that they should appeal directly to the Muslim masses instead of Muslim leaders.
Aruna and Gandhi: An important lesson for Gandhi critics
Aruna and Gandhi had a very deep relationship filled with love, respect, and admiration for each other. The young Aruna sometimes struggled to understand Gandhi’s message and defied him on many occasions. Although all her actions were not approved by Gandhi, she always had immense respect for him. In the beginning she didn’t agree with everything Gandhi suggested but at the same time, she was extremely critical of those who criticized Gandhi for his faith and spiritual outlook. Over time, she gained more clarity and she understood the core message of Gandhi’s teachings and his socialism. In her essay on Gandhi on his anniversary in 1969 she wrote:
“But what was Gandhiji’s “faith”? Can it be defined as mere acceptance of “beliefs in spite of evidence”, a rejection of the rational or spurning of man’s objective knowledge of himself and his environment, mere flabby piety and the blind worship that traditional religion prescribes? If that sums up “faith” and Gandhiji propagated such faith, then quite obviously his life and teaching are utterly valueless and totally meaningless for those who want human beings to respond to all that is challenging in life on this earth and beyond.
His beliefs, however, had nothing to do with a set of dogmas or a static view of man and his social destiny. Otherwise, how could he have cast such a phenomenal spell over his compatriots and become a source of strength for the millions? By daring them to act regardless of consequences, by urging upon them again and again to overcome their intellectual, social, and moral lethargy, Gandhi rejected Indian obscurantism in all its manifestations. As if overnight, “he became a symbolic expression of the confused desires of the people” asking them to “be free”, “be slaves no more”, trying to tell them that liberation from spiritual thraldom is essential if they are to attain freedom from imperialist thraldom.
Those who have studied Gandhiji’s writings and worked with him are aware that by laying stress on the need to “spiritualise” politics he was in reality laying emphasis on the need for making his people realize that not intellect alone but the moral values of goodness and truth were necessary for strengthening their character, because thus only could human beings be instrumental in winning back their lost heritage…”
Her interactions with Gandhi helped her to understand the process of revolutionary change. The young Aruna equated rebellious activities to revolutionary change but as her political thinking matured she started to realize the difference. This helped her to understand the situation of young people whose spirit is filled with revolutionary ideas and idealism but they lack political maturity. Later on, she worked extensively to convey this message to young people through her writings and speeches.
Post-independence: Always a rebel
Aruna’s political journey is marked by many sharp transitions in her ideology and political associations. Her dynamic personality and the ability to analyze different events scientifically made it impossible for her to stick to one party. Her political thinking kept on evolving but her actions always remained rooted in her love for her countrymen. She prioritized the upliftment and political education of masses and continued her struggle against imperialist aggression and poverty. She remained deeply invested in the socialist cause and her search for a cadre with similar beliefs continued throughout her life. She believed that the hungry millions in our country will need socialism. Soon after independence, she left the Congress Socialist Party and joined the Socialist party with Edatata in 1948 as she found the Congress party’s approach towards socialism very dissatisfactory. She soon got disillusioned by the conflict of compulsion of power with the ideals and left the Socialist party. She traveled to Moscow with Edatata and joined Communist Party of India in the early 1950s as she got influenced by Marxist ideas.
One central theme in her political thinking was to engage different sections of the society in the process of nation building. She saw a large potential in women, workers, and students and witnessed its power during the struggle for independence. It was imperative for her to continue the political education and training for these sections. As a result, she became a founding member of National Federation of Indian Women, the women's wing of CPI in 1954. However, she ended up leaving CPI in 1956 when Khruschev started the process of de-stalinization in the Soviet Union.
Aruna’s mission to educate masses continued with her vision to carry Gandhi-Nehru legacy forward. She started a publishing house in 1958 and published a weekly journal ‘Link’ and newspaper ‘Patriot’. The writings in these publications focussed on discussions about different political ideologies in post-independence India, reflections on different aspects of the freedom struggle, and challenges of new India. It was during this period that she participated in the peace movement, in the movement of Afro-Asian solidarity and the Women’s International Democratic Federation.
In addition to political education, she also recognized the power of organization for bringing dedicated youth together to bring a positive change in the society. She called for the development of cadres, a “corp of dedicated volunteers who would be willing to forgo lucrative careers and to work for the cause of national regeneration on a modest allowance.”
Lessons from her life for our times
Aruna’s arduous but extremely meaningful and rewarding journey teaches us many valuable lessons which are highly relevant for our times. The first thing it teaches is the importance of political education. Most of our life choices are directly or indirectly dictated by the capitalistic and individualistic tendencies of the society. The ideas of Western supremacy are fed to us from a very early age and our attempts to overcome this inferiority complex land us in a dangerous trap where all connections to our rich past and culture are severed. It’s our moral duty to understand the different ideological forces in our life and educate ourselves about the forces which defined our history. She strived to understand the suffering of the masses and worked for their upliftment throughout her life. Her life inspires us to commit ourselves to big causes. She was born and married in a privileged household but she chose the rigors of the underground life over the comfort of luxuries. It inspires us to reflect on our choices and how they affect the society around us. Her revolutionary spirit, social reformation ideas, sacrifice, and idealism inspires us to bend our lives towards a purposeful striving. It’s only by knowing such role models and following their teachings that we can assert our true identity and reclaim our dignity.
1. Fragments from the past: Selected Writings and Speeches of Aruna Asaf Ali
Swati Chaudhary is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin.