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Woman, The Comrade

Kamladevi Chattopadhyay

A man resembles closely the soil he springs from. This gives a clue to Gandhiji’s attitude towards women and what his philosophy and way of life have meant for them. The tradition built up from the Indian soil has been one of dignity and high status for women. But every great personality’s relationship with society and his attitude towards any section of it is largely determined by the balance of social forces prevailing at the time. For, his mission is ever to help every maladjusted constituent part of society to adjust itself with the whole and help society to find its balance in a constantly changing world. A great leader is a force which operates as a lever to the progressive currents. To that extent the leader’s mental bent is likely to be shaped by the existing maladjustments. In the India of Gandhiji’s era, the maladjustment is political as well as social, and the two are both interrelated and interdependent. Any outstanding personality under the circumstances has to be both a political and a social leader, if a natural harmony is ever to be restored to the country and the people.

Against this background, Gandhiji’s role in society becomes clear. “He who possesses talent should also possess courage”, wrote the Danish writer Brandes. It is certainly the most fruitful of all combinations of human qualities. For, talent is the sensitive seed which can only be nurtured and made to fructify courage, or it will get stultified and be barren. Gandhiji’s most outstanding characteristic is courage, the courage to think originally and venture to cut new paths away from the beaten track. Yet he is bound by tradition, for he is close to the soil and therefore to his people. But traditions are to him what banks are to flowing rivers. He never lets them become an impediment. A leader has also to have a philosophy which is rooted in some basic concept, what one might call his life’s ideal, his guiding star, his motto in action. With Gandhiji it has been non-violence and without an appreciation of this vital force in him, one cannot get the clue to his philosophy or his attitude towards the various sections of society, such as women. “My country is the world, my countrymen are all mankind”, was the motto of William Lloyd Garrison, the great crusader against slavery. Slavery was then an international evil. It still is, though in other forms and guises, and will continue to be so as long as man continues to subjugate man through weapons of violence.

Gandhiji is a world leader too. He could not but be, for the Indian problem, he realizes only too well, is but a part of the world problem. He sees India’s freedom as not an end in itself, but only as a means to an end. He visualizes it as the edifice on which the freedom of the world is to be built. To him the Indian people’s freedom can have meaning only in relation to humanity’s freedom. Therefore, his philosophy is an entire whole. It covers every aspect of life. No detail of human life is insignificant enough to be left out of account. For, his philosophy of non-violence can be realized only in a society composed of highly developed men, women and children.

Gandhiji’s approach to women is best defined in his own inimitable words: “My contribution to the great problem lies in my presenting for acceptance, truth and ahimsa in every walk of life, whether for individuals or nations. I have hugged the hope that in this woman will be the unquestioned leader, and having thus found her place in human evolution, will shed her inferiority complex…..I really believe that if Europe will drink in the lesson of non-violence, it will do so through its women. Passive resistance is regarded as the weapon of the weak, but the resistance for which I had to coin a new name altogether is the weapon of the strongest. I had to coin a new word to signify what I meant. But its matchless beauty lies in the fact that, though it is the weapon of the strongest, it can be wielded by the weak in body, by the aged and even by the children if they have stout hearts. And since resistance in Satyagraha is offered through self-suffering, it is a weapon pre-eminently open to women. We found that women in India, in many instances surpassed their brothers in suffering and the two played a noble part in the campaign. For, the idea of self-suffering became contagious and they embarked upon amazing acts of self-denial. Supposing that the women and the children of Europe became fired with love of humanity, they would take the men by storm and reduce militarism to nothingness in an incredibly short time. The nderlying idea is that women, children and others have the same potentiality. The question is one of drawing out the limitless power of truth.”

Gandhiji’s high intuitive sense is equally scientific. This is what makes his definition of the relationship between the sexes idealistic as well as practical. For, an ideal can have reality and therefore practical value only if it has a scientific foundation whether one arrives at the conclusions intuitively or through a process of scientific formulae. Non-violence can be the natural expression of only a well adjusted society. But such an adjustment can only come out of a balance of the free elements, a society whose every constituent is untrammeled, whose natural growth and expression not thwarted. Where one section dominates over the other, the harmony is disturbed, for tyranny and suppression can never balance each other. These maladjustments must lead to hatred, conflict, strife, and breach of peace. Non-violence is the counterpart of peace. One cannot dwell without the other.

Our society is riddles with many maladjustments, between the rich and the poor, the rulers and the ruled, the high castes and the low castes, between men and women. They are all but phases of the same principle. He who stands for a harmonious social existence must champion the restoration of the balance between these various forces. A maladjusted society is built upon force, the stronger parts dominating over the weaker through their brute strength. That is why every great leader must necessarily stand for a proper adjustment of sex relationships.

Writing on this question Gandhiji says: “My own opinion is, that just as fundamentally man and woman are one, their problem must be one in essence. The soul in both is the same. The two live the same life, have the same feelings. Each is a compliment of the other, the one cannot live without the other’s active help. The division of the spheres of work being recognized, the general qualities and culture required are practically the same for both the sexes…..Woman is companion to man, gifted with equal mental capacities. She has the right to participate in very minutest detail in the activities of man, and she has an equal right of freedom and liberty with him. She is entitled to a supreme place in her own sphere of activity, as man is in his. This ought to be the natural condition of things, and not as a result only of learning to read and write. By sheer force of a vicious custom, even the most ignorant and worthless men have been enjoying a superiority over women which they do not deserve, and ought not to have. Many of our movements stop half way because of the condition of our women. Much of our work does not yield appropriate results…..Man and woman are of equal rank, but they are not identical. They are a peerless pair, being supplementary to one another; each helps the other, so that without the one the existence of the other cannot be conceived, and therefore, it follows as a necessary corollary from these facts, that anything that will impair the status of either of them will involve the equal ruin of them both.”

He realizes only too well that ancient usages outgrow their use, that a path once clear gets overrun by wild growth, that a well once clear can become contaminated by fungus, that to pursue such a way is to get lost in wilderness, that to continue to drink at such a well is to suck in disease germ. Commenting on the attitude of the smritis towards women Gandhiji says: “The saying attributed to Manu that ‘for woman there can be no freedom’ is not to be sacrosanct. It is irreligion to give the religious sanction to a brutal custom. The smritis bristle with contradictions. The only reasonable deduction to be drawn from the contradictions is that the texts, that may be contrary to known and accepted morally, more especially to the moral precepts enjoined in the smritis themselves, must be rejected as interpolations. Inspiring verses on self-restraint could not be written at the same time and by the same pen that wrote the verses encouraging the brute in man. It is sad to think that the smritis contain texts which can command no respect from men who cherish the liberty of women as their own, and who regard her as the mother of the race.”

He lashes out against obsolete customs, which masquerading under religious guises, inflict untold suffering upon the weak and the helpless. Like Christ in the Temple of Jerusalem, his strong arm grips the broom to sweep the place clean of unclean things, for surely God can dwell only where man can live in dignity and health. “The honour of a country,” declared Mazzini, “depends much more on removing its faults than on boasting of its qualities.”

The ancient is, therefore, not sacrosanct to Gandhiji if it has turned to dross. His heart bleeds for those who suffer under the burden of traditions. Amongst these, perhaps, the child widow takes the first place. All through his life he has pleaded movingly, passionately, vigorously for justice for these helpless victims. Like Jehovah’s mighty wrath his righteous anger has burst into society. “This custom of child-marriage is both a moral as well as physical evil,” says he. “For, it undermines our morals and induces physical degeneration. By countenancing such customs, we recede from God as well as Swaraj. A man who has no thought of the tender age of the girl has none of God. And undergrown men have no capacity for fighting battles of freedom, or having gained it, for retaining it. Fight for Swaraj means not mere political awakening but an all-round awakening, social, educational, moral, economic and political…….What is kanyadan in case of little children? Has a father any rights of property over his children? He is their protector, not owner. And so he forfeits the privilege of protection when he abuses it by seeking it to barter away the liberty of his ward…..it is a crime against God and man to call the union of children a married state, and then to decree widowhood for a girl whose so-called husband is dead….The statement that widows attain moksha if they observe brahmacharya had no foundation whatsoever in experience. More things are necessary than mere brahmacharya for the attainment of the final bliss. And brahmacharya that is super-imposed carries no merit with it, and often gives rise to secret vice that saps the morals of the society in which that vice exists.”

His sense of justice as well as his sense of proportion urges him to offer a remedy for those tender ones who have already been victimized by these brutal customs. That is where he advocates widow-remarriage, one of the many tangled Indian problems on which he has come into conflict with orthodox Indian opinion. So he pleads again and again: “I have repeatedly said that every widow has as much right to remarry as every widower. All the young widows therefore…..should have every inducement given to them to remarry, and should be sure that no blame would be attached to them if they chose to remarry and every effort should be made to select for them suitable matches……The least that a parent, who has so abused his trust as to give in marriage an infant to an old man in his dotage or to a boy hardly out of his teens, can do is to purge himself of his sin by remarrying the daughter when she becomes widowed. As I have said in a previous note, such marriages should be declared null and void from beginning……In the giving away of a little girl by ignorant or heartless parents, without considering the welfare of the child and without her knowledge and consent, there is no marriage at all. Certainly, it is not sacrament, and, therefore, remarriage of such a girl becomes a duty.”

But Gandhiji is not content with a mere general appeal. He seeks to give it a practical shape by trying to enlist the active co-operation of students in this arduous task. He addresses the students directly thus: “What I would like you, young men around me, to do is that you should have a touch of chivalry about you. I want you to make this sacred resolve that you are not going to marry a girl who is not a widow, you will seek out a widow-girl and if you cannot get a widow-girl you are not going to marry at all. Make the determination, announce it to the world, announce it to your parents, if you have them, or to your sister…….Do you suppose that we can possibly call ourselves men, worthy of ruling ourselves or others or shaping the destiny of a nation containing 40 crores, so long as there is one single widow who wishes to fulfill her fundamental want but is violently prevented from doing so? It is not religion, but irreligion.”

His vision penetrates through the tough overgrowth right into the heart of things. It is the core which matters to him and not the rind. Once when a case of sati was reported to him, forthright came his reaction: “Self-immolation at the death of the husband is not a sign of enlightenment, but of gross ignorance as to the nature of the soul. The soul is immortal, unchangeable and immanent…..Again, true marriage means not merely union of bodies. It connotes the union of the souls also.”

Even clearer and more unequivocal are his views on the duties of the wife. Marriage is probably the oldest social institution and the most abused. In this unequal struggle of women against social tyrannies imposed on them, nothing has played so high a part as marriage. It is in fact the base from which the continuous attacks on them are made. For men it is a cloak which covers a multitude of their failings, their betrayals of their social obligations. Many a great leader has fought shy of touching this convenient cloak. But Gandhiji’s search after truth knows no frontiers. He has wrenched the sham aside to boldly reveal the naked reality. “Hindu culture has erred on the side of excessive subordination of the wife to the husband, and has insisted on the complete merging of the wife in the husband. This has resulted in the husband, sometimes, usurping and exercising authority that reduces him to the level of the brute. The remedy for such excesses, therefore, lies not through the law, but through the true education of women.”

He to whom all problems have a vital reality is not content with mere expression of views, what one might call lip sympathy. Gandhiji is essentially a man of action. With him to be convinced is to act. He is not deterred by the present impediments. To him absence of legal provision is no excuse for sitting still. He gives clear direction: “When either wife or husband holds views out of the ordinary there is danger of jars. In the case of the husband, he has no scruples. He does not consider himself under any obligation to consult his partner’s wishes. He regards his wife as his property. And the poor wife, who believes in the husband’s claim, often suppresses herself. The wife has a perfect right to take her own cause, and meekly brave the consequences when she knows herself to be in the right, and when her resistance is for a nobler purpose.”

Gandhiji’s revolutionary mind overlaps the little barriers of common conventions. His inner eye is fixed on the spirit which lies hidden. “Chastity is not a hothouse growth,” he asserts. “It cannot be super-imposed. It cannot be protected by the surrounding wall of the purdah. It must grow from within, and to be worth anything, it must be capable of withstanding every unsought temptation. It must be a very poor thing that can’t stand the gaze of men. Men, to be men, must be able to trust their women-folk, even as the latter are compelled to trust them. Let us not live with one limb completely or partially paralysed….Morality is rooted in the purity of our hearts…..” His whole being has revolted against the nauseating caging of delicate flowers. Writing of his reactions to a “purdah meeting” he commented sadly: “The sight of the screen behind which my audience, whose numbers I did not know was seated, made me sad. It pained and humiliated me deeply. I thought of the wrong being done by men to the women of India by clinging to a barbarous custom which, whatever use it might have had when it was first introduced, had now become totally useless and was doing incalculable harm to the country. All the education that we have been receiving for the past hundred years seems to have produced but little impression upon us, for I note that the purdah is even being retained even in educated households, not because the educated men believe in it themselves, but because they will not manfully resist the brutal custom and sweep it away at a stroke…..” he puts the finger on the right spot when he says: “Good sense must govern the relations between the two sexes. There would be no barrier erected between them. Their mutual behaviour should be natural and spontaneous……”

Gandhiji is the embodiment of service. “The true life is the common life of all, not the life of the one. All must labour for the life of others,” said Tolstoy, whose great influence over himself Gandhiji acknowledges. It is his way of self-realization, and to many others, especially the women, he has pointed this noble way. To him this offers a solution to may a problem that confronts women. The sense of suppression, helplessness, and of futility felt by widows or deserted wives, the stultification which is the lot of the idle rich, the aimless drift of the educated young, can thus be magically transformed into a meaningful life filled with purposeful action and rich experience. Addressing a group of students he stressed: “Your parents do not send you to schools to become dolls; on the contrary, you are expected to become sisters of mercy….She becomes a sister of mercy immediately she thinks less of herself, and more of those who are poorer and more unfortunate than herself……”

If Gandhiji occupies today a pre-eminent position in the heart of the Indian people, it is because he touched the heart of the common man and made him realize that he too has a great destiny before him, he too has an important role to play in the larger national affairs. The women, along with the suppressed common men, had been amongst the forgotten, unwanted ones. Then Gandhiji came like a magician. He has often been described as the “wizard.” One might almost believe in his supernatural powers, so dynamic, so swift, so revolutionary are his achievements, so spectacular his performances. But he is just one of us, he is Bapu. He is not God the Father, handing down tablets from Mount Sinai. He is shot through with our own weaknesses and sentiments. He suffers and he rejoices with us. That is why he is so close to us.That is why his voice stirred the slumbering inert mass which was India.

The women, like the rest, had grown apathetic, lost all initiative, all sense of dignity and self-respect. They were content to be the domestic drudges and the appendages of men. They had slipped so imperceptibly from their high pedestal, that even that ancient memory had become blurred. Their life had ceased to have any direction of its own. It moved impelled by the one single polestar – man. Over the calm surface came his voice. And in this case, word was truly made flesh. “More often than not a woman’s time is taken up, not by performance of essential duties, but in catering to the egoistic pleasure of her lord and master and for her own vanities,” he wrote. “To me, this domestic slavery of woman is a symbol of our barbarism. In my opinion, the slavery of the kitchen is a remnant of barbarism mainly. It is high time that our womankind was freed from this incubus. Domestic work ought not to take the whole of a woman’s time….”

Gandhiji compelled women to extricate themselves. For the first time woman grew conscious of herself as an entity, of her mission in life, grew to a realization that in her shackles was society fettered, that in pushing her down the alley man had slipped headlong after her, that her regeneration was intrinsically bound up with the regeneration of the nation. She stirred from her bad dream of weakness and helplessness t o the walking awareness of strength and power. That she counted vitally and in infinite ways was to her now a real experience. She was the vehicle of national fulfillment. Her mission went beyond her old domestic frontiers, even beyond the national ones. Gandhiji’s clarion voice rang out: “In this non-violent warfare, their contribution should be much greater than men’s. To call a woman the weaker sex is a libel; it is man’s injustice to woman. If by strength is meant brute strength, then indeed, is woman less brute than man. If by strength is meant moral power, then woman is immeasurably man’s superior. Has she not greater powers of endurance, has she not got greater courage? Without her, man could not be. If non-violence is the law of our being, the future is with women.”

The ancient wall of tradition crumbled as did once the walls of Jericho. The helpless maiden of yesterday was the valiant soldier of today. History had turned a whole page at the gently touch of this liitle man. I recall pleading with him for a special message to call out the women, during his Dandi March. “But why do you suppose they need a special message from me?” he asked. “Because women have not yet become sufficiently aware. They are still lost in their ancient slumber. They may lose the chance, this one chance of our life-time, if you don’t strike a special note,” I replied in a sort of helpless impatience. “If that is your estimate, all I can say is, you don’t know your sisters,” he replied with a knowing indulgent smile. He handed out the message, nevertheless, if only to prove me wrong.

The great day came when Gandhiji picked salt on the Dandi shore, with an almost impish delight and Indian witnessed a few incredible sequences. But none so startling as the sight of women marching in the forefront of the battle. Women with pale eyes and blushing cheeks, they, who had been gently nurtured behind silken curtains, women who had never looked upon a crowded street, never beheld a strange face, stripped aside those silken curtains, threw off their gossamer veils and flung themselves out into the blinding glare of day, unshaded, unprotected. Women whose feet were as velvety as rose petals, habituated to sink but into soft Persian carpets, walked unshod on hard stony paths, unmindful of scars and bleedings. They who had been nurtured on the lightest of delicacies crunched bravely the tough sandy jail rotis. Their delicate limbs now reposed on the rough blankets. They faced perils and privations with a happy light in their eyes and a spring in their limbs. Almost overnight their narrow domestic walls had given way to open up a new wide world in which they had a high place. Their traditional duties had enlarged even as their courtyards. Their life had expanded and taken on a new meaning. Their thoughts and actions now mattered and made an infinite difference to the lives of 400 millions. The unlettered and untaught proved as capable and efficient as the tutored. They assumed high offices and fulfilled their duties with care and diligence. They became dictators and captians. They organized and ran the entire foreign cloth boycott and picketing programme giving shape to an old dream of Gandhiji. They faced persecution, beatings, assaults with indomitable courage. It was hard to bend them, and impossible to break. They gave a meaning and reality to this non-violent struggle which they alone could have given. “The part that women played in this struggle should be written in letters of gold,” said Gandhiji.

This undoubtedly is one of Gandhiji’s greatest achievements. For, is it not what the woman actually did in the Satyagraha movement which matters so much as what the movement did to her. It changed the face of Indian society. What social reformers had been struggling to achieve for over half a century, Gandhiji did almost overnight. The status of women was completely transformed, for in life there is rarely going back. The women of today carry themselves with new dignity and consciousness of their larger responsibilities.

Gandhiji’s vital relationship with the women can be best gauged by surveying his own life. Two of the most intimate influences in his life were those of women, that of his mother and his wife. The intimacy of a child with the mother is said to colour his entire relationship with the world. The relationship between the two was a most ennobling influence on Gandhiji. This is certainly confirmed by the story of his life where his mother’s strong hand is seen molding his early life.

Equally great was the influence of his wife, though perhaps only the few who had the opportunity to come into close contact with them realized it. There is a general belief that she was the typical much suppressed Indian wife. Nothing could be further from the truth. His strong will was matched by hers. To the last she retained her own individuality even while she adjusted herself to him and the terrific changes he brought in their lives. She had a mind of her own that was never allowed to be crushed. She did not hesitate when she felt moved to do so to stand up to him on whose glance millions hung, he before whom millions bowed in awe, he whose every single word was law to millions. There was perfect ease and freedom between the two which made for not only a happy union, but also his happy relationship with womanhood in general. Even as he became Bapu, she became Ba to the world, on her own, not as an appendage to him. That is most significant. She could talk with him the most mundane affairs and find him a most attentive and responsive mate. That was the secret of their happy comradeship. Whatever the agony and effort, they had attained it. She was not the wife who walked in his shadow, she was the one who shed a light of her own.

To the women, however, Gandhiji is much more than a leader to revere and respect. He is also the father whom they love and have faith in, to whom they can carry their little troubles and quarrels.

Gandhiji expects much more from women, for they are the ballast which gives weightage and stability to his work. In his Khadi and Harijan work, the two closest to his heart, he has assigned women a high place. “The restoration of spinning to its central place in India’s peaceful campaign for deliverance from the imperial yoke, gives the woman a special status. In spinning they have a natural advantage over man……The main burden of spinning must, as of old, fall on your shoulders. Two hundred years ago, the women of India spun not only for the home demand but also for foreign lands……The economic and moral salvation of India thus rests mainly with you. The future of India lies on your knees, for you will nurture the future generation. You can bring up the children of India to become simple, God-fearing and brave men and women, or you can coddle them to be weaklings, unfit to brave the storms of life…….It is for the women of India, a large number of whom do not get even an anna per day, that I am going about the country with my spinning wheel and my begging bowl….”

In these soul-stirring words which surely no woman can withstand, Gandhiji has placed a great duty on the shoulders of the women of India. Equally great and responsible is the task he has allotted them in his Harijan programme. In no uncertain terms he defines the desire of his heart when he addresses the women in the following words:

“I want you, above everything else, to root out untouchability from your hearts and serve the Harijan boys and girls as you would serve your own children. You should love them as your own relatives, your own brothers and sisters, children of the same Mother India. I have worshipped women as the living embodiment of the spirit of service and sacrifice. Man can never be your equal I the spirit of selfless service with which Nature has endowed you. Woman has a compassionate heart which melts at the sight of suffering. If, then, the suffering of Harijans move you and you give up untouchability and with it the distinctions of high and low, Hinduism will be purified and Hindu society will take a great stride towards spiritual progress. It will ultimately mean the being of the whole of India, that is of 35 crores of human beings. And the wonderful purificatory process that one-fifth of the human race will undergo, cannot but have a healthy reaction on the whole of humanity…..”

Is it any wonder that before such heart-rending appeals, women, even the hardest and vainest among them, young maidens and even little girls, so readily strip off their jewels and put them in Bapu’s lap? For who can resist this cry, the call of our better selves, to banish this evil stench from our midst?

Source: Janta Weekly, Nov. 16, 2003