Not a woman you could cross

- By Gopalkrishna Gandhi*

Mridula Sarabhai did more than any party for communal harmony and for human rights years before the latter phrase gained currency.

Mridula Sarabhai

It is Women's Day and memories of certain amazing women swim into one's thoughts.

To certain people a calling comes most naturally. Mridula Sarabhai, daughter of Mahatma Gandhi's early collaborators Ambalal Sarabhai and sister of the nuclear scientist Vikram Sarabhai, was meant for the rough life. Born in 1911, she died at age 63 in 1974. She looked the rough role all right. One of the proudest women ever made by God, the most sneeringly contemptuous of cowardice and of 'safe playing', Mridula had more of a brave man in her than a woman. Ever in her Pathan salwar-kameez outfit with a man's collar, she looked like she could pound an adversary on his nose without a moment's thought. Or shower imprecations on him. And of adversaries she had no dearth.

Gandhi-influenced but not Gandhian in the choice of her words, her plans of action or her opinions, she was if anyone was her own person.

Mridula took her own decisions. She joined Gandhi in his Noakhali tour in 1946, when she saw Hindus being butchered by Muslims and later in Bihar, where Hindus reciprocated with double the brutality.

She became danger's daughter, daring sister. In the pre-Partition weeks and months Mridula was where men blinded by lust and bigotry were making women their special targets. She could have been brutalised a hundred times herself and murdered. Leaders in India and Pakistan alike praised her courage, her commitment.

She had no time for theory, for ideology. The phrase 'no-nonsense' fitted her like her Peshawari sandals.

The cartography of brutality saw her pulled into Kashmir. And that was to become a lifetime's affiliation.

For all her mannishness, her masculine attire, her 'boy-cut' hair, there was an extraordinary allure, a very feminine allure to Mridula. There is no doubt that both Pandit Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah were drawn to her by instincts other than those of politics.

The closer she got to the Sheikh, the further she moved from the Pandit. Mridula became Sheikh Abdullah's strongest, most stubborn and most articulate supporter outside the Valley. The Kashmir Conspiracy Case and Mridula were inseparable. She was arrested but Nehru never clamped her in for conspiracy. Something of an incipient tenderness remained in their relations, even if the story that a single rose used to be sent every morning to Mridula's home in Delhi from Teen Murti House is mythical.

I was in my early teens when my grandfather C Rajagopalachari (CR) visited Delhi on Swatantra Party work and stayed with us. The Sheikh was still in prison and Mridula was at her intense best, asking for his release, the scrapping of the conspiracy charges and the restoration of civil liberties to the Sheikh and his associates. There were many visitors coming to see CR, and I took some of the phone calls asking for appointments. 'Kon, tuun Gopu?' (Is that you, Gopu?) 'Ha, Gopuj boluun chhuun' (Right, this is Gopu speaking). 'Huun Mridula' (This is Mridula), the voice said. I knew what I was handling. The conspiracy case, the jailings, surveillance, phone-tappings.

The caller must have sensed a quail at the other end of the line.

'Shuun thayuun taney? Mridula ni aavaaj saambhli gabhrayi gayo ke?' (What has happened to you? Have you got flustered hearing Mridula at the other end?) 'Naa,naa...evii vaat nathii' (No, no, it is not quite like that.) 'To pachhi shun? Havey jo...maney Rajaji-e malvuun chhe...Kyaare aavii shakaae maney puchhi ne janaav... Huun line upar chuun...' (Then what is your problem? Now listen, I need to meet Rajaji...Find out when I may come and tell me...I am on the line...)

There was no 'if ', only 'when' and no 'Will you call me back?...' business.

I asked CR, adding, like an idiot, that Mridula was under surveillance, as to whether he would like to give her time.

'Of course' he said 'ask her to come straightaway...And as for surveillance...Such things should not worry us... Tell her in as many words that Rajaji is looking forward to discussing Kashmir matters with her....'

The message was relayed by a now more strong-sounding Gopu.

'Bhaley' (Very well) was the only response and in under an hour, Mridula arrived.

'Tuun ek gabhrayi biladi jevo chhe...Em chale?...' (You are too much of a scared-cat...That won't do, would it?...) she said to me, walking in.

How Nehru re-visited his actions on Sheikh Abdullah, how he had him released and sent him as an emissary to President Ayub Khan are all matters now of history.

Mridula should have been made a deputy home minister under Sardar Patel, with special responsibilities towards the welfare of vulnerable women. The two had a wonderful working equation (no Eros, there!) and Mridula would have put the fear of God into all goondas. She was the perfect counter-goonda. The discredited Bakshi regime shivered at the mention of that amazing woman's name.

Mridula was not old by any yardstick and had at least one good decade of activity ahead of her. Had she lived beyond 1974, there is no doubt she would have given Indira Gandhi's Emergency the toughest time and could well have become one of Jayaprakash Narayan's principal colleagues. To jail, of course, she would have gone with her typical unsmiling seriousness and determination.

And, by Jove, what would she not have done had she been alive and in Gujarat in 2002! She would have hurled a much stronger-than 'gabhrayi biladi' invective at the state government. Today, when a fake and hollow machoism from Gujarat is being sought to be paraded before a gullible India, we should remember this woman who did more than any party, any government for communal harmony and for human rights years before the latter phrase gained currency and for the women of the subcontinent.

Courtesy: Hindustan Times, dt. 8th March 2014

* Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor. Email: