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Kasturba Gandhi, the Empowered Woman: What You Didn't Know

(11th April 1869 - 22nd February 1944)

History has often presented Kasturba Gandhi as the subsidiary shadow of her husband, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. While the ‘Father of the Nation’ is revered for being on the front-lines of the freedom struggle, Kasturba has left an indelible mark on Indian history with her significant, albeit under-recognised contributions, to the struggle for independence.

She wasn’t taught to read or write, but at a young and confusing age, she was asked to make a conscious decision to relieve herself of a ‘traditional’ family life and dedicate it to fighting for the freedom of her country instead.

And she did.

On 22 February, her 74th death anniversary, here are a few facts about the woman who was bound in silent resilience and unexpressed ambition, a side-lined leader whose identity went far and beyond that of her husband.

Kasturba, the Resilient Young Woman

A 13-year old Kasturba, who hailed from an economically sound and reputed family in Porbandar, was married off to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in the year 1883, as is recorded in Gandhi’s autobiography ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth’ - that was published in two parts in 1927 and 1929.

The first years of their marriage were reflective of the patterns of any patriarchal bond of the time. Gandhi would be away, involved with his work for extended periods of time, while Kasturba stayed at home to take care of their four sons.

She did not receive formal education but remained a curious and fast learner all her life. As Aparna Basu, author of ‘Kasturba Gandhi’ wrote in her book, Gandhi had once told Kasturba that he would not give her a notebook unless she improved her child-like handwriting. She refused to write in a notebook her whole life.

In his autobiography, Gandhi pays tribute to her resilience, and confesses that he would often try and exert his will over her and dominate her into submitting to his whims. But she wouldn’t budge.

According to my earlier experience, she was very obstinate. In spite of all my pressure she would do as she wished. This led to short or long periods of estrangement between us. But as my public life expanded, my wife bloomed forth and deliberately lost herself in my work.
Mahatma Gandhi in ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth’

Kasturba, the Beacon of Empowerment

Kasturba took the long bouts of loneliness, that she experienced when Gandhi first dove into his fight for politics and justice in South Africa, and used it to hone her leadership skills.

While she was gentle in her commands, she was headstrong and used her reputation as the 'Universal Ba' to get what needed to be done. Her orders would be carried out by those around her, out of respect and reverence for her person.

As Gandhi launched the various Civil Disobedience and Quit India movements, Kasturba was a front-liner at these agitations. She would often step into the role of leading the movements when Gandhi was detained.

She once wrote a powerful speech addressing the country during one of the Quit India Movement marches, Aparna Basu writes.

The women of India have to prove their mettle. They should all join in this struggle, regardless of caste or creed. Truth and nonviolence must be our watchwords.

- Kasturba Gandhi

For the large part, she ran the Sabarmati Ashram that has mainly been attributed to Gandhi.

In 1906, when Gandhi took a vow of 'chastity', she recognised his choice and made her peace with it. She had her own ideals and stuck by them, but never attempted to try and bend others, including her children, to her will.

Kasturba, the Freedom Fighter

Kasturba's fight for social justice began much before the struggle for Indian independence, dating back to her time in South Africa.

In 1913, she protested against the inhuman working conditions of Indians in South Africa, for which she was punished with a three-month prison sentence.

She was an active presence in the Non-Cooperation and Civil Disobedience movements and despite her age, led the masses into a non-violent agitation against the colonial masters.

She became the face of Khadi and a champion for empowering indigenous workers into producing for their own, their homeland.

Her arrest for her role in the Quit India Movement was the last time she was ever behind the bars.

Succumbing to the ill-treatment meted out by the police and the strain inflicted upon her body due to her role in the agitation, Kasturba finally gave in to the physical confines of the world in 1944, three years before India would wake up as an independent nation.

But she will never be forgotten.