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Kasturba: The Unsung Heroine
Jaydev Jana*
Kasturba Gandhi

Behind every successful man, there is a woman. - Mark Twain

Mark Twain’s remark might be a little difficult to digest. But it is true to a large extent. The success of a man is in the hands of the woman associated with his life, pre-eminently his wife. If the man is single, his mother can play a vital role. Indeed, Mahatma Gandhi was influenced by his mother, Putlibai, as well as by his wife, Kasturba, fondly referred to as ‘Ba’ (Mother). In his childhood, Gandhi was profoundly influenced by Jainism and the Pranami sect… through his mother. It was in his family that he first learnt the lesson of Satyagraha.

He confessed that he directly learnt the certitudes of Satyagraha through his wife, Kasturba, though he was also influenced by Tolstoy and Thoreau. In his autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi writes: “I learnt the lesson of non-violence (Satyagraha) from my wife. I tried to bend her to my will. Her determined resistance to my will on the one hand, and her quiet submission to the suffering my stupidity involved on the other, ultimately made me ashamed of myself and cured me of myself and cured me of my stupidity in thinking that I was born to rule over her; and in the end she became my teacher in non-violence.

And what I did in South Africa was but an extension of the rule of Satyagraha she unwittingly practised in her own person.’ Kasturba Gandhi’s name is often lost in the face of Gandhi’s leadership, but she was his pillar of support, right from his initial days as an ordinary lawyer up to his tumultuous phase as a leader of the freedom movement. She was the first individual who was a part of him like none other and perhaps the only person who could disagree with him and point out his mistakes. Indeed, in the journey of Gandhi who is regarded as the Father (‘Bapu’) of the Nation, Kasturba (‘Ba’) was his companion, his wife, his caretaker and later in life his representative too. Kasurba Gandhi was exceptional.

She appropriately realised the importance of her husband’s task, she stood shoulder to shoulder with her husband, went to jail for his cause, took part in public campaigns, about which Gandhi wrote and spoke enough. Arun Manilal Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma, once very aptly said, ‘While Gandhi experimented with truth, Katurba experienced it.’ As their relationship matured it was very much difficult to imagine Gandhi without Kasturba who used to say, ‘My religion is my husband.’ Gandhi, for his part, said, ‘Kasturba has lost herself in me and is my true better half.’ Truly, without her unstinted support and sacrifice Gandhi’s accomplishment and achievement of spiritual heights could not have been possible.

Though they had their share of arguments and disagreements in private, Kasturba always stood behind Gandhi who also knew that she was there always to lend support. In 1882, before Gandhi (date of birth October 2, 1869) was fully thirteen, he was married to Kasturbai Makhanji Kapadia (date of birth April 11, 1869), a Porbandar girl who was around six months older than him. In his autobiography Gandhi wrote, ‘Two innocent children all unwittingly hurled themselves into the ocean of life.’ Kasturba, a beautiful and uneducated Modh Bania girl, had a strong will of her own. Her spirit was always proud and free. She never allowed to be dictated ~ not even by her husband. Historian Vinay Lal writes, “Kasturba never acceded to her husband’s wishes easily, and Gandhi’s autobiography itself furnishes a remarkable testimony to her tenacity and independence of judgment, and the sharp disagreements she came to have with him when, in the first two decades of their marriage, he unreasonably sought to bring her under his control.’

Her manner was naturally accommodating, never challenging. Haunted by fears of thieves, ghosts, serpents and robbers, the Mahatma ‘did not dare to stir out of doors’ and could not sleep without a light near him. Sleeping by [his] side was the lovely but resisting Kasturba who ‘knew no fear of serpents and ghosts’ and ‘could go out anywhere in the dark,’ Gandhi felt ashamed of himself. Gandhi once opined that ‘I am firmly of opinion that India’s salvation depends on the sacrifice and enlightenment of her women.’ He firmly believed that women are much stronger than men in terms of moral strength. Women, in his reckoning, are the very personification of non-violence, and therefore, are best suited for the practice of Satyagraha. But he was not sure whether Katurba would actively participate in an agitation and hence he did not want to push her into it. When he discouraged her, she said, ‘I also want to take part to which you are inviting others. What do I lack that disqualifies me to go to jail?’ Kasturba first involved herself with politics in South Africa in 1904 when she helped her husband and others establish the Phoenix Settlement near Durban. Then she was the one who illegally crossed the Transvaal border in South Africa in September 1913, along with fifteen others, violating the British laws; they were arrested and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment with hard labour though she was in poor health.

During her time in prison she motivated other women to muster courage to survive the difficult and harsh routine. Once she returned to India in 1914, she assumed the charge of reaching out to the women to organise them as an effective outfit and also actively took part in civil actions and protests across India that were organised by Gandhi in spite of her suffering from chronic bronchitis. Kastuba was instrumental in raising funds for the freedom movement. She took an active part in the fight against untouchability and toured southern India to plead for Harijans. Kasturba’s keen instincts made her reach out to people in need. In 1904 in South Africa, there was a bubonic plague in Johannesburg. Kasturba reached out to the Indian community and educated them on the importance of hygiene in such circumstances and how to detect warning signs of an onset of plague. Gandhi started his first campaign on the conditions of farmers in Champaran, Bihar in 1917. Kasturba gathered the women of that area, taught them to be selfsufficient and to give importance to hygiene and sanitation.

She left Champaran in the spring of 1918, proud of her accomplishments there, content that her work with women had brought real changes ~ village streets were clean, the smell of garbage and filth were gone, flies and mosquitoes had disappeared and people were cleaner in their habits , and there was hope these changes would endure. Gandhi returned from South Africa to India with vast experience of leading movements, setting up of ashrams (famously known as the phoenix Settlement and the Tolstoy Farm) and , above all, an experiment in community living, aimed at fostering universal amity and brotherhood. On his return to India he was very keen to have his own abode.

However, to accommodate his family and all those who accompanied him Sabarmati Ashram was set up across the Sabarmati river. The ashram was also called the Satyagraha Ashram. Kasturba looked after the ashram and except when she travelled with Gandhi, she operated with clockwise precision. Here she was fondly called as ‘Ba’ or Mother, because she served as mother of the ashrams in India. She was a demanding taskmaster and always noticed minute details others might miss or ignore. Words like ‘forget’ or ‘overlook’ were just not part of her working vocabulary. Even though she had no formal knowledge of arithmetic, she developed a remarkable talent for precise calculation.

Mahatma Gandhi found a fully supportive life partner in Kasturba. She was indeed like his shadow. Her contribution and sacrifices remain in the pages of history. But, unfortunately, those pages have been forgotten by us. Once those pages of history are revisited from Ba’s perspective she re-emerges as the heroine, at a time when heroes were to surface.


* The writer is a retired IAS Officer