Liberation struggles in different countries often become synonymous with certain heroic male figures, who are immortalized in the pages of history as epitomes of strength and valour. We often hear about the likes of Martin Luther King Jr in the American struggle against racism or Nelson Mandela in South Africa during the anti-Apartheid movement. Creation of heroic figures have been a trend in glorifying a nation’s past in order to inspire and encourage the present. Even though there have been the likes of Rani Laxmi Bai in India and Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, who have fought for national causes, their names do not feature in the primary lists of freedom fighters who showed a beam of light to the rest of the world. Have you heard of Helen Suzman or Sucheta Kriplani or perhaps Tegadalay Habte Abraha ? A number of you may not be aware of these names but their contribution has been immense when it comes to serving their country besides advocating for the rights of women.
In India, the struggle for independence from the British has been marked as the foremost freedom struggle in the country. Many such women freedom fighters had immense contribution towards this struggle and I am going to list some of them down in this article. Besides the freedom struggle against imperial rule, there have been a couple of noteworthy women freedom fighters whom I would like to highlight over here. Judging and ranking the immense contributions of the following bravehearts is not a feasible activity but I would like to acknowledge the ten women freedom fighters and their grit in equal measure even though their positions may vary in this ranking. The ten greatest women freedom fighters of India are as follows:
10. Annie Besant
She was an eminent British socialite and women’s rights activist, who eventually got involved in the Indian freedom struggle. She joined the Indian National Congress and in 1917 was elected as the president of the Indian National Congress. The Home Rule Movement, demanding autonomy and self-rule for the Indian state was initiated under her behest along with Lokmanya Tilak. She even developed close contacts with the Irish home rulers. She had immense interest in theosophical activities. She played an important role in mobilizing demonstrations and protests during the Independence struggle. She was arrested a couple of times. Despite opposition from her native country and even within the Congress, in the later part of her life too she remained quite vocal about India’s right to Independence.
9. Kamala Nehru
She was an eminent freedom fighter, besides being the wife of the first Prime Minister of India Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. She actively took part in the Swadeshi movement and arranged for the burning of foreign goods as a mark of protest against the Empire. Spent a large part of her time in Gandhiji’s Ashram, trying to imbibe the ideals of Gandhi-ism. She was a major force behind the Non-cooperation movement in 1921. In fact, during her lifetime and even later on, she was addressed to as JL Nehru’s wife more than anything else. Despite being under the constant shadow of India’s one of the most popular leaders, she carved a niche for herself by encouraging women’s groups to participate in the freedom struggle and also went to jail twice under the British rule.
- Kittur Rani Chinammma
She was the queen of a princely state of Kittur in Karnataka who led an armed rebellion in 1824 against the British. She was eventually arrested in the end of the rebellion but even today, she is regarded as one of the bravest women in Karnataka. Chennamma’s legacy and the first victory of war are still commemorated in Kittur from 22nd–24 th October, in the Kittur Utsav. She became a symbol of one of the first resistances against the British in the Independence movement and her statue was unveiled in the Parliament House complex in 2007.
- Begum Hazrat Mahal
She was a leading figure of the National Uprising of 1857, which is often referred to as the First War of Independence. She took control of Lucknow during this Uprising and declared her son as the King of Oudh. On 10 May 1984, the Government of India issued a commemorative stamp in honour of Mahal. She has also been named as the ‘Lakshmi Bai’ of Awadh due to her strength and valour, shown during the 1857 mutiny.
- Bhikaiji Cama
She was one of the frontrunners in setting up the Indian Home Rule Society. She is known for inspiring and revolutionary speeches, advocating gender equality in both India and abroad. A number of revolutionary literary works were produced by her and she gave a number of fiery speeches of a nationalist hue before enthusiastic audiences. She was a stalwart who took the issues of the subcontinent to foreign and tried to get the world’s attention on the issues plaguing the Indian nation. On 22 August 1907, at the International Socialist Conference in Stuttgart, Germany, Cama raised and unfurled what she called the “First flag of Independence”.
- Savitribhai Phule
She is considered as one of the pioneers of women’s education in India during the British rule. Even after being subjected to insults and rebuke, she continued in her endeavour to provide education for the girls and the women of this country in the middle and the later parts of the 19th century. Seen as a major social reformer in British India, she, along with her husband, founded the first women’s school in India at Bhide Wada, Pune in 1848. She fought for women rights and even for those who were considered untouchables in those times.
- Sucheta Kriplani (Mazumdar)
She was the first woman Chief Minister in India and served a term between 1963 to 1967 in the state of Uttar Pradesh. She came into the forefront of the freedom struggle during the Quit India movement in 1942. Played a role in allaying communal tensions during the partition riots in 1946-47. She was a part of the subcommittee that drafted the Indian Constitution. She was also the founder of All India Mahilla Congress, which came into existence in 1940. Post independence, she was involved actively in public life and Indian politics.
- Sarojini Naidu
She has been one of the more acknowledged faces of the freedom struggle in India in our history books . The ‘Nightingale of India’, was a spirited freedom activist and a poet, who took part in the Civil Disobedience movement of 1930-34. She even went to jail with the likes of MK Gandhi and others of the Indian National Congress in British India. She joined the INC in the wake of the partition of Bengal in 1905. Became the first woman governor of independent India. Her collection of poems are still considered as important Indian writing in English, even though many consider them to be of mediocre literary content. She was given the Kaisir-i-Hind medal by the British government for her work during the plague epidemic in India.
- Irom Sharmila (Chanu)
Considered as a modern day Gandhian figure by many, Sharmila has been pursuing a relentless protest against AFSPA( Armed Forces Special Powers Act) in Manipur since November 2000. She has been on a hunger strike since then till the present day even though nasogastric intubation was forced on her time and again. As a mark of protest against the Malom massacre in Manipur, she began her fast against the government of India. Though she continues to divide opinions across the country in terms of her demands and fasting as a legitimate right, Sharmila has been seen as a symbol of resistance as the woman undertaking the “world’s longest hunger strike”.
- Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi
She is still regarded as an epitome of strength and courage displayed by a woman. In fact, her bravado is often attributed to the iconic picture of the Rani fighting the British in the battlefield with her son, Damodar Rao tied to her on the horseback. She was the Maratha queen of Jhansi, who resisted the British and even defied the Doctrine of Lapse, according to which the British rulers refused to accept her adopted son Damodar as the legal heir.In the period between 1857-58, she resisted the British from taking control over her kingdom of Jhansi. She is seen as a figure who through that iconic picture is seen to be with maternal instincts yet having a heart of steel to defend her kingdom, qualities that are often considered as binaries.