In Gandhi’s evolution as the upholder of women’s cause in course of his visit to South Africa, which was his nursery and where seeds of many of his ideas were sown, it was also his laboratory where they were put to test. Above all, South Africa brought Kasturba to the forefront. It was as though Gandhi rediscovered her. Through her active participation along with hundreds of other women of the Phoenix and Tolstoy farms who joined the men in a Satyagraha to protest against the Immigration Regulation Bill and the 3 pound tax.
This enthused Gandhi no end. He was overwhelmed at the grit and determination displayed by women in their fight for their rights in South Africa. Hailing the Women’s Resolution to oppose the South African Government’s move to declare all marriages null and void if not performed under the Christian law, he wrote in the Indian Opinion ~ “The remarkable resolution of the Indian women of Johannesburg on the marriage question, that has been agitating our countrymen for the past few weeks, marks an interesting development of the passive resistance campaign.
We congratulate our plucky sisters who have dared to fight the Government rather than submit to the insult offered by the judgment”. He prepared Kasturba for the trials and tribulations of the life of a wife of a man committed to the service of humanity. But what stood ‘Ba’ in good stead was not only the support of her caring husband but her own inner strength, her capacity to recognize and nurture it as her shield and weapon. Kasturba was the Mahatma’s first disciple.
She adjusted herself to a routine which went against her own orthodoxy. She followed her husband’s footsteps in all his experiments on himself, like his decision to resort to Brahmacharya, his empathy with the Harijans and the deprived which led him to identify himself with the Harijans and seek their uplift in Hindu society. In Kasturba, Gandhi recognized the natural instinct for service for the good of all. A silent worker she gradually wove her way to everyone’s heart, indeed persons who had the good fortune of coming into her contact.
Gandhi needed to guide Kasturba only with the persuasive power of a friend and a Guru to make it the liberative energy for he knew well where it would lead her on to. Amidst tender knowledge of Kasturba’s shyness and reserve. he led her to the liberation movement not only from the political bondage but the liberation of the soul of India, and the entire humanity. Despite initial hesitation and doubts, she was even ready to take up the work that Mahatma was formulating and join the community experiments like his ashrams in South Africa and India. Even if she had initial hesitation, her travels with Gandhi in the countryside helped smoothen the edges in her mind; she was equally affected by these travels and by what she saw of rural India, almost as much as the Mahatma himself.
There is the incident when Kasturba found that a village woman did not have another sari to wear and therefore had to wash naked. She was moved to tears. It is this transformation within that later became her strength in the trying times she went through. Ba had passed through that fire often enough. She had been to jail several times in South Africa. The hardships were not easy to suffer. Suffering for the sake of the country’s freedom had become so natural to her that she thought nothing of imprisonment for herself, her husband or her children. Gandhi had put before her the ideal of extending the family circle to include all of humankind and for years she had been trying to live up to it.
But ultimately, it was she who was the unsung heroine. She was the staff without whose support the metamorphosis of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi into the Mahatma would have remained an abortive endeavour. Hers’ was the silent but strong presence that helped him forge his unique, unconventional ammunition for the attainment of Swaraj ~ both personal and political. It is amazing how some deep-rooted misconceptions about the personal relationship between Mahatma Gandhi and Kasturba have prevailed and survived from the very beginning of their public life and are still used by Gandhi baiters.
Way back in 1929 Horace G Alexander in a letter to Gandhi drew his attention to a book which gave him an impression that Kasturba and Gandhi “were not always of one mind”. Horace Alexander wrote” “The biggest stumbling block of appreciation of the East comes from the belief that Eastern people have not learnt the same reverence for women as we have now begun to learn in the West”. In his reply Gandhi wrote: “I can tell you that relations between us are of the happiest kind. It is quite true if the writings gave you the impression that I do not carry my wife with me through all the transformations that my life has undergone.
My own conviction is that most probably the reverence felt by the Indian men towards India’s women is quite equal to that felt in the West; but it is of a different type. The Western form of reverence yielding the first place to women and many such other things, seems to me to be highly artificial and sometimes even hypocritical. All the same, there is much to criticize in our treatment of women. Some laws are bad, some husbands are monsters, some parents are heartless towards their daughters. In these matters toleration is, in my opinion, the key to a mutual understanding. Every social institution, however admirable it may be, has its own shortcomings”.
It was perhaps from the conflict and consonance that crisscrossed his relationship with Kasturba that Gandhi drew his deep understanding of the Indian psyche. During their last imprisonment Kasturba and Gandhi were interned in Aga Khan Palace in Pune, where Gandhi the guru (teacher) and loving husband comes in for a most harmonious fusion. The guru does not lead nor set the pace, he is submerged by the caring husband. But a perception is now emerging, and rightly so, that Kasturba’s role was by no means marginal or restricted to homemanagement. As many Gandhians acknowledge, at many crucial junctures in Gandhi’s struggle for Swaraj. it was Kasturba who dictated the terms. It was she who proved to be the guiding force behind the ashrams.
She was not only the presiding deity of the ashrams set up by Gandhi but was “a junior partner”, as Gandhi preferred to describe her, in the freedom struggle. It is a pity that not many people in India are aware that she participated in the Satyagraha in South Africa and suffered jail terms. The confluence of dynamic and dedicated women at Gandhi’s ashrams, presided over by ‘Ba’, made them develop into centres for rural regeneration and self-reliance. Indeed, Gandhi himself was led to remark that the classes taken by women were found to be more successful, a tribute to the initiative and patience displayed by Kasturba and other women activists. It is this legacy bequeathed by ‘Ba’ which sustains the Kasturba Memorial Trust founded by Mahatma Gandhi in 1945 in the memory of Kasturba who passed away on 22 February 1944 while still in prison.
As we celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi we must remember Kasturba’s own 150th birth anniversary which comes six months before him. She was born in the month of April 1869. She is perhaps only remembered as a noble soul and the lifelong companion of the Mahatma, a mere shadow following the master. Her contribution in the awakening of simple rural women of India and the dumb millions through her own example has never been assessed in the right historical perspective. We must celebrate the life and contributions of Kasturba to the cause of India’s Independence along with the Mahatma. The story of Ba and Bapu need to be told and retold as they are important in our long history of misogyny: significant as a ray of hope in an otherwise irredeemable scenario. Mahatma Gandhi was man enough to acknowledge the debt he owed to her.
(The writer is a Former Director, Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, New Delhi)