The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

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| Editors: Immanuel Ness, Zak Cope

Women’s Movements, Indian Anti-colonial Struggle

  • Elena BorghiEmail author
Living reference work entry


The theme of women’s participation in the Indian nationalist movement, though having been debated extensively over the last few decades, still draws historians’ attention and calls for continuing revision and rethinking. This chapter explores women’s contribution to the Indian nationalist cause.

The themes of nationalist consciousness and the birth of the nation have been major concerns for scholars of Indian history since the end of the British Raj and the attainment of independence by India and Pakistan in 1947. Several historiographical perspectives have investigated these topics over time. The Cambridge school described Indian nationalism as an ideology shaped by elite groups to mobilise the masses around their own narrow needs, which finally bargained successfully with the foreign rulers for power. On the other side, Indian nationalist historians have since the colonial period highlighted the mass, idealistic, and libertarian character of the nationalist movement, depicting it as a struggle aimed at freedom from colonial exploitation. This view has often overshadowed class and caste (not to mention gender) contradictions at work within Indian society, as well as the class perspective of the nationalist movement itself. Class became instead, from the early 1980s, the major analytical tool of the Subaltern Studies project. Research carried forward in this framework rejected a reading of the colonial era through the binary opposition between imperialism and the Indian people, rather focusing on the conflicts between elite groups (indigenous and foreign) and subalterns (Chandra et al. 1989, pp. 13–23).

The gender dimension remained marginal in the work of these schools of thought, until the emergence of feminist studies that have provided gender-conscious accounts of nationalist ideology and the anti-imperialist venture. These works have engaged in a critique of previous narratives, complicating the picture of women’s involvement in agitational politics, as well as addressing the effects of Gandhian ideology on women’s roles. Aparna Basu, one of the first to deal with such critiques, has hinted at how reassuring the Gandhian message sounded to the male guardians of women, something which led husbands and fathers to allow (or even encourage) the participation of their womenfolk in the movement (Basu 1976, p. 37).

Elaborating further on the nature of Gandhian ideology on women, several other scholars have come to define it as a complex set of discourses with contradictory implications. If, on the one hand, it recognised women’s subordination and preached their equality and opportunities for self-realisation, on the other it never stepped out of the safe arena of a traditional, religious, and patriarchal sense of the world. Narrating women as unsexed beings, who embodied faith and ‘by nature’ could endure sacrifice and suffering (like the mythical Sita), Gandhi claimed that they would play a key part in organised passive resistance and non-co-operation (Jayawardena 1986, pp. 95–97). At the time of the non-co-operation movement (1920–22) Gandhi urged elite women in public speeches to adhere to the swadeshi programme, boycotting foreign goods and devoting some time a day to spinning, thus acting as role models for the women of the lower strata. (Taneja 2005, p. 53).

While this call did receive a response from some elite women, the size and quality of their participation would increase dramatically only in the following decade, during the civil disobedience campaign. Although Gandhi had refused to include women in the 240-mile march from Ahmedabad to Dandi to manufacture salt that inaugurated the movement in March 1930, soon after it he fully incorporated them in the campaign, putting them in charge of the boycott of foreign cloth and liquor shops. Scholars agree on the fact that women responded to Gandhi’s call en masse, and many studies have detailed the facts and figures of such participation both at the national and regional level (Kasturi and Mazumdar 1994; Menon 2003; Saxena 1988, pp. 2–10; Thapar-Bjorkert 1998, pp. 583–615), producing in some cases enthusiastic descriptions of these ‘hordes of women pouring out of their homes … to give proof of their will, courage and forbearance’ (Rao 1994, p. 38).

However, the so-called ‘myth of participation’ has universalised women’s involvement in nationalist agitations, projecting it as homogeneous (Pearson 1979, p. 80). Such narrative has overshadowed the variety of experiences of those women, considering them as a collectivity rather than as a sum of individuals grouped according to a number of different criteria. The tendency to describe women participants as a homogeneous group is a legacy of the nationalist movement itself, which – in the attempt to become a mass movement and gain cohesiveness – utilised the category of ‘woman’ as the undifferentiated label it was in public consciousness, ‘the sole universal category which cut through divisions and could mean all things to all persons’ (Pearson 1981). Such a tendency has brought some historiographical accounts to overlook divisions of class, caste, origin (urban/rural), level of education, religion, and age, to name but a few. Equally neglected has often been the distinction between the women belonging to preexisting women’s organisations and the less educated women who could not boast previous forms of activism or political awareness.

In fact, under the umbrella-category of ‘women’ stood a number of different motivations to join nationalist agitations, experiences within the movement, practices, and expectations. Although often overshadowed by the Gandhian movement’s popularity, other forms of agitations were present on the Indian public scene, and women joined them, too. During the partition of Bengal, in 1905, middle-class Hindu women joined the boycott campaigns at a time when Bharat Mata (Mother India) was a powerful symbol within Bengali nationalist rhetoric. (For an analysis of how the mother’s body and the map of India came to overlap within nationalist cartography, see Ramaswamy 2010). Many were also the women and girls who later on, having grown dissatisfied with Gandhian politics, decided to side with the revolutionary movement – what the colonial state, some revolutionaries themselves, and much historiography have termed ‘terrorism’ (on the revolutionaries’ self-definition as ‘terrorists’ and the lack of any negative connotation, see Ghosh 2006, p. 273). Mostly active in the states of Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Punjab, the revolutionary movements drew upon socialist and Marxist theories for the construction of their ideologies, were influenced by the Russian and Irish revolutions, and inspired by anti-imperialist as well as anticapitalist feelings, reflecting a wide range of local and transnational activities and philosophies (Maclean and Elam 2013, pp. 113–123).

Among the leaders of the revolutionary movement outside India was a woman, Madame Cama, who settled in Paris from the early 1900s and ‘became the focus of Indian revolutionary activity in Europe’, influencing a number of young Parsi women in Bombay, from where she came (Jayawardena 1986, pp. 103–104). However, it was only from the late 1920s that women joined revolutionary societies in significant numbers. Although such groups had been active in Bengal and north India since the early twentieth century, for several years their underground activities had been carried out by small cells of men, who took a vow of chastity and were expected to be unquestionably loyal to their leader. Later on, many newly formed groups were eager to include women among their militants, and treated them as equals to men.

It is indeed in the definition of women’s role in the anti-colonial struggle that – according to Geraldine Forbes – lies the difference between the Gandhian movement and the revolutionary societies. While the former envisioned a precise role and specific activities for women within the anti-colonial struggle, the latter believed that women revolutionaries could help the cause not only by playing subsidiary roles, but also by carrying out the same tasks as their male comrades, such as killing, sabotaging, or leading the cells’ activities (Forbes 1997, pp. 113–115, 127; see also Chatterji 2001, pp. 39–47).

The two movements, however, had two major traits in common. Firstly, they were similar in the way they represented the activist woman, as both constructed their narrative around the same myth of female sacrifice. As a natural predisposition to endurance and self-sacrifice would make women the best satyagrahis, the same virtue would lead women revolutionaries to offer their own body and life to the nation. Secondly, both movements drew upon mythical and religious discourses to recruit members and explain their activities to the less educated. Gandhi’s Sitas were the revolutionaries’ Kalis and Shaktis, and each regarded these figures as symbols of the motherland; though projecting very different models of femininity, these images were powerful and very effective in mobilising women (Thapar-Bjorkert 2006, pp. 128–129).

The homogeneity of women participating in the nationalist movement, though, was not threatened only by the presence of different ideological subgroups on the Indian political scene, as even within the same group women made for a very heterogeneous lot. Female participants in the Gandhian movement ranged from the respectable ‘few brave women’ (Forbes 1997, p. 63) adhering to non-co-operation and the Khilafat movement in the early 1920s, to Tamil prostitutes (Lakshmi 1984, p. 8); from national leaders like Sarojini Naidu, who had taken part in Congress activities since 1904, to women who set up organisations specifically for the purpose of co-ordinating processions, picketing and spinning activities; from those who had been mobilising for women’s rights since the start of the century (and wished to see the social, legal, and political status of their lot improved, after their involvement in and support for nationalist agitations), to those ‘who responded to their “dual duty” – to their beloved Gandhi … and to their guardians … [and who] generally followed men’ (Forbes 1997, p. 83).

Yet, women participating in Gandhian agitations were not only those who joined the ‘public’ activities envisioned for them. Indeed, as highlighted by the work of Suruchi Thapar-Bjorkert and pointed out by Vina Mazumdar and Leela Kasturi one decade earlier, there were a number of women who could not access the world outside their homes, either ‘women from the peasantry and the working class … or the thousands of housewives – mostly mothers and wives – who provided indirect support by shouldering family responsibilities when their men went to jail or got killed’ (Kasturi and Mazumdar 1994: xxvi). Drawing upon oral interviews and women’s autobiographies, Thapar-Bjorkert found that the lives of women who did not cross the domestic threshold during nationalist agitations were no less impacted by political changes than those of their more visible sisters. Although some of them were constrained by segregating social customs, ‘they were more interested in what they did despite such constraints, and for these women the domestic sphere emerged a site of both contestation and subordination’, as well as of political practices. These ranged from taking responsibilities for the family’s elders when their husbands were imprisoned, to earning a livelihood, from taking independent decisions about their children, to dealing with food shortages; ‘the awareness that they had to survive without inhibiting their husbands’ commitment to the nationalist cause – the author concluded – helped in the development of their own political consciousness’ (Thapar-Bjorkert 2006, pp. 209–210).

Among the protagonists in female involvement with Gandhian and Congress-led nationalist politics, women belonging to the organised women’s movement deserve special attention. Although during the nineteenth century a number of women’s groups and associations led by women had emerged in various parts of the subcontinent (mainly in Bengal and Maharashtra), it was only in the early 1900s that women’s all-India organisations started to be set up by and for women of the urban elites – the first being the Bharat Stri Mahamandal, founded in 1901 by Saraladevi Chaudhurani. Such first experiment proved short-lived, but a few years later a new association was born which would gain greater recognition. It was 1917 when Irish feminists Margaret Cousins and Dorothy Jinarajadasa, and the British Annie Besant – all closely connected to the Theosophical Society – started the Women’s Indian Association (WIA) in Madras, with branches all over India. The WIA welcomed members of both Indian and European origins, and engaged from the beginning in the fields of philanthropy, religion, politics, and education, the latter the area to which the association devoted most of its efforts. In 1918 the WIA started editing its mouthpiece, Stri Dharma, a monthly journal featuring contributions in English, Tamil, Telugu and – from the late 1920s – Hindi. International in its character, this publication mirrored the advocacy journals edited by British feminists in the late nineteenth century, and soon became ‘a strong voice in the international feminist movement, supporting claims that women shared certain concerns as women that transcended all other differences’ (Tusan 2003, p. 625). Although Stri Dharma and the WIA in general acted within a clearly anti-imperialist framework, their main concern was with international feminist politics: they imagined the women of the world as ‘sisters in a great family’ (Stri Dharma 1918, p. 2), and believed in gender solidarity as a unifying force.

An international aspiration also lay at the core of another all-India organisation, the National Council of Women in India (NCWI), established in 1925 as the Indian branch of the International Council of Women. Counting among its members women belonging to some of India’s wealthiest industrial and royal families, like Mehribai Tata and the Maharani of Baroda, the Council engaged in philanthropy and other activities that, modelled on those of upper-class British women, would seem ‘enlightened’ to British officials and policy-makers. Elitist in character, close to the British, and socially conservative, the Council never went beyond petition politics aimed mainly at making India reach the internationally accepted standards for health and welfare – an interest shared also by Indian and British men in power (Forbes 2004, pp. 75–78).

Ten years after the WIA, the third pan-Indian organisation was born. The All-India Women’s Conference (AIWC) held its first meeting in Pune in 1927, thanks to the efforts of Margaret Cousins and responding to the call of the director of Public Instruction in Bengal, Mr Oaten, who had urged women to raise a unanimous voice and tell the government what kind of education they deemed suitable for Indian girls. The stated focus of the AIWC was thus on female education, although the Conference at the time did not imagine it as a mass phenomenon, nor as equal to the education received by men. From 1928 the Conference widened its scope to include social issues related to women and girls (like child marriage and pardā), a focus that would be extended in the following years to labour, rural reconstruction, textbooks, and indigenous industries (80).

From 1930, when civil disobedience broke out, two of these organisations that consistently contributed to create the Indian women’s movement, drawing together the country’s most active and engaged women, started to face important changes. While the NCWI, due to its social composition and alliances with the British establishment, never joined the struggle for independence, the WIA and the AIWC were more inclined to get closer to the nationalist movement. The AIWC initially chose to remain apolitical, but by the mid-1930s it could no longer ignore that its work was leading towards two directions, for which different and conflicting strategies needed to be put in place. On the one hand, its work for women’s rights and equality required co-operation with the British; on the other, its growing commitment to the welfare of the nation and to Gandhian programme of reconstruction involved work at the grass-roots level. Furthermore, the AIWC found it increasingly difficult to counter critiques such as Nehru’s, according to whom the association’s programme was superficial and did not enquire into ‘root causes’ – that is, did not (yet) see women’s uplift as part of a wider plan for the nation’s uplift. The AIWC’s priorities were deemed to change, as Margaret Cousins made clear during her presidential address in 1936, urging her audience to ‘work first for political liberty, for liberation from subjection both internal and external, and side by side with that supreme task work for all our already expressed ideals and reforms’ (81).

The WIA had stated its anti-imperialist feelings since its inception, but these became even clearer in the 1930s in response to the political events agitating the country, and thanks to the presence of Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy as Stri Dharma’s editor. Elected in 1927 as first woman member of the Madras Legislative Council, Reddy resigned in 1930 in protest over Gandhi’s arrest, and dedicated herself to the nationalist cause. Slowly but surely, the journal’s commitment to Gandhian politics started to grow, while the internationalist agenda of the previous years gradually faded away. ‘Western’ versus ‘indigenous’ leadership of the women’s movement became an issue, as did ‘Indian’ versus ‘universalised liberal female’ subjectivity; along these lines political as well as personal conflicts among women activists started to emerge and the WIA, unable to deal with these concerns, finally closed the journal in 1936. In her analysis of Stri Dharma, Tusan concluded that the journal’s story ‘embodied the fragile relationship between Western and non-Western women during the beginning of the decolonization movement’ (Tusan 2003, pp. 630–632, 642), thus ascribing the WIA’s putting aside its aspirations to ‘global sisterhood’ (in favour of nationalist politics) to issues among Indian and European women, rather than among Indian women/feminists and Indian men/nationalists.

Previous studies, on the contrary, insisted upon the nationalist movement’s interest in maintaining the patriarchal order, and on the incapability of women themselves to ‘use the occasion to raise issues that affected them as women’ (Jayawardena 1986, p. 108). Maria Mies claimed that, while the movement could not but include women in the struggle for tactical reasons, it did not envision change in the social order. Having accepted their limited function, women made for excellent instruments in the struggle, but ‘did not work out a strategy for their own liberation struggle for their own interests. By subordinating these goals to the national cause they conformed to the traditional pativrata or sati ideal of the self-sacrificing woman’ (Mies 1980, p. 121). Despite the apparent radicalism of the Gandhian nationalist movement, Vina Mazumdar added, under its surface lay an essential conservatism aimed at maintaining women’s roles within the family and society unaltered, or even further emphasising them (Mazumdar 1976, p. 76).

Younger scholars found such readings, concentrated exclusively on the coercive role of patriarchy, culpable for shadowing women’s conscious agency. As claimed by Charu Gupta, accounts like Partha Chatterji’s, according to whom the women’s question was ‘resolved’ by the nationalists and co-opted to the larger project of national liberation, do not necessarily hold true for every context (Chatterji 1990, 1994). Not only was this not the case in several regions outside Bengal, but the various limitations inscribed in the reform and nationalist movement did not prevent many women from ‘carv[ing] out spaces for themselves and pav[ing] ways for social and political activism, both in public and private domains, implicitly and explicitly … . Reforms and nationalism did signal new opportunities for women, however limited they proved to be’ (Gupta 2010, p. 11; see also Gupta 2005).

Gupta highlighted several ways in which initiatives originally planned to control women were appropriated by women themselves, and transformed into instruments of assertion. In the minds of reformers and early nationalists, for instance, female education was meant to instruct a multitude of wives and mothers who would be up to the expectations of their ‘modern’ husbands, as well as to those of a nation in need of new generations of nationalist citizens. However, once educated, women became difficult to control – what they read, and how they made use of their education went beyond their mentors’ expectations, making them conscious agents (see Nijhawan 2012). Similarly, debates on issue like satī, pardā, infant marriages, and widow remarriage, though being more concerned with granting India a place among the ‘modern’ nations than with women’s actual well-being and rights, had unpredicted outcomes, and women gradually became both the subjects and the objects of social reform (on the Sarda Act and women’s involvement in debates around it, see Sinha 2006, pp. 152–196; see also Sinha 2000).

Padma Anagol argued that the historical quest for an understanding of patriarchal mechanisms and their effects on women’s lives is an indispensable as much as an essentially incomplete project, for it ‘obscures the ways in which women resist patriarchy, construct their identities, assert their rights and contest the hierarchical arrangement of societal relationships between the sexes’ (Anagol 2005, p. 7). According to her, the theme of the ‘creation and recreation of patriarchy’ crossing much feminist historiography has prevented the recovery of women’s agency, and of its twin aspects of assertion and resistance (14). The task of recovering women’s voice and consciousness can be achieved – Anagol argued in her study on Maharashtra – by turning away from the most investigated regions, like Bengal (from where the image of the passive Indian woman has come), in search of different women’s experiences and historical paradigms, as well as by concentrating on sources in the local languages.

Even more substantial for the recovery of women’s agency is, according to Anagol, the adoption of a new chronology by historians dealing with the gender and women’s history of modern India. The dominant ‘imperialism-nationalism’ frame of thinking has led scholars to privilege the first four decades of the twentieth century; in such readings, women’s participation has often been described as a sudden phenomenon, whose credit is to be given primarily to Gandhi. This tendency has led to the obfuscation of continuities between ‘the fiery women nationalists’ of the early twentieth century, and an earlier period of women’s assertion, whose legacy women of the next generation must have inherited, or benefited from (Anagol 2008a, p. 606).

The real nature of female involvement in nationalist politics could be better retrieved – as Anagol suggested – if the nineteenth century were treated in its own right as the apex of the colonial period, a time during which India faced important changes at the social, economic, juridical, and educational levels. It is back to the social and religious movements of the nineteenth century, according to this author, that the origins of Indian women’s activism can be traced. Several scholars analysed this period of reformist zeal through the prism of post-structuralism, showing that behind the efforts for the amelioration of women’s conditions lay the needs and contradictions of the newly formed Hindu middle class. Caught between their desire for modernisation (a necessary step towards self-government) and their wish to project Indian culture as an example of morality (in opposition to Western materialism), nineteenth-century reformers were not as concerned about women’s status as they were about nationalism and political power (on satī see Mani 1999; on conjugality see Sarkar 2008, 2010).

Anagol instead suggested that, far from being silent ‘grounds’ on which male actors constructed discourses and enacted laws, women took significant and often radical stands during the social-reform era (Anagol 2008b). Such stands were not about nascent nationalism or imperialism, but rather marked the beginning of women’s politicisation and mobilisation for their own cause (Anagol 2008a, p. 621).


The theme of women’s participation in the Indian nationalist movement, though having been debated extensively over the last few decades, still draws historians’ attention and calls for continuing revision and rethinking. Despite the magnificent efforts of recent gender historiography, the complex relationship between (the diverse segments of) Indian women and the several wings of the anti-imperialist movement requires further investigation. Women’s contribution to the nationalist cause cannot be denied; their efforts in both Gandhian and revolutionary agitations, and in less visible roles as supporters of the males of their families, were essential in securing India’s independence. Moreover, women as a category provided the symbolic imagery backing the anti-imperialist organisations, coming to embody various aspects of nationalist theoretical thinking: from an essentialised and pure ‘Indianess’ in the minds of early nationalists, to non-violence and passive resistance in Gandhian philosophy, to extreme sacrifice in revolutionary rhetoric.

However, many facets – which call into question an analysis of female agency, and require that women be studied as conscious subjects in their own right – still remain vague. Among these aspects are the roots of women’s involvement in political life; the relationship of feminist organisations with the leadership of Congress-led movements, and the gains and losses that joining the mainstream movement entailed for such women; the strategic (rather than merely sentimental or patriotic) motivations behind such participation; and the changes that it brought about (or did not) in women’s everyday lives, as well as in their self-perception.


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© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Social StudiesUniversity of ErfurtErfurtGermany