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Kasturba Gandhi –A Life Extraordinary, in Simplicity

Friday - March 5, 2021 2:15 pm , Category : WTN SPECIAL

By - Rajdeep Pathak
“I  learnt  the  lesson  of  non-violence  from  my  wife,  when  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 mystupidity involved, on the other, ultimately made  me ashamed 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...”

This  was  Mahatma  Gandhi, pouring his heart  ou tin  his autobiography, “My Experiments With Truth”,  while writing about his wife Kastur(Ba) Gandhi. Gandhi further records in his autobiography that he learnt his ‘first lesson in Satyagraha’ from Ba’s (as Kastur was popularly called) capacity for silent but firm resistance to any attempt  by  him  to  impose  his  will  on  her.  As  their  relationship  grew,  Mahatma  Gandhi  referred  Kasturba  as  a “Junior Partner” in the freedom struggle.

Biographer of Mahatma Gandhi, Louis Fischer in his book, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi records: “The newly-weds, Gandhi confesses, were ‘married children’ and behaved accordingly. He was jealous and ‘therefore she could not go anywhere without my permission’, for, ‘I took no time in assuming the authority of a husband.’ So when  the  thirteen-year-old  wife  wanted  to  go  out  to  play  she  had  to  ask  the  thirteen-year-old  Mohandas;  he would often say no. ‘The restraint was virtually a sort of imprisonment. And Kasturbai was not the girl to brook any such thing. She made it a point to go out wheneverand wherever she liked.’ ”
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, her husband had all the conviction of stating this fact about Kasturba. Kasturba participated  in  the  Satyagraha  in  South  Africa  and  suffered  jail  terms.  Gandhi  would  realise  this  indomitable spirit  of  women  and  was  quick  to  record  it  too  when  he  talked and  felt about  women’s participation  in  the freedom  struggle, as“ Life preserving and humanising force which would prevent the movement from getting dissipated by senseless and self-destructive violence”.

Mahatma Gandhi’s strong conviction that women can steer the wheel of change could be understood from the very fact that he developed an immense faith in the inner strength of women. He held that women by nature are endowed with the qualities of love, non-violence, forgiveness and a remarkable capacity for sacrifice. He found women to be  worthier interpreters of non-violence than men. A man, as Gandhiji puts, understands Dharma of non-violence through its intellect, whereas, “Women, the very embodiment of  renunciation  and  compassion, have imbedded it even before her birth”.

Dr. Savita Singh, former Director of Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti writes in her article “Ba and Bapu –I-II” published in ‘The  Statesman’ newspaper:“Gandhi has acknowledged the debt  of  his  mother,  wife  and  the black  women  in  South  Africa  and  the  Suffragette  struggle  of  British  women  in  1906-07as  influences  on  the evolution  of Satygrahafor  which  he  is  revered  across  the  world. The  attitude  of  respect  and  the  world understanding of women’s problems that he exhibited later in life was derived from his mother and wife. This helped him in his perception of women as equal partners at home and in society and not merely as mothers and wives, but as nation-builders too.”

She continues: “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.

 In the book “The Untold Story of Kasturba, Wife of Mahatma Gandhi”, Arun and Sunanda Gandhi with Carol Lynn Yellin while referringto the ‘Satyagraha  Campaign’led by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi at  Transvaalin South Africa,write: “Isolated though she was at Phoenix Settlement, Kasturba was aware of the importance of Mohandas’ work and convinced of the justness of his cause”.
When, on January 10, 1908, Mohandas K.Gandhi along with 6 of his fellow Satyagrahis, all prominent in the boycott  campaign  voluntarily  appeared  in  the  court  for  sentencing  and who were sentenced for two months’ imprisonment, Kasturba quietly made her announcement. Because, she had heard that prisoners in South African jails were locked in dark cells; that they had to wear coarse, unwashed clothing, that the only food ever served to them, other than an occasional boiled potato or perhaps a tiny portion of unseasoned rice, was “mealy-pap”, a tasteless sort of cornmeal porridge, she decided that until her husband was released, she  would eat nothing but unsalted,   unsweetened,   unflavoured   cornmeal   mush,   the   very   same   food   he   (Gandhi)   was   served   in Johannesburg  jail.  That  was  her  own  personal Satyagrahapledge”,  the  author  of “The  Untold  Story  of Kasturba...” records.

The writers continue: “The Phoenix Settlement, in a very real sense, was her household –her joint family. She was the  matriarch, the one upon whom all depended, the one  who held things together. Thus it was her task in Mohandas’ absence to make sure no one became discouraged. She made all of them understand –not just  her own sons, but the other settlers as well –that the surest way to keep faith with Mohandas’ ideals was to keep up with the work he had outlined for them to do”. Bahad her own way of handling things. Though her attitude was never dictatorial, she was a demanding taskmaster.“

She won the respect, cooperation, and affection of her colleagues –just as she would in future ashrams –not because of her position as Mohandas’ wife, nor because of their shared dedication to his cause, but because of her unassuming natural dignity, her unshakable belief in herself”, the authors point.

Writing about Ba’s sacrifice and steadfastness, they further mention that “Kasturba Gandhi  spent  virtually  her entire life living with the daily all-encompassing reality of Mahatma Gandhi’s search for Truth. If his(Gandhi’s)experiments  required  heroic  deeds  of  renunciation, self-denial,  and  perseverance to  attain  the  spiritual deal  of non-attachment;  then  her  (Kasturba’s)  experiences  called  for  equally  valiant  acts  of  relinquishment,  self-sacrifice and magnanimity to sustain the human hope of love. The true wonder is that she was able to meet this test  on  her  own  terms –with patient  conciliation,  or,  when  she  felt  the  occasion  so  demanded,  with  lively, defiant, sometimes even playful confrontation.

The success of the ‘Satyagraha Movement’ whether in South Africa or on the Indian soilwith the participation of women satyagrahis, was gaining grounds. In South Africa, ajudgement by the Supreme Court on March 14, 1913  that  any  marriage  not  solemnized  according  to  Christian  rites  would  no  longer  be  legally  recognised, created stir amongst communities –Hindu, Muslimsand Parsi Indians –for with a stroke of the pen, the existing marriages  were  being  invalidated. Kasturba  Gandhi expressed  her  concern with  her  husband,  who  said: “You women must raise your voices, you women must protest this insult”, adding, “You must go to jail, justas  the men do”.

Ba soon resolved  to  court  arrest. For Satyagraha,  the  critical  moment  had  come. There  were  protests all  over South  Africa  as  the  Union Government’s failure  to  repeal  the  three-pound  tax  in  Natal,  along  with  the invalidation of non-Christian marriages, had created a new reservoir of potential protesters.

It was  on  September  23,  1913 Kasturba  Gandhi led  a fifteen-member Gujarati-speaking  Indians  (twelve  men and  four  women) from  Phoenix  to  Transvaal. They  were  treated  as “invaders ”for  non-cooperation and were taken  into Maritzburg  jail, after  their  trail and sentenced to three months’ hard labour. There Kasturba  helped her younger companions find the will and the courage to survive the harsh prison routine. She encouraged them to finish the heavy  laundry  work and endless  sewing tasks  assigned daily.This  was despite Kasturbai’s frugal health. Her calm, enduring optimism was being tested and she triumphed on each occasion.

Hailing the Women’s Resolution to oppose the South African Government in this act of theirs, Gandhi 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 judgement”.

Back  on  the  Indian  soil  of  Champaran  in  present-day  Bihar,  where  Gandhi  had  experimented  his  first Satyagraha against the atrocities meted out by the British towards indigo farmers, Kasturbaia accompanied him and  took  on  the  task  of  educating  the  village  women  in health  and  hygiene  and  sanitation.  She  worked  on  a district-wide massive sanitation   campaign. For   years,   the   men,   women   and   children,   ignorant   of   the consequences of spitting, open defecation, urinating, were posed with various health hazards. Moving about the district  with  a  team  of  helpers,  spending  enough  time  in  each  village  to  reach  and  teach  the  people, Kasturbai found something she knew how to do –easily, naturally and well. From forming groups of women and teaching them vocational skills in making brooms, and so on,to training the men to clean the wells, change was slow, but evident.

When Ba left Champaran in the spring of 1918, she was content that her work with the women had brought real changes.  Village  streets  were  clean,  the  smells  of  garbage  and  filth  were  gone,  people  were  cleaner  in  their habits and there was hope blooming.

By  now,  Kasturbai  in  seeing  her  husband  Mohandas  Karamchand  Gandhi’s  commitment  to  the  service  of humanity prepared herself  for the  trials and tribulations of the  life  of a  wife, a  mother and also a  co-partner in the  freedom  struggle. While  on  the  one  hand family  hardships  and deaths had  taken  a  toll  on  Ba’s health, she knew  that Mahatma Gandhi had  more  vigorously  plunged  himself  into  the  call  of  freedom. He  was  pushing himself  like  never  before,  travelling  constantly,  addressing  meetings, courting  arrests, editing,  writing  his  new journals Young India and Navjivan. The country was keen to see their new messiah.

During this time, by 1920 Kasturba Gandhi,along with Gandhiji’s trusted lieutenant, Maganlal Gandhi,started overseeing  all  day-to-day  operations  at  Sabarmati. Gandhi’s meteoric rise to pre-eminence  was  also  known  to her  and Bahad  by  this  time  progressed  in  her  thoughts,  attitude and  she  found her  commitment  to  Mahatma Gandhi’s cause, increasing with each passing day.

Not just  as “deity of the Ashrams” set up by Gandhiji, as she was referred to, but Kasturba’s indomitable spirit was seen in 1930 when she initiated women’s participation by leading 37 women volunteers from the Ashram at Sabarmati to offer ‘Satyagraha’ and to demand abolition of the ‘Salt Tax’. The Dandi March of March 1930 was inextricably linked with the active participation of women. Under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, burning of foreign clothes,  picketing of liquor shops and other such activities  were  predominantly undertaken by  women. Mahatma Gandhi had said: “I would love to find that my future army contained a vast preponderance of women over men”. 1932  saw  Kasturba  Gandhi  face  rigorous  imprisonment  for  six  months.  She  was  again  imprisoned without trial in her native Rajkot in 1939.

It was in 1942 in the wake of the Quit India Movement, that she was arrested for the last time. Before going to prison, Kasturba Gandhi called upon the women in particular to whom she said:“The women of India have to prove  their  mettle.  They  should  all  join  in  this  struggle  irrespective  of  caste  or  creed.  Truth  and  non-violence must be our watchwords”.

It  was  because  of Kasturba Gandhi’s courage  and steadfastness  which  drew  out  thousands  of  ordinary  women from  their traditional homes.  This  mass participation of the  women in the Satyagraha movement by Mahatma Gandhi subsequently  became  a  powerful  instrument  of  political  action.  It  opened  the  flood  gates  of  women participation and more than anything else, it inspired Mahatma Gandhi to include upliftment of women, as one of the most important constituent of the ‘Constructive Programme’.

“I have included service of women”, Gandhi writes, “In the Constructive Programme, for though Satyagrahahas  automatically  brought  India’s  women  out  from  their  darkness,  as  nothing  else  could  have  in  such  an incredibly short space of time. My countrymen have not felt the call to see that women become equal partners in the  fight  for Swaraj(freedom).  They  have  not  realised  that  women  must  be  the  true  helpmate  of  man  in the mission of service. Women have been suppressed under custom and law for which man was responsible and in the  shaping  of  which  she  had  no  hand.  In  a  plan  of  life  based  on  non-violence,  woman  has  as  much  right  to shape her own destiny as man has to shapehis”.
Despite  her  initial  hesitation  to  join  the  community  service,  Kasturba  had  formed  a  strong  bond  with  people around  her  through  her  steadfastness  and  determined  spirit.  She  used  her  inner  strength  and  nurtured  it  as  her strength and weapon. A silent worker, she gradually wove her way to everyone’s heart.

Suffering for Ba had now become so natural, that it extended beyond her family. She was finally, and for the last time, sent  to  imprisonment  at  the  Aga  Khan  Palace  at  Pune.  It  was  there  on Tuesday, February  22,  1944,  the ailing Kasturba  finally passed into eternity. Married at  thirteen, Mohandas, who  was now a  spiritual  mentor to his wife ,was together imprisoned with her in their 61styear of married life.

Here  during  their  stay  together,  the  long-abandoned  educational  project  was  taken  up–Ba took  to  learning English,  could now read  simple  Gujarati  and  the  study  of  the  Bhagawat  Gita.  Ba  was  aware  of  the  inevitable hour.  Taking  a  drop  of  the  holy  water  from  the  Ganges  that  Devadas  Gandhiher  son had  brought,  she  said, “There must be no weeping and mourning. My death should be an occasion for rejoicing”.

Kasturba  had  seen  Mohandas  in  every  shade.  A  boy  hell-bent  on  establishing  superiority  on  account  of  being older; a child scared of school; a serious but uninspired student; a son hurt by the absence of his father; a father deranged by the untimely death of his son; an infatuated husband; an unemployed English speaking young man grappling with a traditional family's needs who had suddenly grown into an intelligent and capable man after the experience of South  Africa.

In this journey  with  her husband, Kastuba knew that her Mohandas  had found  his purpose in life and she joined this journey in her own simple, yet dignified way. In  this  last  journey  together under  house  arrest, the  guru(teacher)  and  loving  husband  has  a  unique  fusion, where the teacher submerges himself as a caring husband.

The next morning of February 23, 1944, Gandhi was by her side, having the last glimpses of Ba when the pyre was set for the final journey.

An  extraordinary  life  woven  into  such  simplicity,  Kasturba  Gandhi  was  an  epitome  of  women  empowerment. But itwas Mahatma Gandhi who in her Kasturbai, recognised the natural fervour for service for the good of all.

As Dr. Savita Singh, in her book Empowerment of Women: Miles to Go puts it: “A silent worker, she gradually wove  her  way  to  every  ones  heart  whosoever had  the  good  fortune  of  coming  into  her  contact. Amidst  tender knowledge of Kasturba’s shyness and reserve, he (Gandhi) led her into the liberation movement not only from the political bondage but the liberation of the soul of India, and the entire humanity”.

Arun Gandhi,  the  fifth  grandson of Mahatma  Gandhi  from  Manilal Gandhi –who  was  witness to the  difficult, humiliating and often dangerous times under South Africa’s apartheid –says while quoting an unknown Eastern philosopher  that  “Nothing  can  ever  grow  under  a  Banyan  tree”and refers  to  his  grandfather  Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s stature as more “Enormous than a Banyan tree”,so much so that “His stature dwarfed everyone  else.  Grandmother,  Kastur  and  my  father,  Manilal,  were  two  who  submerged  their  identities  and blended themselves into his image and philosophy”.

He  continues:  “Neither  Kastur,  nor  my  father  ever  thought   about   their   personal   achievements   or accomplishments and preferred to merge their lives into that of grandfather. The vision, the quest, the world was more important to them than their personal image”, adding, “Without her unstinted cooperation Grandfather could not have achieved the spiritual heights that he did. She made the sacrifice not simply because grandfather wanted her to, but because she was convinced it was the right way”.

Grand daughter of Kasturba Gandhi, Smt. Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee remembers her grandmother as an efficient manager of the Ashrams of which she was the ‘presiding deity’. She says, “What comes to my mind even after so  many  years since  she  left  us  was  her  obsession  with  cleanliness,  her  accommodating  nature,  concern  for others. In fact two categories of people were always shown special care in the Ashram –one was the guests, and the other anyone who was unwell. She was a woman of extreme humility, untouched by the status of Bapu. She was equally at  home  with simple  rural  women and the  greatest contemporary leaders of her time. No one  ever went away from the Ashram without seeking Ba’s blessings”.

In  his  tribute  to  Kasturba  Gandhi, Lord  Richard  Attenborough, producer/director of the movie, “GANDHI” wrote:“Ba,  as  she  was  known,  was  an  extraordinary  woman;  forgiving,  courageous  and  incredibly  loyal.  As Gandhi’s most devoted disciple, she was also his severest and most influential critic...”

In conclusion, it is worth recalling the editorial on page one of The Times of India on the following morning of February 22, 1944 as a tribute to Kasturba Gandhi. The newspaper wrote:
Mrs. Gandhi ranks among the great women of India. The keynote of her life was a high steadfast devotion to her husband...Unassuming,  gentle,  shy  of  public  speaking,  the  role  of  a  leader  hardly  suited  her.  But  it  was Kasturba’s destiny that she should marry one who was to become the most prominent man in Indian public life. For 60 years she was his constant companion, following him through all the vicissitudes of a Mahatma’s wife, courting imprisonment with him in the role of a political agitator, picketer, and Satyagrahi... Seldom have the wives of great men earned so much gratitude. She won for herself, perhaps without realising it, a unique place in  the  memory  of  theIndian  people.  A  brave  woman  with  a  large  and  kind  heart,  she  was  known  to  India’s worshipping millions simply as “Ba” –mother.

As  we  observed the  77th Nirvan  Diwas  of  Kasturba  Gandhi,  it  is  time  we  know  how  Kasturba  Gandhi greatly contributed to the shaping of the personality of the Mahatma from a shy, not too intelligent boy into one of the shrewdest political leaders and uncompromising fighters of human rights twentieth century has seen and whose relevance  is  increasingly  felt  in  many  areas  of  modern  life.   It  is also pertinent  for  young  readers  to  know  the simple, yet enigmatic life of Kasturba Gandhi. As Dr Savita Singh puts it, “She (Kasturba) was the staff without whose  support  the  metamorphosis  of  Mohandas  Karamchand  Gandhi  into  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”.

1.Gandhi Mahatma, My Experiments with Truth; Publishers: Navjivan Trust, Ahmedabad.
2.Fischer  Louis; The  Life  of  Mahatma  Gandhi;Harper  Collins Publishers; Printed  at  Thomson  Press (India) Ltd; 2008.
3.Yellin  Lynn  Carol  with  Gandhi  Sunanda  &  Arun; The  Untold  Story  of  Kasturba –Wife  of  Mahatma Gandhi;   Published   in   arrangement   with   Ozark   Mountain   Publishing,   Huntsville;   First   Jaico Impression Jaico Publishing House, 2000.
4.Singh Savita; Ba and Bapu -1-II; The Statesman, New Delhi, Wednesday, 19, February 2020.5.Singh Savita; Empowerment of Women: Miles ToGo; Published by International Centre of Gandhian Studies & Research, Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, New Delhi,2001.6.Singh Savita; Kasturba and Women Empowerment; Published by  Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, as part of the 125th Birth Anniversary Tributes to Kasturba; 1994