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Kasturba was radical and independent


IT IS TRUE that Kasturba is only seen alongside Gandhi, but she is seen a few steps behind Gandhi in the imagination, serving him and assisting him. There is no doubt about that. She did serve him. She did assist him. But then, she was far more radical and independent than people acknowledge or are even aware.

People are aware of the 1919 satyagraha against the Rowlatt Act. It was a very consequential event. It led to the Jallianwala Bagh incident. It all began when Gandhi said there would be a nationwide strike, a hartal, all across India in one day. It was the first national hartal, as far as I can observe historically. There had been amazing movements before. But this was the first nationwide demonstration in March-April of 1919.

Gandhi would never have done this—or could never have done this—but for Kasturba’s role in getting him out of a very deep depression. He was physically and emotionally completely drained at the end of 1918. He was very unwell. The doctor said to him that he should take milk to have any chance of recovery. Gandhi was in a quandary. He had taken a vow not to drink milk. At this point, Kasturba said to him, ‘Look here, when you took that vow not to drink milk, you had just returned from Calcutta, where you had seen the horrible way in which cows were being treated. You had the cow in mind when you talked about milk. But you were not thinking of goat’s milk. You can take goat’s milk.’

Gandhi felt that this was a very clever suggestion. He could take goat’s milk and adhere to the letter and spirit of the vow. He accepted Kasturba’s logic, which was ingenious. It was Kasturba’s intervention that preserved Gandhi’s moral and physical fitness. From that day, he survived on goat’s milk. This was a very important role played by Kasturba in the story of India’s freedom movement. Very few people are aware of it. She was like a lawyer. He might have been a barrister-at-law, but she was a very natural lawyer.

This also emerges from Gandhi’s conversations with her. In 1901 they were leaving South Africa—for good, they thought. (Maybe he thought his work in South Africa was over, but we know it wasn’t. Within a year there would be cables summoning them back.) He had not yet discovered satyagraha and had become quite a radical: he was determined that he was going to live for the community, for the Indian people at large, not just for himself and his family. There were farewell parties and they were given jewels and presents by the grateful Indian community in South Africa.

Gandhi decided that he would return all these and form a public trust. And there was a very interesting conversation between him and Kasturba. You know this not from Kasturba, but from what he himself has written. He wrote and published it well before Kasturba died, and if there was any error in it she would have protested and objected. Their children, too, would have objected because they were very partial to her. My father and her other sons were deeply devoted to her. So if there was any injustice in writing about their mother, they would have immediately protested.

We can take that account of that conversation when Kasturba says to Gandhi, ‘You want to give these things away—have you consulted me about it? What about my future daughters-in-law? The future, we don’t know. And why should I part with gifts that have been lovingly given.’

She cried. Gandhi said, ‘No, no, no, the boys will not marry young.’ And if they did marry, their wives would be free from the lure of ornaments. If ornaments were needed, Kastur could ask him.

At this point, Kasturba said, ‘Ask you? I know you by this time. You deprive me of my ornaments. Fancy you offering to get ornaments for my daughters-in-law! You were trying to make sadhus of my boys. No ornaments will be returned.’

And she went on to say, ‘What right do you have to my necklace?’ Gandhi in a very heartless manner said, ‘Was the necklace given for your service? Or for my service?’ Then Kasturba said, ‘All right. But service rendered by you is as good as service rendered by me. I have toiled for you day and night. Is that no service? You force all and sundry on me. I slave for them.’ She was arguing like a lawyer. Ultimately, Kasturba acquiesced because Gandhi had, very cleverly, already persuaded the sons to agree with him.

Later, they returned to South Africa. And there was a very big march in South Africa. It was really quite a huge thing. People have forgotten it. The Indian community, middle-class people, traders, and indentured workers on the farms, and sugar farms and in the mines took part in this amazing march. Women took part in it because Kasturba insisted that she would take part. Again, there was a tough conversation.

Gandhi said, ‘You say you want to take part. But then if they send you to jail, what will you do? And if you don’t go to jail and say forgive me, I won’t. What will happen to the satyagraha?’

Again, he asks a tough cruel question. ‘If this happens, and you do this, what will happen after that to our relationship? How could I then harbour you and how can I look the world in the face?’

But Kasturba says, ‘You can have nothing to do with me if I am unable to stand jail and secure release by an apology. If you can endure hardships, and if my boys can endure hardships, I will also endure hardship. I am bound to join the struggle.’ It was that resolve which made a huge difference to the movement.

People don’t know today the impact of this news when it reached India. This was a time, in 1913, when there was no idea of educated women, so called respectable women, going to jail for a political issue. It was an incredible sensation in India at that time.

This was Kasturba and her determination. She had the lawyer-like skill, and the toughness of leadership. She had intellectual jousts with her husband. She won and she lost. But even when she lost she achieved a change in what resulted in, what should be done. Thousands and thousands of women took part in satyagraha and went to prison. So many lakhs of people today remember their grandmothers who took part.

In a way Kasturba was a pioneer here. She initiated women’s participation in 1913 in South Africa—there is historical evidence of it. She did it in the teeth of discouragement and questioning by her husband. The discouragement and questioning was also a way of testing her. To be fair to him, he wanted it, but he wanted to be sure that the woman meant business. She did mean business.

—As told to Mandira Nayar

Rajmohan Gandhi is Kasturba’s grandson