India’s history with British rule is a troubling, complex one. India was subject to British colonial rule for centuries. Though the ‘British Raj’ was established in 1858 till India’s Independence in 1947, colonization began in the late 1700s, with the East India Company overthrowing the Nawab of Bengal and establishing a puppet ruler in 1757. 

Indian Independence has always been a point of fascination. Not just for the fact that India was one of the few countries that granted universal adult franchise upon Independence, but the open acknowledgment of those who contributed to India’s freedom from British colonial rule including men and women alike. There are many cases of women who’ve fought the good fight – not just as cavalry, but as leaders, too. The history of the Indian Independence movement is long and arduous, and would not have worked without women.

Here are some women who proved instrumental in catalyzing events before and after the momentous Independence: 

1. Bhima Bai Holkar

A drawing of Bhima Bai Holkar, by Nanda Kumar.
[Image Description: A drawing of Bhima Bai Holkar, by Nanda Kumar.] Via Flickr by Nanda Kumar.
The first female Indian freedom fighter, Bhima Bai Holkar, was well-versed in guerrilla warfare. She lost her husband, and her father, at a young age. Finding out that the British were planning to annex the state of Indore, she knew that she has to save her motherland before she lost that, too. In 1817, she led the Holkar army into battle against the army of the East India Company in Mahidpur, when she was just 22. Though it did look like they would win the war, they were betrayed by Gafur Khan from the Holkar camp. After this, the Holkars were defeated. This resulted in the territory being ceded to the British, and she ultimately breathed her last in November 1858.

2. Lakshmi Bai

A painting of Rani Lakshmi Bai.
[Image Description: A painting of Rani Lakshmi Bai.] Via Wikimedia Commons by Vinayak Damodar Sawarkar.
A woman worth mentioning, who is still remembered for her bravery and patriotism, is Lakshmi Bai, the ‘Queen of Jhansi’. From becoming a regent in 1853 (when she was in her 20s) to fighting for the Indian Rebellion in 1857, she ultimately led thousands of her troops against the British during India’s First War of Independence. The British governor-general of India refused to recognize her regency and tried to annex Jhansi. She refused and joined the uprising against the British. She took charge of the rebels in Bundelkhand. By March 1858, the East India Company launched an attack against Jhansi, and Lakshmi Bai refused to surrender even after her troops were overwhelmed. She managed to escape with a small group of rebels. She then launched another attack against the city-fortress of Gwalior and was unfortunately killed in combat. 

3. Kasturba Gandhi

A wax statue of Kasturba Gandhi.
[Image Description: A wax statue of Kasturba Gandhi.] Via Wikimedia Commons.
During Mahatma Gandhi’s time, his wife, Kasturba Gandhi, was by his side throughout demonstrations and protests. Their marriage was a troubled one – Gandhi was a possessive man and did not allow her to go anywhere without his permission, leading to arguments between them. However, this didn’t stop her from joining protests against the ill-treatment of Indian immigrants in South Africa in 1913. She was even arrested for it. Despite this, she continued to work as an activist. The two returned to India from South Africa in 1914, and in 1917, she worked to help women in Bihar while her husband worked with indigo farmers. She was a front-runner during the ‘Quit India’ and civil disobedience movements, and would often step in to lead protestors when her husband was detained. 

4. Sarojini Naidu

A photo of Sarojini Naidu.
[Image Description: A photo of Sarojini Naidu.] Via Wikimedia Commons.
Another prominent figure in India’s struggle for freedom is Sarojini Naidu. She was a prominent activist and poet – in fact, her work earned her the nickname ‘Nightingale of India’. Born in 1879, she was an ardent follower of Mahatma Gandhi and his ideas of freedom. She became a political activist and supported his movement, eventually becoming the president of the Indian National Congress in 1925. Following India’s Independence in 1947, she was appointed as the governor of the United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh), making her India’s first female governor. Her poetry ranged from children’s poems to more complicated works that talked about patriotism, courage, tragedy, and romance.

5. Sucheta Kripalani

A photo of Sucheta Kripalani.
[Image Description: A photo of Sucheta Kripalani.] Via Google Arts and Culture.
India’s first woman Chief Minister (she served as the Chief Minister for Uttar Pradesh from 1963 to 1967), Sucheta Kripalani was a fierce freedom fighter who worked alongside Gandhi and led several movements leading up to Independence and the Partition, and she was one of the 15 women elected to the Constituent Assembly and was tasked with creating documents that would help shape India into a strong republic. Her ideas and motivations were strongly shaped by the horrors they witnessed during the British Raj as a child. In her book, she mentions the trauma she felt after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre – where over 1000 Indians were killed, and 1,200 injured by British troops, who aimed fire on unarmed protesters.

Women’s contribution to Indian independence is an odd history to grapple with, especially considering India’s problems with sexism and casteism. Yet, it is uplifting to see how women have contributed to India’s freedom, and have politically shaped the country. It helps ground me to know that women were pivotal in the revolutionary struggle, and were duly recognized for it, too. Of course, oftentimes credit is attributed to Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, among other men, for securing India’s freedom from British colonial rule. However, the fight for Independence is more nuanced, more complex, and involved a lot of players – many of whom were women, either working directly with Gandhi, or launching movements before his time, and paving the way for Independence. 

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  • Natalia Ahmed

    Natalia Nazeem Ahmed is a budding writer and editor with a BA from Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts in Pune, India, with a major in English Literature and a double minor in Philosophy and Film Studies. An avid reader, her goal is to build a career out of her fiction and non-fiction writing. In her spare time, she loves to knit for her loved ones.