Patriots > Freedom Struggle under Mahatma Gandhi > Sarojini Naidu
Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949)
Eldest daughter of a remarkable scientist-philosopher father, Aghornath Chattopadhyaya, and the gentle poetess-mother, Barada Sundari Devi, Sarojini, who called herself a ‘poetess-singer’, was born in Hyderabad, on 13 February, 1879. A pioneer in Education, her father was also a linguist, a crusader and an original thinker. He took his degree of Doctor of Science, Edinburgh, in 1877, and established the Nizam’s Collage in Hyderabad in 1878, pioneering English and women’s education.

Brahmin by birth, the Chattopadhyaya house of parents and eight children became a court attracting intellectuals, poets, philosophers, alchemists and revolutionaries. The example of a devoted wife presiding with grace and skill over a huge family and kitchen which “turned no one hungry away,” and a father of immortal inspiration and learning, prompted Sarojini to exclaim: “I was brought up in a home of Indians, not Hindus or Brahmins, because my beloved father said, ‘Be not limited even to Indians, but let it be your pride that you are a citizen of the world-ready to lay down your life for the welfare of all India’”.

Learning more at home than in school, Sarojini matured very early, wrote poems instead of learning Algebra, and passed her Matriculation at the age of 12, coming out first in the Madras Presidency. For three years in Hyderabad there were no further studies. Then her academic life in England in 1895 led to a serious breakdown in health which was to affect her all her life. The rigours of academic life first at the King’s College, London, then Girton College, Cambridge, partly accounted for the breakdown, but also at the age of 15 she had met Dr. Govindarajulu Naidu and fell deeply in love.

Though she did not complete her academic career, the English experience brought her first great literary friendships with Edmund Gosse, who turned her poetry from imitative English lyrics to the melodious Indian poems she published in 1905, 1912 and 1917, and Arthur Symons, a famous literary critic and a faithful friend, who gave her counsel and guidance in the mastery of English phrase and rhythm that turned her into a major poet. But after 1917 politics claimed her and she wrote no more poetry.

On return to India, she married Dr. Naidu, a non-Brahmin, by the Brahmo Marriage Act (1872) in Madras in 1898. Four children were born to them: Jayasurya in 1899, Padmaja (later Governor of West Bengal) in 1900, Randhira in 1902 and Lilamani (who was in the Foreign Service) in 1903. Their house in Hyderabad was the renowned Golden Threshold.

During the years from 1903 to 1917 Sarojini Naidu was to meet all the key personalities of her life: Gokhale, Tagore, Jinnah, Annie Besant, C. P. Ramaswami Aiyer, Gandhi and Nehru. From 1906 began the formative years of her life and eventually she reached a cross-road where her woman-nature and mother-nature were faced with both a spiritual and a revolutionary choice. In 1919 she emerged as a political leader in her own right.

The first event was the dramatic meeting with Gokhale in 1906 after the Indian National Gongress meeting in Calcutta. His response to her fiery speech brought into her life the impact of a visionary who saw in her oratory and brilliance the leader of the future. At his call, she began her career of service to the Motherland, though poetry, her family and children still occupied a dominant place. In 1907 she took a prominent part in a Calcutta meeting against the partition of Bengal.

In 1908 she laid the foundation of her great contribution to the women’s movement at a conference on Widow-Marriage in Madras. In Hyderabad she was awarded the Kaiser-I-Hind Gold Medal for her outstanding work during the plague epidemic and accepted Gokhale’s leadership at the All India Depressed Classes Conference in Calcutta. For reasons of ill-health Sarojini Naidu went to England. This was the beginning of her work abroad that was to bring her great acclaim as a poet, an unusual diplomat and a statesman.

Gokhale was a sick man, but continued his work in South Africa. Her meeting with Mohammed Ali Jinnah fired her imagination with his work for the youth and the London Indian Students’ Association founded by him. She was to become his ardent admirer and champion as Jinnah was at that time young, ardent and a patriotic Indian.

Gokhale was dying on his return from South Africa. At his instance Sarojini, herself sick, met Gandhiji for the first time. He was working for the Ambulance Crops and Satyagraha movement in South Africa. Gokhale’s death in 1915 at the same time as her father’s and her moving tribute to him emphasised her vision of Hindu-Muslim unity, the strongest ideal of her life, for which she worked ceaselessly and died in grief that it was never realised.

Sarojini returned to India. On 22 March 1913 she addressed a huge gathering of Muslims at the historic session of the New Muslim League at Luknow, the keynote of which was unity. She proposed the Resolution on Self-Government and paid high tributes Jinnah. At a meeting of the Muslim League in December 1916, she gave a fiery speech on the Arms Act.

From 1915 to 1918, Sarojini Naidu, Annie Besant and G. P. Ramaswami Aiyer lectured all over India on welfare of youth, dignity of labour, women’s emancipation and nationalism. The Home Rule League was started by Tilak. Sarojini met Jawaharlal Nehru for the first time at the Congress session in Lucknow in 1916, when she gave a stirring speech supporting the Resolution on Self-Government for India. She then took up the cause of the indigo workers in Champaran. Annie Besant was elected the first womanPresident of the Congress.

Sarojiniwas elected President in 1925.

From 1917 to 1919, Sarojini was involved in the most dynamic phase of public life of her career, campaigned for the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms, the Khilafat issue, the Rowlatt of “Black Bills”, the Sabarmati Pact and the Satyagraha Pledge and was Gandhiji’s most faithful lieutenant when he launched the Civil Disobedience Movement on 6 April 1919.

With great courage she quelled the riots, sold proscribed literature and addressed frenzied meetings on Jallianwala Bagh and martial law in Amritsar. Sarojini returned the Kaiser-I-Hind medal to the Government, led a deputation to Montagu, Secretary of State for India, and fought for the rights of women. She sailed for England in 1919 as a member of the all-India Home Rule Deputation and led a powerful agitation in England against sex-discrimination.

From 1920 Sarojini made her home in Bombay. President of the Bombay Provincial Congress Committee, she toured the countryside, moved resolution after resolution in inspired speeches at the AICC meetings in Bombay, Gaya and C. P., opposed council entry in Calcutta, protested against the severity of the anti-Mopalah measures in Calicut. During the Bardoli compaign she sent a stirring message on the unity of India when Gandhiji suspended the C. D. movement after the Chauri Chaura incident.

With the great trial of Gandhiji in 1922, Sarojini gave up her luxurious silks in favour of Khadi. At the Coronado Congress she spoke on the Resolution on the Bengal Pact and exhorted Hindus on Hindu-Muslim Unity, defined Swaraj and moved the resolution on Akalis.

From 1922 to 1926 Sarojini espoused the cause of Indians in South Africa and was given a hero’s welcome on two historic visits. In 1928 she sailed for the U. S. and had a triumphant tour as Gandhiji’s representative. In 1929 she presided over the East Africa Indian Congress in Mombassa, crossed swords with General Smuts and gave lectures all over South East Africa.

On return to India, Irwin proposed the first Round Table Conference. Sarojini with Motilal Nehru, Jinnah, Gandhiji and Patel met Irwin, Viceroy of India, to discuss the demand for full Dominion Status. At the next Congress session began the revolutionary phase of the nationalist movement, with withdrawal from legislatures, the demand for complete independence and non-payment of taxes. From 26 January 1930 to 1947 extended the last period of the freedom struggle.

The Salt Satyagraha in which Sarojini took a leading part, her personal triumph at the Round Table Conference in London and her arrest on way to Delhi to be the acting President of the Congress and her vigorous campaign for the full participation of women and youth in the public life are outstanding achievements of this era. During this period too, Sarojini was the great peace-maker.

She organised a National Week in 1940, virtually ran the whole Congress campaign at this stage, took an active part in the Cripps’ Mission to India and was jailed in 1942 on the Quit India Resolution of the AICC in Bombay. In the Aga Khan Palace, Sarojini cared for and cheered the inmates with her indomitable courage and humanity, during the period of Gandhiji’s fast and the deaths of Kasturba and Mahadev Desai.

With Independence came honours, but also Partition. Her dreams of Hindu-Muslim unity were shattered. The last blow was the assassination of Gandhjii, her Master and Leader, on 30 January 1948.

As the first woman Governor of the largest State of the Union she brought beauty, grace and dignity to public life. Her last great gesture was her inspiring presidentship of the Asian Relations Conference in 1947.

On 2 March 1949 she died in office at Lucknow at the age of seventy. Sarojini Naidu was a woman of extraordinary character: womanly, loving, human and wise. She had a sense of fun and exceptional homely wit that gave her a unique place as a peacemaker and inspirer in the highest Councils of her country. Not only was she loved by all classes of people, but respected too. At home in a palace or a hut, a citizen of the world in its truest sense, her rich humanity was an everlasting bridge between all peoples. She was not religious in the accepted sense, for she believed that the Divine was in all things. Islam meant as much to her-its culture and virtues-as did the rituals of her Brahmin heritage which she revered.

As a girl she was short and slim, with luminous great eyes. She loved rich colours, silks and jewels, caressed flowers and children, never forgot a name or a birthday and, whether in jail or not, sent gay and loving greetings to her hosts of friends; a great connoisseur of good food, she cooked delectable dishes on makeshift stoves. Wherever she was-in jail, the highest Councils of State, or in a room caring for a sick child, or a hotel or a ship-Sarojini brought vitality to everything.

An inspired orator, she had suffered because her great wisdom was often lost sight of in the powerful emotional impact of her oratory. Left to her life; with others, a tower of strength and a meeting-place for laughter and comradeship. Above all shone the radiant force of her courage, which acted as a catalyst and inspiration to all who knew her. On her death Jawaharlal Nehru said: “Here was a person of great brilliance-vital and vivid. Here was a person with so many gifts, but above all some gifts which made her unique. She infused artistry and poetry into our national struggle.” In fact, Sarojini Naidu was always a woman, supremely womanly and always a patriot.

Author : Tara Ali Baig