“As long as I have life, as long as blood flows through this arm of mine, I shall not leave the cause of freedom…I am only a woman, only a poet. But as a woman, I give to you the weapons of faith and courage and the shield of fortitude. And as a poet, I fling out the banner of song and sound, the bugle call to battle. How shall I kindle the flame which shall waken you men from slavery…”
There is one person whose contributions made a lot of difference for women in a country where they were simply “caretakers” and “nurturers“; the poet and politician Sarojini Naidu. She was the first female governor of an Indian state and the first Indian woman to be President of the Indian National Congress (INC) party.
Sarojini Naidu was born on February 13th, 1897 in Hyderabad, to Aghore Nath Chattopadhyay and Barada Sundari Devi. Her father was the founder and the administer of Hyderabad college, which later came to be known as Nizam College, Hyderabad. Sarojini married Govindarajulu Naidu at the age of 19 which was an inter-caste marriage. They had 5 children including their daughter Padmaja who herself was a voice in Indian freedom movement. Padmaja Naidu went on to become the Governor of West Bengal on 3rd November 1956.
Sarojini Naidu was a prominent figure as a woman in Indian politics. She joined politics after the partition of Bengal by Lord Curzon, viceroy of India, in 1905, which affected her deeply. She met Gopal Krishna Gokhale through whom she came into contact with several prominent faces of India’s freedom struggle including Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore and Annie Besant. She was urged by Gokhale to use her intellect for the cause and she dedicated herself to politics and Indian freedom movement, taking a respite from writing.
In 1916, she fought against the British for the rights of farmers in Champaran, Bihar, who were forced to grow indigo instead of the food crops that they required for their survival. She went to England as one of the members of All India Home Rule deputation as a delegate in 1919. In 1925, she joined Congress party and presided over in the annual INC session and, was the second female president of the same after Annie Besant (who took over in 1917). She took over authority in East African Indian Congress in South Africa. In 1931, she participated in the round table conference with Mahatma Gandhi and Madan Mohan Malaviya.
One of the major aspects of Sarojini Naidu’s role in India’s freedom struggle was during Salt Satyagraha, where she participated with many women protesters at Dharsana Salt Works in Gujarat. The Salt Satyagraha movement met with flak from British forces but received a lot of publicity from around the world which led to the questioning of the legitimacy of British rule in India. She was a leading freedom fighter in the Civil Disobedience Movement where she was jailed along with many other leaders and, during the Quit India movement. Sarojini Naidu was the first female governor of India – she served as the Governor of United Provinces in Agra and Oudh from 1947 to 1949.
As a child, Sarojini was a very bright student. She was proficient in 5 languages; Hindi, English, Persian, Urdu, Telugu and Bengali. She began writing fiction at the age of 12. Her father, after she aced her matriculation exams from the Madras University, wanted her to be a mathematician but Sarojini expressed her desire to be a poet. She wrote a poem that was 1300 lines long called “Lady Of The Lake” which impressed her father, who went on to encourage her work. Her Persian play “Maher Muneer” was well received by the Nawab of Hyderabad, Nizam who subsequently granted her a scholarship to study overseas.
In 1905, her first collection of poems was published under the title “The Golden Threshold”. Later, her poem collections “The Bird Of Time” and “The Broken Wings” were published. Both of these attracted a wide readership in India and England. She also wrote essays and articles about her political views and women’s rights issues in India. In 1961, her daughter Padmaja helped in editing and publishing of her poem collection “The Feather Of The Dawn” posthumously.
Sarojini Naidu is one of the most celebrated poets of India known for the lyrical and musical nature of her writings, using many rhymes and meters filled with rich imagery. This earned her the title “Nightingale of India”.
Role in Women’s Rights Movement in India
Sarojini Naidu played an important role in women’s rights struggle in India. She helped in shaping Women’s Indian Association in 1917 with Annie Besant and others. The Association sought equal rights including the right to vote and represent. She presented the need to include more women in the Congress and in the freedom struggle. During 1918, British and Indian feminists including Naidu set up a magazine called “Stri Dharma” to present international news from a feminist perspective.
Along with Annie Besant, who was the President’s Rule League at that time, she went to London to present the case for women’s right to vote to the Joint Select Committee. In 1931, the Congress promised to established women’s right to vote when it came in power. It was enacted along with India’s independence in 1947 and universal suffrage is a major facet in the Indian constitution. During the time period 1915-1918, she traveled to different regions in India to lecture on women’s rights, social welfare of women and nationalism. A contemporary poet, Bappaditya Bandopadhyay quoted “Sarojini Naidu inspired the Indian Renaissance Movement and had a mission to improve the life of Indian woman.”
Apart from her role as a poet, governor and women’s rights activist, she has had many achievements.
She was awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind medal by the British government for her vehement work during the plague epidemic in India. The name “Kaiser-i-Hind” literally means “emperor of India” and it was given to “any person without distinction of race, occupation, position, or sex … who shall have distinguished himself (or herself) by important and useful service in the advancement of the public interest in India” by the British Monarch. She followed Gandhi’s “non-violent” protest and traveled around India for the same. She is also regarded as the first person to hoist the Indian flag on an international platform; in the United States of America and England. For her selfless contribution during Indian freedom struggle, she was appointed as the president of INC.
She died on March 2nd, 1949 and until her death, she served her role as the governor of united provinces in Agra and Oudh. Sarojini will live on as the major contributors in India’s freedom movement as well as the women’s rights movement.
Cultural India: Sarojini Naidu
Encyclopedia Britannica: Sarojini Naidu
India In Britain: South Asian Networks & Connections 1858-1950. Edited by Susheila Nasta
Feminism, Censorship & Other Essays by K. K. Sharma