As the world is celebrating the 150th Birth Anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi from October 2018-2020, on the International Day of Women, 8th March 2019 my thoughts are with Kastur Kapadia who was also born on 11th April 1869 in the western
part of India in Saurashtra. At that time in India, girls were not allowed to attend school, so Kastur who was an in depended teenager never got a chance to go the school, but remained a curious and fast learner all her life. That was the era of child marriages and she became an object of an early marriage at the age of 13 years to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi who was six months younger than her. But the day they got married something changed in the adolescent boy Mohan! Overnight he became a husband!!!
Mohandas had read somewhere about Monogamy and he decided that his wife should also observe the strict authority of the husband, that he had become. He told her that she will have to take his permission before going anywhere. Kastur said, alright I will tell you where I am going, I will take your permission, but to go to a higher authority than you, I do not need your permission. Kastur was a spirited girl and she was going to the temple. Mohandas was silenced and wrote in his autobiography called ‘My Experiments with Truth’ that from that day my wife became my ‘Guru’. She was never disrespectful, never discourteous but perhaps she never ever obeyed his commands. Breaking the law courteously was the lesson he learnt from her. This was one of the lessons of nonviolence of using the Truth Force which he used in his subsequent Nonviolent Civil Disobedience movements in South Africa and India.
When Mohandas left for London to study law in 1891, the family mortgaged Kastur’s jewelry to support her husband of 18 years to become a Barrister. The couple already had a child by then. For three years she stayed back at her Brother -in -laws home waiting for her husband to return. She got a chance to live with him when the couple moved to South Africa along with their two children where Barrister Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had taken on the mantle of a social organizer and a political activist at the age of 26 years in Natal in South Africa. Kasturba travelled on the ship for her maiden voyage for the first time with her husband and two children, who called her Ba ( mother) in their mother tongue Guajarati , but not before her persistent husband forced them to wear western clothes and eat with the fork and knife before settling in Durban.
Kasturba’s arrival in South Africa was marked by a disturbing event. There was an outbreak of plague in Bombay because of which the ships Nadir and Courland were placed in quarantine. There was another reason why they could not disembark as the majority of "white" residents in Durban wanted the ships to go back to India with its passengers, fearing a high Indian population which according to them Barrister Mohandas Gandhi had brought back with him. Furthermore, they accused Gandhi of condemning Natal whites while in India, and of inducing Indians to come to South Africa for the purpose of swamping Natal of Indians. When passengers were finally allowed to disembark, Gandhi was assaulted by a mob, but he refused to press charges.
Finally, the Gandhi’s’ settled in their new home, Beach Grove Villa. For Kasturba, this was a new challenge as she was now the only woman of the household, and she felt lonely. However, she took interest in her husband’s work and she desired to help him as much as she could and putting up with the idiosyncrasies of her husbands.
Gandhi had always been a proponent of communal living, influenced by monastic ideals. When he was travelling by train back to Durban he was given a book by his friend henry Polak called ‘Unto this Last’ by John Ruskin. Overnight he decided to leave the comfort of his posh home and shifter to Phoenix settlement to lead the life of an agrarian community. Leo Tolstoy was also an inspiration for Gandhi, who drew on his dislike of urban life. Tolstoy considered agricultural labour to be a worthy exercise. Gandhi was also inspired by a Trappist community near Pinetown in Natal that he had visited in 1895. Kasturba quietly modified her life and adjusted to this new way of life easily. She was very adaptable and in Gandhi’s long absence for the nonviolent struggle or in the prison in South Africa she took the reigns of the large community in her able hands. She was witnessing the transformation in her husband’s life and was determined to lead a similar life supporting him quietly and efficiently. Meanwhile after the birth of their fourth son, she became very ill and suffered a grave danger to her wellbeing.
Kasturba, by 1900, had given birth to four sons, and the childbirths were difficult, especially the last two. She remained weak for long periods of time after giving birth. Having witnessed his wife’s agony during childbirth, Gandhi worried about having sexual relations, fearing Kasturba would become pregnant again and took a vow of celibacy. Kasturba must have been relieved at this news!
Meanwhile, Gandhi 1903 onward, Gandhi got very busy with Sataygraha and imprisoned many times by General Smut. He was also involved in myriad activities to help improve the condition of the Indian indentured labor and other Indian diaspora to live with justice and dignity. On the other hand he was constantly trying to correspond and let the British Empire know how the racial discrimination had ruined the lives of his countrymen living in South Africa. He had constantly kept the leaders in India abreast with the developments.
In 1913, the Satyagraha campaign was revived, helped by three specific issues. The first issue came in March 1913, when the Supreme Court issued a judgment, affecting the legal status of Indian marriages. The ruling virtually nullified non-Christian marriages. The second issue was the passing the Immigrant Regulation Act on August 1st 1913. Gandhi opposed this act based on four grounds. First, people with an indentured background dating after 1895 could lose the right to settle in South Africa. Second, the Act removed the right of those Indians born in South Africa to enter the Cape. Third, it did not recognize Hindu and Muslim marriages, so a wife in India could not join her legally resident husband in South Africa. Fourth, it required Indians travelling through the Orange Free State to sign a declaration that they would not settle in the province. The third issue was the failure of the South African Parliament to repeal the 3-pound tax on all indentured-expired Indians over the age of sixteen, after promising it would do so. These three issues aroused the majority of the Indian population.
Gandhi came to fully understand the power women could bring to Satyagraha in South Africa. He realized that women could be leaders in Satyagraha, because it required a stout heart that came from suffering and faith.
By then, however, Kasturba had made up her mind to join the movement and she was prepared to suffer the consequences. She told Gandhi: “What defect is there in me which disqualifies me for jail? I also wish to take the path to which you are inviting the others”. With three other women and twelve men, she crossed the Transvaal border without a permit on 15 September 1913 becoming the first woman Satyagrahi to lead the nonviolent movement from the front. The women along with Kasturba went willingly to Maritzburg prison to serve their sentence in the prison and underwent hard labour.
Kasturba’s last days in South Africa were spent in celebrations. She stood with her husband in receptions; they were garlanded with flowers, photographed with officials and hailed by cheerful crowds. On 18 July 1914, she sailed for England, before going back to India. Back in India, Kasturba Gandhi became increasingly involved in India’s political struggle for independence. She assisted her husband in numerous ways, and also adopted causes of her own, appealing to Indian women. When Gandhi became involved in his Satyagraha campaign in India in 1917, over the condition of indigo farmers in Champaran, Bihar, Kasturba joined him and worked with farmers’ wives and daughters and became involved in a district-wide sanitation campaign.
Kasturba tried to reach Indian women with a special message of self-reliance by spinning on the Charkha (Spinning Wheel). She also joined Gandhi during meetings when she could, sitting next to him and spinning. This influenced other women in participating in meetings. In 1991 during the Civil Disobedience movement of a nation-wide boycott of foreign-made goods by staging public bonfires, Kasturba insisted on burning her favorite sari.
Gandhi’s campaigning did not go unnoticed by British officials and he was arrested and tried on 18 March 1922 for six years of imprisonment after “The Great Trial” which was so called because of the power of Gandhi’s arguments. He was sentenced to six years in prison. Following the trial, Kasturba made an appeal in Young India, published on 23 March 1922. She urged Indians to follow Gandhi’s program to ensure its success despite his imprisonment. She encouraged people to give up foreign cloth and to persuade others to do so, women to spin and produce yarn, and merchants to stop trading in foreign goods.
In 1930 , when Gandhi launched the Salt march and broke the salt law establishing a government monopoly on the manufacture of salt, as men were being arrested Kasturba believed it was up to women to continue the civil disobedience campaign. She left the running of the ashram to others and resumed her travels, urging women to take part in a new phase of civil disobedience: the picketing of government-owned liquor store. She believed that women were better qualified than men to lead the campaign because policemen would hesitate to arrest women, and Indian men would be reluctant to cross a women’s picket line. Her pleas were persuasive and liquor sales fell tremendously.
With the suspension of Civil liberties by the British rulers, a high number of Indians were arrested in January and February 1932. Kasturba was also arrested at Sabarmati ashram, along with other women. This was her first incarceration in India, but it would not be the last. Later she took up the Harijan (Untouchable) cause. On December 1932, she represented her husband at the opening of an anti-Untouchability Conference in Madras. From there, she went on a tour of the region to plead for Untouchable rights. However, by the end of the year, she was sent back to prison in February 1933, presumably for disregarding a government warning to refrain from civil disobedience. She was now regarded as much as a threat as Gandhi by British officials because of her ability to involve women.
In 1939, Kasturba became involved in a women’s protest against the rule of the Thakore, the Rajkot local prince and she urged women in Rajkot to join the protest and stand up for their rights. She was however arrested on 3 February 1939 by the Thakore officials.
In 1942 with the outbreak of the Second World War, Gandhi launched a new civil disobedience campaign called ‘Quit India‘ against Britain’s refusal to allow Indians to express their opinions on the war. After Gandhi give a speech in early August he was arrested and immediately Kasturba decided to do it in his place. She delivered her address in front of an estimated 100,000 persons and was taken to prison soon after. Kasturba was imprisoned in Aga Khan Palace in Pune with her husband for the last years of her life. Her health had deteriorated drastically and she died in Aga Khan Palace on 22 February 1944, after suffering from numerous heart attacks. She was 74 years old.
Sarojini Naidu described her as “The living symbol of Indian womanhood. Never once did her feet falter or her heart quail on the steep path of perpetual sacrifice, which was her portion in the wake of the great man whom she loved and served and followed with such surpassing courage, faith and devotion. She has passed from mortality to immortality and taken her rightful place in the valiant assembly of the beloved heroines of India’s legend, history and song”.
On the International Women’s Day and the 150th Birth Anniversary of Kasturba and Mahatma Gandhi, it is indeed a time to remember her sacrifice and selfless life of serve establishing the highest power of womanhood, the ‘Stree Shakti’!
8th March 2019