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A Revolutionary Woman

Devaki Jain ( is an economist and author, and is honorary fellow, St Annes College, Oxford University.

A Passionate Life: Writings by and on Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay edited by Ellen Carol Dubois and Vinay Lal, Zubaan Publishers, 2017; pp xvi + 483, 995.

A Passionate Life, a collection of essays on Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, edited by Ellen Carol Dubois and Vinay Lal, which also includes a selection of her own writings, puts to shame scholars of Indian political history, and those writing on the Indian women’s movement.

Here is a woman, born in 1903, in a rural area in south-western India—married at 12 and widowed at 14—who broke every social and cultural norm of that era. She engaged in India’s freedom struggle at the highest level, as a critic who could not be ignored, writing in newspapers, journals, as well as political documents. There are hardly any substantial writings by prominent modern history scholars on her life. A Passionate Life corrects that neglect substantially and also stimulates a call for more on her life and work.

The volume is composed of two introductory essays, one by Dubois and the other by Lal, both historians at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Both these essays are masterpieces. I have yet to come across an essay on the history and evolution of feminism which is as inclusive and accurate as the one written by Dubois. Lal’s introduction, tracing the passion and politics in Kamaladevi’s life, is equally brilliant in both depth and perspective.

In addition, there is a section called critical assessments, containing five essays written by scholars living in the United States and one in South Africa. These cover her travels under the punishing eyes of imperial surveillance, her contribution to the human rights commission, her interest and writings on racism—called evocatively “Becoming a Coloured Woman”—and her remarkable weaving of creativity and freedom.

Ten essays have been selected for inclusion in another section called “Kamaladevi’s Writings.” Some are from her own memoirs, called Inner Recesses and Outer Spaces, published in 1986
initially by the Indian Cooperative Union (ICU), which she founded. A later edition was printed by Niyogi Books in 2014. The others are from her speeches, and writings in journals and newspapers, both in India and the United States (US).

Much can be understood about Kamaladevi’s later life by going to her roots. Her father was a senior civil servant and her mother was a supporter of both Pandita Ramabai and Sri Aurobindo. Her parents befriended many prominent freedom fighters and intellectuals such as Mahadev Govind Ranade and Gopal Krishna Gokhale, and women leaders like Ramabai Ranade and Annie Besant. This made the young Kamaladevi an early enthusiast of the Swadeshi nationalist movement. However, it does seem intriguing that such parents could have got her married at the age of 12!

Whether that was the trigger or her mother’s and grandmother’s erudition, Kamaladevi broke many norms laid out for women. Dubois writes that she caused outrage among fellow women’s rights activists when she divorced her philandering second husband, Harindranath Chattopadhyay after four years and bearing one son. Throughout her life and her time in the freedom struggle, she faced resistance to her leadership from male comrades. Kamaladevi writes that, “All [political] problems had almost a personal answer, as they seemed related to my own internal conflicts over discrimination, against women” (Chattopadhyay2014: 47).

A New World

She became the first woman to be jailed by the British in 1930, a reflection of the new level of energy that the unleashing of women’s involvement would bring to the nationalist movement. She was briefly released from jail in 1931, in time to contribute to the writing of the “Fundamental Rights” portion of the proposed constitution for an independent India. She notes that she was the lone woman involved and emphasises the inclusion of an explicit guarantee of equal franchise rights for women, something which the British had never allowed. To me the clause ‘there should be no discrimination on the grounds of sex’ opened the gates to a new world” (Chattopadhyay2014: 162).

One of her transforming experiences was when her father died and left no will, and the property in which she and her mother had grown up, was given away to a stepbrother, who had never engaged with them. This experience, that her mother had no rights, was another stimulus to make her a fighter for women’s rights. Thus, in her maiden speech, at the age of 23 (she was the first woman to stand for elections in the Madras Presidency Council and lost only by a difference of barely 55 votes), while addressing 2,000 people at the Clock Tower Maidan in the district of Bangalore in 1926, she said:

For years you have been sending men to the councils. Some have done something for the districts. Others have done nothing. Remember when you work against me you work against all womankind. You work against your mothers your sisters and your daughters. (p 55)

When you lend me your support, it is not merely a personal favor you do to me, but you pay your homage to womankind. If the first Indian woman who has come forward in spite of all difficulties and obstacles is not helped, it will greatly discourage the women who in the future might stand for elections. (p 56)

While the issues she was talking about were the Forest and Land Act and the Rent Recovery Act, she would argue in this fashion with the electorate.

In 1939, she wrote about imperialism and the class struggle and then, to quote from the editor’s introduction to this essay, Kamaladevi saw nationalism and the class struggle as “conjoined at the hip in a colonial country, for the anti Imperialist movement is also a struggle against capitalism and land lordism” (p 168). Conversely, she continues, the spirit of revolt among the masses was “leading to a closer union between the British and the Indian capitalists” (p 168). Later in the article she says,

It is stupid of people to imagine that class struggle is a creation of the socialists. Class struggle is a historical fact. It has existed from the time primitive communist society ceased to be … As long as the means of production remains in the hands of the few, labour remains a commodity for exchange which the owner of the productive machinery converts huge profits for himself, as under capitalism and feudalism. (p 177)

By 1939, she had plunged into the labour movement. She engaged with the world of women workers showing the unbearable, extreme discrimination she finds in wage allocation despite the fact that her productivity is greater than that of the men.

She says,

All female labour is regarded as unskilled and the principle of discrimination is applied. The women are paid even less than unskilled male labour. In reality this custom of underpayment on the ground of sex
overshadows many of the other grievances. It is not only unjust but very humiliating.
(p 81)

She continues,

Let us now understand this semi-feudalistic condition which Imperialism maintains as its handmaid. About 75 per cent or about 260 millions of the Indian population live on agriculture. Of these nearly 12 million live on the rents they receive as landlords or ruling chiefs, their income being estimated at nearly 180 crores. This class leads the typical parasitical existence living on an unearned income. (p 179)

This could well have been written by a Marxist.

Coloured Woman

While in America for 18 months during 1939–41, she aimed to increase American support for Indian independence, while establishing connections with American feminists and African Americans, and defending the rights of women and people of colour throughout the world. Kamaladevi championed a coloured cosmopolitanism that defied narrow, chauvinist definitions of race, religion, or nation, while simultaneously encouraging the unity of coloured peoples. She envisioned Indian independence as a crucial step towards the liberation of the entire “coloured world.” There is a telling poster of her used in theUS, with the heading “I am a Colored Woman.”

Like many of the old order of freedom fighters, and Congress socialists, she moved away from the Congress and the new government of India. However, with her boundless energy, her skills, and her intellect, she addressed what could be a part of what M K Gandhi would have called the second freedom, that is, economic freedom, freedom from wants. She revived across the board, tribal arts being her favourite, and the handloom industry. She helped set up national institutions for the promotion of dance, music and theatre, which continue to live in and embellish India. She was engaged with a whole range of cultural expressions.

A Reminder

While she became known for this achievement, her life as a political activist, a socialist, a non-conformist has been forgotten or overshadowed. This volume reminds us of this extraordinary revolutionary woman.

Lal shares my view when he says that when searching for documents which record or signal significant women leaders in the independence movement, it was shocking to find her absent in most of these, yet it was she and not Sarojini or Vijayalakshmi or even Aruna Asaf Ali (names that are often recalled as heroines) who built the Congress socialist party. She challenged Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru, critiquing their draft resolutions at the working committee meetings of the Congress party to such an extent that Gandhi warned Nehru that she was a mischievous woman and needed to be dropped from the drafting committee.

Altogether, the volume is a brilliant piece of work, revealing to all who have the privilege of reading it not only the extraordinary life of an extraordinary woman in the most interesting period in India’s history, but also how to compose a narrative which records the contribution of a multifaceted character like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. The editors and authors, and Zubaan, the publishers, must be applauded for bringing out this book. I hope that it readjusts our lenses about who is a revolutionary and who is a reformist among the earlier women leaders.


1 She is engaging here in a debate over whether Jawaharlal Nehru was responsible for the Fundamental Rights clause.


Chattopadhyay, Kamaladevi (2014): Inner Recesses Outer Spaces: Memoirs, Delhi: Niyogi Books.

Updated On : 26th Mar, 2018


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