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From the Parlour to the Streets: A Short Note on Aruna Asaf Ali

Aruna Asaf Ali's life and career were conditioned by her exposure to a political context which reflected diversity, secularism and anti-colonialism. Her political activism as a freedom fighter and a woman activist encompassed these strands of anti-colonialism and radicalism. It finally culminated in a clear support for socialism - marking her transition from being a member of the Congress to joining the Communist Party of India after independence.

COMMENTARYjuly 11, 2009 vol xliv no 28 EPW Economic & Political Weekly24This is a paper presented at a special session to mark the 100th birth anniversary of Aruna Asaf Ali at the Kannur Session of the Indian History Congress, 28-30 December 2008. I would like to thank the participants and panellists for their suggestions and comments. I have borrowed (and slightly altered) the main title of this paper from Sumanta Banerjee’s well-known book, The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Calcutta, Calcutta: Seagull, 1989. Biswamoy Pati ( is a historian with Sri Venkateswara College, Delhi University.From the Parlour to the Streets: A Short Note on Aruna Asaf AliBiswamoy PatiAruna Asaf Ali’s life and career were conditioned by her exposure to a political context which reflected diversity, secularism and anti-colonialism. Her political activism as a freedom fighter and a woman activist encompassed these strands of anti-colonialism and radicalism. It finally culminated in a clear support for socialism – marking her transition from being a member of the Congress to joining the Communist Party of India after independence. Aruna Ganguly1 was born on 16 July 1908 at Kalka (Haryana). Her par-ents were originally from Barisal in East Bengal. Ganguly grew up in an at-mosphere and a culture that was syncretic. Her parents were Brahmo Samajists and she was educated at the Sacred Heart Con-vent in Lahore, and then in Nainital. The world of teaching attracted her and after graduating from school, she taught at the Gokhale Memorial School in Calcutta. Be-sides the diverse environment that she was exposed to in her formative years, she also belonged to an age that saw aggressive co-lonialism in India, in the context of the first world war. Alongside, aspects of the anti-colonial movement made an impact on her. After all, it was not possible to remain un-touched by the “volatile context” that exist-ed in the colonial period then, when grow-ing Hindu-Muslim-Sikh unity was seen as a threat by colonialism and which precipitat-ed the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. That period also saw the beginnings of Gandhian politics with its mixed baggage, which included mass movements like the Non-Cooperation Movement, and which went on to influence sections of the urban middle classes, including her. The context of the period and the happenings during that phase are necessary to be stated when attempting to study the life of Aruna Asaf Ali. At the same time, without overempha-sising the context and the diversity that she experienced, one needs to mention that it perhaps conditioned her decision to marry a prominent Congressman – Asaf Ali (in 1928) – despite parental opposition on religious grounds. Consequently, we need to keep all these aspects, including some personal features that impacted her political life – which contributed to the making of an anti-colonial fighter. In fact, we do witness a trend that saw a sizeable section of women from the affluent sections of the middle classes being swept away to join the mass movements associated with the anti-imperialist movement. In this sense, the political interactions that shaped her career and attracted her to Indian nationalism were no exception.Aruna Asaf Ali’s political vision how-ever shifted from that of a nationalist to accommodate a world view that sought to transform Gandhi’s vision of swaraj to its logical conclusion. Thus, she was attrac-ted to the ideological alternative posed by socialism that aimed to fight for a social revolution, along with the national revolution. This was again a process related to the very dialectics of the Indian national movement. This short paper explores the shift, or what can be perhaps more aptly called, the transition from the secluded and exclusive world of a woman who had a middle class background to the streets, as is visible in the political career of Aruna Asaf Ali. Be-sides archival sources and the private pa-pers of both Aruna Asaf Ali and Asaf Ali, I have worked with the remarkably valuable collection of documents edited by Sumit Sarkar – Towards FreedomPart I (published under the aegis of the Indian Council of Historical Research) and some secondary sources.2 I explore four dimensions related to Aruna Asaf Ali’s engagements in the public sphere, broadly till India’s independ-ence. These include her political activism that saw serious shifts leading to what was possibly a clear metamorphosis; her com-mitment to secularism; her involvement with women’s issues; and finally, her vision of a free India that reflect her ideas about freedom beyond decolonisation. Political ActivismAruna Asaf Ali became an active member of the Congressafter her marriage (1928). She (along with her husband, Asaf Ali) were among the “distinguished visitors’ gallery” watching the proceedings of the Central Legislative Assembly when Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt threw revo-lutionary leaflets and a bomb into the Assembly Hall.3 On 1 November 1929 she read out the printed welcome address to M K Gandhi at a public reception in Delhi. This was a memorable incident, occasioned by a context when the Congress leaders could not agree on anyone else due to sharp internal divisions.4Aruna Asaf Ali’s first major political activity was associated with the Salt
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW july 11, 2009 vol xliv no 2825Satyagraha during the Civil Disobedience Movement in 1930. A basic trend that his-torians emphasise is the way the Salt Saty-agraha, with its stress on the symbolic/moral issue of “salt”, attracted women un-der the leadership of upper caste men to participate in what was largely a peaceful movement. In this way the boundaries of the domestic sphere got extended to ac-commodate the political world outside, without causing any serious changes to the life of the women involved.5 However, this generalisation would be largely inapplicable for women like Aruna Asaf Ali, who was already a Congress activist and who led processions and addressed public meetings in the Chandni Chowk area of Delhi when the Civil Disobedience Movement was launched. At the same time, she was also involved with street corner meetings that aimed to mobilise people for the Salt Satyagraha to violate prohibitory orders, picketing shops sell-ing foreign goods and liquor and breaking the salt laws in the Shahadara area. The British government charged her for being a “vagrant” and sentenced her to one year’s imprisonment. Under the provisions of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact(1931),allpoliti-cal prisoners were released.Nevertheless, she was not released as she had been arrest-ed on the “vagrancy” charge. Her women co-prisoners refused to leave the premises and demanded her release that led to a public agitation which secured her release. In 1932, Aruna Asaf Ali was held prisoner at the Tihar jail where she protested against the indifferent treatment of political prison-ers by launching a hunger strike. Her efforts resulted in an improvement in the condi-tions of the Tihar jail, but she was moved to Ambala and was subjected to solitary con-finement. She was politically out of the national movement for about a decade after this. These were the years that perhaps led her to, among other things, look at Gandhian politics critically and grope for possible alternatives. This was in the context of the classic Gandhian retreat and withdrawal related to the Civil Disobedience Move-ment.6 Consequently, it appears that there was a shift in this phase that saw the radi-calisation of Aruna Asaf Ali, which became visible during the 1942 movement – perhaps the most powerful anti-imperialist, mass movement that shook the empire.Aruna Asaf Ali’s next political appear-ance was during the 1942 movement. She was present at the crucial meeting at the Bombay Congress Session where the Con-gress passed the famous “Quit India” reso-lution on 8 August. In the face of police brutality she raised the tricolour at the historic Gowalia Tank on that stormy day in Bombay, perhaps providing the spark that ignited the Quit India movement. She became a full-time activist in the Quit India movement and went underground to evade arrest. As she described it later on, she had become a socialist after 1942.7 The district magistrate of Delhi declared her to be a proclaimed offender and seized her property in September 1942, which was sold off. This included her house that was registered in her name and a car that seems to have been owned by her but used by the All India Women’s League.8 The colonial administration seems to have connected some of the “illegal” Bombay Congress Bulletins to her.9 When the police raided a house in Karol Bagh on the night of 25-26 January 1944, they recovered a hand press, some letters of Aruna AsafAli and large number of copies of Inquilab, HamaraSangram and other documents.10 The government also announced a reward of Rs 5,000 for her “capture”. Meanwhile Aruna Asaf Ali fell ill and on hearing this Gandhi advised her to surrender: I have sent you messages that you should not die underground. You are reduced to a skele-ton. Do come out and surrender yourself and win the prize offered for your arrest. Reserve the prize money for the Harijan cause.11As he put it: If you surrender yourself you would do so to raise your self and the country with you. The surrendering wont be out of your weakness but out of your strength.12 However, Aruna Asaf Ali surrendered her-self only when the warrants against her were cancelled on 26 January 1946. With-in months since then she began her direct involvement with working class politics.The Royal Indian Naval RevoltAruna Asaf Ali’s radicalisation led her to be involved with the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) revolt that began on 18 February 1946. Besides the fact that her decision to be associated with theRIN revolt was his-toric, I would prefer to see this as a logical transition of her chosen political path that took her to the streets and working class politics. The grievances of the naval ratings included the inequalities between them and the personnel of the Royal Navy. This was based on racism and affected pay APPAN MENON MEMORIAL TRUSTRegistered officeN-84, Panchshila Park, New Delhi- 110017, IndiaTel (011) 26491515 & (011) 29268150Appan Menon Memorial Award for 2009-2010 Appan Menon was a journalist who began as an agency reporter and worked in the print andfinally television in its early years. Anchoring the popular weekly programme calledThe World This Week for New Delhi Television he followed International news and reports through an Indian perspective. Before joining N.D.T.V, Appan had worked forThe Hindu, Frontline, The Press Trust of India and the United News of India. He had also spent some time covering the United Nations HQ for the Inter Press Service. The Appan Menon Memorial Trust was established by his friends in 1996 soon after his untimely death on 28 June 1996. • The Trust proposes to award a grant of Rs 1 lakh every year to professional journalists working in the area of World Affairs or Development news with an Indian perspective. Journalists from any media with 3-5 years of experience can apply by submitting the following. • A brief proposal (1000 words) stating in brief the area, issues and your particular interest. • A brief account of the proposed use of the grant and the time frame. • Curriculum vitae and one letter of reference. • Samples of recent work.The curriculum Vitae and samples of recent work could be digitised.The selection of the proposal to be awarded for this year will be by an eminent jury. The grant will be made in September 2009 The proposal should reach the address below by August 30, 2009 Managing TrusteeAppan Menon Memorial Trust, N-84, Panchshila Park, New Delhi - 110017Tel: (Off) 26491515 and 29268150
COMMENTARYjuly 11, 2009 vol xliv no 28 EPW Economic & Political Weekly26scales, allowances and food. From the be-ginning the leaders of the revolt had estab-lished contact with the Congress and the Muslim League. However, by this time both these political formations were begi-nning to see the corridors of power and did not respond favourably. What developed was a major revolt that precipitated solidarity and action between the naval ratings and the Bombay working class which led to a three-day long hartal (21-23 February 1946). The colonial autho-rities crushed the revolt by shooting down 250 people (according to official estimates) by using military force and the police.13 The revolt spread to Calcutta, Madras, Delhi and Karachi, with the military police firing upon strikers in Karachi.14As reported in the Free Press Journal, the strikers demanded the intervention of Aruna Asaf Ali.15She tried vainly to secure the support of leading Congressmen like Nehru and Maulana Azad for the RIN re-volt. In fact, she was admonished by Gan-dhi, who disapproved of the indiscipline and violence of those who were associated with the revolt and felt that the naval per-sonnel should have resigned in case they found their service conditions humiliat-ing. To Gandhi the combination of Hindus and Muslims for the purpose of violence was “unholy”, which obviously articulated the class position of the new rulers who were on the verge of inheriting power from the colonial rulers. Aruna Asaf Ali’s historic response was at a press confe-rence. Here she had boldly articulated that she would rather unite the Hindus and Muslims at the barricades than on the constitutional front, since this unity would be more sound and lasting than one that was based on political patch-ups. As she put it, if following Gandhi’s advice the na-val ratings resigned there would be hun-dreds, with unemployment all-round, to take their place; and they would be sub-jected to the same discriminatory treat-ment. Moreover, she felt that it did not look proper for Congressmen, who themselves went into the legislatures, to ask the rat-ings to give up their means of livelihood.16 One can perhaps also mention here an-other dimension related to Auna Asaf Ali’s shift to radical politics. She was elected as the president of the Central Public Works Department Union formed by “clerks” in Delhi in September 1946.17SecularismGoing beyond the personal,18 Aruna Asaf Ali’s commitment to secularism is best demonstrated in her political career itself. Perhaps nothing illustrates it better than her interactions with Gandhi during the RIN revolt, where she stressed on the soli-dity of the unity between the Hindus and the Muslims at the barricades rather than political patch-ups. It was effortslikethese that seem to go unnoticed by historians. Their relevance needs to be located in the context of the vicious atmosphere of com-munal hatred and the holocaust that follo-wed. In this sense her political activism provided an alternative, even though not found attractive to the dominant political formations – the Congress and the Muslim League – who were largely indifferent since they were apprehensive about any such conflict after decolonisation. One can also see the logic ofthisdimensionwhen Aruna Asaf Ali defeated the Jana Sangh candidate and was electedasDelhi’sfirst mayor in 1958 – a feature that explains not only her electoral success but also the victory of the forces of secularism with which she was associated. The Struggle for Gender EqualityAruna Asaf Ali’s interest in women’s equal-ity illustrates her emancipatory vision. She was drawn into the Indian Women’s League (Delhi) which was an affiliate of the All India Women’s Conference in 1929. Her subsequent political involvements show how she transgressed the bounda-ries of her elitist background and plunged into the national movement. As already discussed, this went through shifts, with Aruna Asaf Ali working towards a “second” SAMEEKSHA TRUST BOOKS1857Essays from Economic and Political WeeklyA compilation of essays that were first published in the EPW in a special issue in May 2007. Held together with an introduction by Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, the essays – that range in theme and subject from historiography and military engagements, to the dalit viranganas idealised in traditional songs and the “unconventional protagonists” in mutiny novels – converge on one common goal: to enrich the existing national debates on the 1857 Uprising.The volume has 18 essays by well known historians who include Biswamoy Pati, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Peter Robb and Michael Fisher.The articles are grouped under five sections:‘Then and Now’,‘Sepoys and Soldiers’,‘The Margins’,‘Fictional Representations’ and ‘The Arts and 1857’.Pp viii + 364 2008 Rs 295Available fromOrient Blackswan Pvt LtdMumbai Chennai New Delhi Kolkata Bangalore Bhubaneshwar Ernakulam Guwahati Jaipur LucknowPatna Chandigarh Hyderabad Contact:

Bandyopadhyay, From Plassey to Partition: A History of Modern India (New Delhi: Orient Longman), 2004


padhyay, From Plassey to Partition, 319.

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