Cutting against the grain: Women in politics, picking up the gauntlet of nationalist struggle from-1857-1947

Presentation (Elaboration), 2013

9 Pages, Grade: A



The paper operates at the interstices of two main lines of inquiries: How far women were glorified in the context of Indian Nationalism? Why their heroism was blatantly camouflaged by male chauvinism? Multiple shades of heroism, heterogeneity of diverse cultures and religions were encapsulated in the early 20th cent. freedom movement of India. The paper unravels how the super-imposed patriarchy held women’s actions at bay; and how in the last, they were drawn into the whirlpool of the movement. Nonetheless, the subtlety of their heroism created a deep mark in the history of Modern India. The paper explores the integration of disparate ideological and political groupings; and an eclectic blend of women’s aestheticism and the chivalrous masculinity of men.

Keywords: Indian Nationalism, Heroism, Freedom movement.


Freedom from the heinous British rule was not an easy task; it was occasioned by concatenation of circumstances. The historical literature illuminates the achievements of male political scions like—Gandhi, playing second fiddle to the unheard voices of the nation. A veritable conundrum often finds place in the historical discourse, how far women were glorified in the context of Indian Nationalism? Why the nationalist literature showed reluctance to enmesh women into the broader network of national movement. Does that mean women remain enshrouded in cloak and contributed nothing to the political gamble? This indicates the norm of patriarchy that permeated the whole gamut of nationalist politics. Vidyamali Samarsinghe argues, ‘at the most fundamental level, the public or productive sphere is male preserve, and the private sphere identified interchangeably as the re-productive sphere is designated venue of women’.[1] A plethora of cultural norms and myths successfully kept ‘women’ away from the domain of politics. Paradoxically, the metaphor of ‘mother-goddess’ was inscribed in nationalist politics; but in reality how far they were empowered? This is incumbent on me to find whether this seemingly disenfranchised group created space in the growing pantheon of nationalist politics.

Radha Kumar puts in, the 19th cent was the period of women; when the rights and wrongs of women were deplored and her potentialities and capabilities became the nature of heated discussions. With the turn of the century, ‘women’s question’ was possibly numbed, as the overwhelming issues were directly political ones, concerning the politics of nationalism. Therefore, there was a perceptible decline in the reform movements as popular attitudes towards them hardened.

The development of Indian National Congress (1885) was concurrent with another intellectual and religious movement which was brought into logical culmination in the early half of the 20th cent. The movement, fashioned as ‘religious revivalism’ bore an indelible impression on the minds of rising extremists. They intended to define Hindu nation in terms of religion, myth and history. The main point of contrast between the two trends of the Congress was, ‘reforms’ inspired by the post-enlightenment influenced the agenda of Moderates. But the extremists developed a new aspect of anti-reformism, based on the concept of glorification of Hindu civilization.

The struggle for independence from the alien yoke was based on a tidal wave of nationalism, and the cultural icons had been proliferating throughout the country. Sucheta Mazumdar argues ‘anti-colonialist national movement repeated and retrieved pre-colonial symbols and invented national cultures through which to challenge the cultural hegemony of the colonizer’.[2] They wanted the traditional imagery of women as docile and submissive being should remain unchangeable. Samarsinghe puts in, ‘notions of Indian womanhood, entrenched in the private sphere, glorified as subservient, docile and sacrificial became an icon of Indian nationalist aspirations.’[3] The nationalists situated ‘women’s question’ in an inner domain of political sovereignty, far removed from the arena of political contest with the colonial state. Partha Chatterjee has argued that the nationalist construction of the public and private spaces equated them with the material/spiritual dichotomy. The “world” or the public space, a typically male domain, was the site of contest and negotiation with the modernizing colonial state, while the “home” was the inner domain of sovereignty, which was beyond colonization, where women were perceived as the protector and nurturer of the spiritual essence of Indian national identity.[4] The image they projected here of womanhood, by and large, contributed in mobilizing patriarchal norms. However, women’s strength and solidarity towards nation represented an important current of the political culture of pre-independent India. Women, in general, stood as the embodiment of purity and aestheticism. In fact, there were potential women who reportedly countered the patriarchal hegemony imposed by the westernised upper class men clustering around the English throne.


[1] Vidyamali Samarsinghe, Subverting patriarchy? Leadership and participation of women in politics in South Asia, 2000,

[2] Sucheta Mazumdar, Women, culture and politics, engendering the Hindu Nation, Comparative studies of South Asia, Africa and Middle East.

[3] Samarsinghe, 2000

[4] Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and its fragments, 1993: 116-34.

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Cutting against the grain: Women in politics, picking up the gauntlet of nationalist struggle from-1857-1947
Presidency College, Kolkata
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This is the text of the second presentation of PG, Semester-2, delivered at the Presidency University, Calcutta in the month of June, 2013. I am grateful to all my faculty members for their appropriate comments on the lecture. I am indebted to the members of National Library, Calcutta to figure out proper resources required to substantiate my work. I acknowledge the support of Dr. Swarupa Gupta, Assistant Professor of History, Presidency University, Calcutta and also the productive work environment of Calcutta State Archive.
Indian Nationalism, Heroism, Freedom movement
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Anusua Chowdhury (Author), 2013, Cutting against the grain: Women in politics, picking up the gauntlet of nationalist struggle from-1857-1947, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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