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Aruna Asaf Ali: Remembering The Legacy Of A Political Activist Who Fought Against All Odds

Posted: April 19, 2021

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Way ahead of her time, educator & political activist Aruna Asaf Ali remains an inspiration to all Indian women who dream of great heights.

Born on 16th July, 1909  in Kalka, Punjab, Aruna Asaf Ali spent most of her life as a political activist and an educator. A pivotal role played by her in the Indian Independence Movement is still remembered by many.

Post-Independence, she became Delhi’s first Mayor.

Born in a liberal Brahmo family

Aruna Asaf Ali was born in a liberal Brahmo family. Her father, Upendranath Ganguly, had migrated from Barisal, Bangladesh to the United Provinces (now-Uttar Pradesh). Both her parents were ardent followers of the Brahmo Samaj and were ‘fairly liberal’.

1928 – Married defying all odds

While working as a teacher at Gokhale Memorial School, Calcutta, Aruna met Asaf Ali, a prominent barrister who had defended freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt, and was a  member of the Indian National Congress.

Despite opposition to the relationship, Aruna married Asaf Ali in 1928 in the city of Allahabad.

Describing her family’s reaction to her marriage, she has said in one of her biographies that “My father was no more when Asaf and I married in 1928. My paternal uncle Nagendranath Ganguly, a university professor who regarded himself as my guardian, said to relatives and friends that as far as he was concerned I was dead, and he had performed my shraddh”

First arrest and support by fellow women prisoners

Aruna Asaf Ali formally joined the Indian National Congress and subsequently became active in the Indian Independence Movement. In 1930, she joined the Salt Satyagraha but was not released from the prison in 1931 despite other political prisoners being released.

She was imprisoned on the grounds that she was a vagrant. However, it is also contended that the British government felt threatened by her growing popularity.

Upon not being released, she received immense support from the masses and other women prisoners who refused to be released unless Aruna Asaf Ali was released as well. Succumbing to the public agitation and an intervention by Mahatma Gandhi, the British finally released her from jail.

Aruna Asaf Ali as a leader of the ‘Quit India Movement’

When leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were arrested in the Quit India Movement of 1942, Aruna Asaf Ali took leadership of the movement, ensuring that the momentum of the movement doesn’t fade. She gave directions to the masses and followers in the absence of major leaders.

She further rose to the occasion and gave push to the movement by hoisting the Indian Flag at Gowalia Tank Maidan, Bombay. She went underground after an arrest warrant was issued against her. Nevertheless, she continued working for the cause of Indian Independence despite not being directly present in the field.

Aruna Asaf Ali was successful in passing her message to the youth and followers of the movement through editing a monthly magazine Inquilab. While being underground, she continued working with prominent leaders like Jayaprakash Narayan and Ram Manohar Lohia to ensure that her message and words were passed to the youth.

The arrest warrant against her was withdrawn in 1946, marking her return into public life and politics.

Post-Independence work by Aruna Asaf Ali for women’s rights

Post independence, she joined the newly formed Socialist Party in 1948. She believed that the party catered more to the ideals of socialism than the Indian National Congress. However, she left the Socialist Party too and joined the Communist Party of India.(CPI)

She established the women’s wing of the CPI called the National Federation of Indian Women with other members of Mahila Atma Raksha Samiti, a mass organization linked to the CPI. She also assumed the leadership of the National Federation of Indian Women by becoming one of its Presidents.

With a motive to elevate and promote women’s education in India, Aruna Asaf Ali also started a journal titled ‘Weekly’ and a newspaper titled ‘Patriot.’

A modest woman and leader

Aruna Asaf Ali received various accolades in the later years of her life but remained modest. An excerpt from an article written about her by her relative describes, “after Leonid Brezhnev presented her the Order of Lenin, she casually gave me, a child, then, a red box with the medal. On year after her death, in 1997, she was awarded the Bharat Ratna: she could not have cared less.”

Legacy of the ‘Grand Old Lady’ of the Independence Movement

Also known as the ‘Grand Old Lady’ of the Indian Independence Movement, Aruna Asaf Ali countered various battles, both at personal and national front. Defying all societal norms and pressure, and taking the step to marry a person of her choice is an example of many of her brave decisions made at a time when major parts of Indian society were still very conservative.

Moreover, her resilience which was seen when she decided to take control of the Quit India Movement can never be forgotten. The movement could have become directionless with the absence of its major leaders. However, her leadership ensured that the movement remains a success.

Aruna Asaf Ali’s name is remembered not only as a political activist and educator but, she is also regarded as an epitome of bravery, resilience and an inspiration to the women of India.

Image source: I Love India

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