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Umabai Kundapur, A Freedom Fighter Who Shied Away From The Limelight

Umabai Kundapur. Though she was a nationally known leader, her contribution is hardly acknowledged by the present generations.

How much do we know about Umabai Kundapur, the freedom fighter from Karnataka who did a lot for women’s upliftment?

When we revisit the pages of India’s freedom struggle, we see a handful of women as front runners. But, it doesn’t mean that women didn’t contribute much to the freedom movement. They were very much there in every event, if not on stage, but as service providers. Some women leaders do get a mention for their active role in the country’s freedom struggle – to name a few, Sarojini Naidu, Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay, Aruna Asif Ali and others.

In this context, it is time to revisit those fairly unspoken women who could be labelled as makers of modern India, recall their contributions, pay homage, and follow in their footsteps, so that the nation in general and women in particular feel inspired to contribute to nation building.

One such prominent woman freedom fighter from Karnataka, whose name is almost erased from public memory and lost in the pages of freedom movement, is that of Umabai Kundapur. Though she was a nationally known leader, her contribution is hardly acknowledged by the present generations.

What does history tell us about Umabai Kundapur?

Umabai Kundapur was the founder of ‘Bhagini Mandal’, a social organization dedicated to the welfare of women freedom fighters. She was the head of the women’s wing of ‘Hindustani Sevadal’. She toured throughout the state to encourage women to participate in the freedom struggle.

Probably, the main reason for the exclusion of her name from the chronicles of Indian freedom struggle is that, she deliberately chose to live away from publicity after independence. Moreover, she politely declined many of the high-profile positions and accolades that she was offered, deservingly for her service.

Umabai Kundapur was born in Mangaluru in 1892, to Golikeri Krishnarao and Tungabai couple. As a child, her family emigrated to Mumbai in search of a better living. She was married at the age of 13 to Sanjeev Rao Kundapur.

Fortunately, Anand Rao Kundapur, her father-in-law, a true believer of women empowerment, supported her studies after marriage and thereby she passed matriculation examination.

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Subsequently, with the help of her father-in-law, Umabai allied with a local Mahila Samaj and began educating women. In 1920, when she witnessed a well- organized and disciplined massive crowd paying their last homage to freedom fighter Balagangadhar Tilak, she too felt the urge to volunteer herself to the nation’s cause. She formed a group of women volunteers, campaigned for khadi clothes and pleaded women to participate in the ongoing freedom struggle.

Meanwhile, Umabai lost her husband to tuberculosis and became a widow at the young age of 25.

Active work in the women’s freedom movement against the British

After the death of his son, Ananda Rao brought his family to Hubballi and
started ‘Karnataka Press’ to strengthen self-reliance in Umabai and divert her attention from the personal loss. Meanwhile, she set up ‘Bhagini Mandal’, a voluntary organization to support women freedom fighters. Also, she toured the entire state and organized street plays to inspire women into the freedom movement. She demonstrated her organizational skills by bringing in widows from orthodox families in Dharwad into the mainstream movement.

Meanwhile, Dr. N S Hardikar returned from the United States in 1921 to
participate in the country’s freedom struggle. He founded the ‘Hindustani Seva Dal’ in Hubballi, to organize youth for the nation’s freedom. Umabai joined it and was quickly recognized for her efficient performance. So, she was appointed as the head of its women’s wing. Additionally, she took charge of ‘Tilak Kanya Shala’, a school started by Hardikar for girls.

Then, in 1924, when All India Congress Session was organized in Belagavi
under Mahatma Gandhi’s presidency, Dr. Hardikar and Umabai Kundapur were entrusted the responsibility of garnering volunteers for the event. Again, Umabai toured the state and recruited over 150 female volunteers.

Seeing her social service very closely, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, another renowned freedom fighter from Karnataka remarked that, “Since the day I saw Umabai’s organizational skills, I have become her avid follower.”

Next, in 1932, Umabai was sent to Yerawada prison for participating in the
famous Salt Satyagraha. On being released after four months of imprisonment, the British government placed several restrictions on Umabai, to curtail her activism; her press was seized, the girls’ school was closed and ‘Bhagini Mandal’ was declared illegal. In spite of all these adverse developments, she continued her fight from her humble residence, making it a shelter for the abandoned and homeless women freedom fighters.

Later, in 1934, when earthquake hit Bihar, Umabai reached there with
women volunteers, stayed in the refugee camps and served the affected people day and night. Though she couldn’t participate in Quit India Movement of 1942 due to ill health, Umabai helped many freedom fighters by providing food, financial assistance and shelter, under the strict surveillance of the British government.

Umabai Kundapur, head of the Karnataka unit of the Kasturba Trust

In 1946, Gandhiji appointed Umabai as the head of the Karnataka unit of
Kasturba Trust. The Trust was established with an objective of promoting public health, child care and also literacy among the rural population. However, there was no financial aid provided to manage its programmes. So, Umabai hit the streets to collect donations. Through this, many orphans and widows were provided with self-employment training.

Remarkably, Umabai decided to remain out of the public life after
independence, but she continued her social service. Unlike many other freedom fighters, she refused the most coveted Tamra -patra Award (Award given to the frontline freedom fighters) and also the government pensions for the same. Thus, she remained a true Gandhian till her last breath.

She died in 1992, at the ripe age of 100, in her humble abode in Hubli.

Thus,  the most befitting way to reminisce  the history of freedom movement, is by revisiting such selfless nation builders like Umabai. As women, we should feel proud in claiming the legacy of Umabai Kundapur as a key contributor for nation building.

Image source: By BotKannadiga – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link 

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About the Author

Jyothi S

Dr. Jyothi, Assistant Professor of English, Tumkur University. Has been a teacher of English and also soft skills trainer, with special interest in writing poems, articles, short stories and translation both in Kannada and English. read more...

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