“Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex” - Karl Marx


Mridula Sarabhai(the orignal anti-national)

Mridula Sarabhai, my dearest, closest friend, my comrade of twenty-seven years, my associate in work, grief, and in the trials of life, departed this world on 27 October 1974. A new grave was added to this graveyard of memories. Every day now, in the words of Maulana Rumi, another bough is intermitted:

azadam haa su-e-hasti har zaman
hast yarab karwaan dar kaarwaan

From being to nothingness, every moment,
Moves caravan after caravan
Mowlana Jalaluddin Rumi

The chain of arrival and departure is unbroken. Into this world have also come such people who suddenly find themselves scrutinised with a stranger's gaze by even those who know them well , even as those who have never understood them have always held them to be suspect or dubious. One personality who was treated such was Mridula behan. An exterior that was hard as iron on the outside, but on the inside, soft and pliant like beeswax. At times, one needed to light a whole furnace to melt her iron, but at others, just a hint of warmth would set a molten river flowing.

Her whole life, she spent in struggle and enduring hardship. She had joined the Congress movement at a very young age, was a satyagrahii, went to jail so many times, lived in the Ashram, remained devoted to truth and nonviolence as her religion, and gave her all to the battle for freedom every step of the way. But even though she was a freedom fighter, she was expelled from the Congress. The government considered her a traitor, and those who had once thought who closest to the highest echelons of power now socially boycotted her.

zaahid-tang-nazar ne mujhe kaafir jaanaa
aur kaafir ye samajhtaa hai musalmaan huun main

The blinkered devotee knows me to be an infidel
and the infidel thinks me to be a Muslim

But that rugged forehead never furrowed. She always spoke what she thought was correct, and did only that which her conscience allowed her to. And despite all this, she remained a Congresswoman her entire life, because she did not think that mere membership or position made a person one. Once one accepted Gandhiji's ideology, she said, no one had the power to change that or to expel one from it - she was of the Congress and would always remain so.

Was she a traitor or a patriot, a deshbhakt? The matter can now only be decided by our conscience. And time has already revealed its truth. Born into the lap of wealth and luxury, she was the eldest of seven siblings. Beloved daughter of her parents, and she made ample use of the opportunity to devote herself to the service of the nation. She would give away money with both hands, but her own simple lifestyle never changed, as the profound impact that Sevagram had on her always remained.

Clad in a khaddar kurta with two large pockets, shalwar, Peshawari slippers, and sporting her bobbed hair, she was called 'Boss' by her younger brothers and sisters. (In fact, on a few occasions, her father Ambalal sahab, found himself addressing her with the name as well!) Her friends and associates called her 'Pathan', and other people made satirical reference to her as mard-e-allah, 'an upright man'. And in the last phase of her life, such epithets were bestowed on her that my blood boils over to think of them. They would be repeated to her, but she would just dismiss them in her typical Bombay speech, 'This is how it goes. This is the way that the world is.'

I had hear her name for years but I only met her in the end of 1947. And then we met frequently. Mridula was everywhere - in the camps for the panahguziin, in the tents that the sharnaarthis lived in, at Pandit Nehru's house, and at Rafi sahab's office in the Central Secretariat. From the Government House to filthy, small cramped rooms in Delhi's mohallas, I was witness to Mridula Sarabhai forever rushing about in the years that followed. Unfazed, she would march into the Pakistani High Commission and undaunted, pick quarrels with Hindustani and Pakistani military officers.

With one foot in India and one foot in Pakistan, she could be found at times in dialogue with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, and at others, it would be Lord or Lady Mountbatten who were her interlocutors. Her unusual personality, her heroic endeavours, and her boundless generosity led to the birth of the Shanti Dal. Scores of the workers of this voluntary organisation fanned out in the riot torn areas right up to Kashmir. A veritable army of workers - women and educated girls - was readied, who infiltrated into camps, ashrams, offices, schools, every institution, to spread the message of peace and security.

Mridula had been a general secretary of the Congress party. She had been Gandhiji's special emissary. She was also in charge of Jyoti Sangh, a home for destitute women. She was also the organiser of the Ahmedabad Women's Congress volunteer corps, and also intimately connected to the Kasturba trust, the Taalimii Sangh, Sarvodaya Samiti, and the Gandhi Peace Foundation. She was the beloved daughter of her Thukur Bapa, and Pandit Nehru’s sincere friend. When the Recovery organisation was established under Lady Mountbatten's patronage, it was Mridula who was its manager and everything else.

And it was solely due to Mridula's organisational abilities that she could rescue thousands of girls from Pakistan and restore many more to it. If this 'Pathan' woman hadn't gone herself, accompanied by the Surkh Posh (Khudai Khidmatgar) leader Fakir Khan, no one else would have had the courage to recover twenty-seven Hindu girls.

For the Shanti Dal, Mridula had institutionalised an Information Office, which was located in the four rooms that were her quarters at the Constitution House. Every day, workers would bring in reports from Kashmir, Punjab, and the rural areas of Delhi, that would be typed up and sent that very night to Pandit Nehru, and action would be immediately initiated on them. As a result, the imperilled in Delhi, Punjab, Baramullah, Poonch, and other places, were able to receive relief, and the government's power and reach established. And everywhere our comrades were always engaged and enthusiastic, forever at the ready to receive and act on Mridula Sarabhai's orders.

But how much can I say, how do I enumerate the things that Mridula did in her love for her nation? Whatever her ideas were, she thought them for her people, whatever steps she took, they were for the sake of humanity, because for her the honour and dignity of humankind was more hallowed than any respect she herself was ever owed. Second to Rafi bhai, there was only Mridula's table - on her dastarkhaan, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians all ate together. And hers was the only house that was forever open for the needy as a residence; she was the sole being whom Gujaratis, Marathis, Africans, Afghanis, Bengalis, Kashmiris, could unhesitatingly approach for succour and advice.

But then came a time when she was left all alone. She spent a year in jail as well, and then also suffered the tribulations of house-arrest. All this after Hindustan had become free. She wrote me letters from jail too. Once, during the time she was under house arrest, I could manufacture some pretext and go and spend a few days with her. Her feet would not waver from the path she had trodden.

And then when yesterday's rebels became worthy of dialogue and acquaintance, when all the prisoners in Kashmir were set free and returned to their homes and could take up the responsibility of their children once again, then Mridula said. "My work is done. I wanted justice for the Kashmiris, and that has been accomplished. Now, what they do is not my concern. They are free to pursue any course they wish to.'

The scheme for training rural women was hers. It was she who conceptualised the basic structure of the Bal Sahyog programme. And behind the establishment of Women's Service Home for the Muslim girls who were left behind ay her pledge and commitment. But as soon as some such institution was started or an undertaking for it made, she would step aside, place the diadem on the head of one of her associates, and move on. She asked for no reward for her many services from either the public, or the government, or God. Everyone turned against her, but she bore neither grouse nor complaint against any of them. She believed that such was the way of the world, and that therefore one should not brood about it. One had to continue doing one's duty, fulfilling one's moral obligations to their logical end.

Since a long time, she could not lie down at all. A special brace had to be installed on her bed, resting against which, she could manoeuvre half her body onto the bed. She walked with a limp, and when she went out had to tie a leather belt around her back. The doctor said that the bones in hips and knees had become deformed, and this had had affected her gait. How many times I fought with her, 'I do not see why you must go out in this condition! Why do you work so hard? Why must you have so much concern for others and pay so little heed to your own age?'

But she just had to attend meetings right until the beginning of the week that she fell ill, she had to have letters written, read the cuttings from newspapers, come to the aid of students, visit the sick and the ailing, besides having scores of telephone calls placed and attended to. She could barely swallow a morsel or two of boiled vegetables. She had very little time and so much to do.

She spent only nine days in bed and right to the end, did her duty. If anyone reminded her of the ingratitude of another -- 'You did this for him and look how he paid you back!' - she would take it amiss, and flatly refuse having done anything noteworthy for that person at all. Whatever she did was for integrity's sake, for humanity and another human, for love for country, for peace and security. On the receipt of such a reply, the questioner would fall quiet, embarrassed.

In order to help convey an ordinary young girl to her parents in Pakistan, she had no hesitation in spending two thousand rupees. It was imperative for her to be one with her friends in their times of pain and sorrow. She stood for the rights of those who the nation and society had cast aside or forgotten, because they too had once upon a time fought for the country's freedom.

She was so broken-hearted and listless after the death of her brother, Vikram Sarabhai. I felt that she was readying herself for the long journey. On one occasion, I even burst out, "Mridula, for the love of God, please don't go and leave me alone in this world! To even think of that time, where one is left alone, without friends, fills me with dread."

But that is what happened, as was God's will.

Mridula was a true Hindustani, but her mind was the scientific mind of the twentieth century. Her culture was Hindu, but such was the absence of distinction in the heart that every corner of her house was wide open to the piety of all creeds and religions. the soul of every faith dwelt in her, but what her own religion was, I do not know.

Someone remarked that Mridula was an institution, another termed her a patriot, a real deshbhakt. One saluted her as a freedom fighter, and yet another reminded us of her courage, intrepidity, principles and righteousness in the fight. But no one said this one thing: I wish I was a 'traitor' just like her, who could save this nation from the deshbhakti of so many self-proclaimed patriots. I can only pray that God bestows his benefaction on them and on the Day of Judgement makes them understand:

ye bandaa do-aalam se a , hafa mere liye hai

This being is angry at the universe for my sake.
Mohammad Ali Jauhar


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