Updated: Jul 25, 2021
The maker of modern India missing in standard history textbooks
Building new homes and integrating the millions displaced from West and East Pakistan after partition was one of the many complex challenges faced by young India. Most displaced persons from West Punjab were farmers but several artisans, tradesmen, and laborers also came along.
The government built townships to accommodate them. Faridabad was one such township. Here, Kamaladevi (KC) headed the Indian Cooperative Union (ICU), a group active in helping refugees (mostly artisans and tradesmen) build new lives.
They set up shops, self-help groups, small production units, which were powered by a diesel plant set up at short notice — all this under the leadership of this fantastic woman. Here is a woman, in the 1940s, getting the difficult job done of regenerating livelihoods and building a township for weary and vulnerable men and women in new India! If that’s not public policy and leadership, I don’t know what is. This is the first instance and context in which I learned about KC (Pg. 88, India After Gandhi). Today, she is mostly known for her impact on Indian crafts, arts, theatre, and handloom but that’s only one aspect of her legacy.
So not only was KC the creator of Faridabad, she was the first woman to run for legislative office in India (the Madras provincial elections in the 1920s)! She lost, but became secretary of the All India Women’s Conference. She was also the one who convinced Gandhi to allow women to partake equally in the famous Salt March to Dandi.
Her “good trouble” extended beyond India — while visiting America, she shared the principles of non-violence and civil disobedience with African-American political organizers. The British even banned her from returning to India, clearly wary of her activism.
The National School of Drama, Lady Irwin College, Delhi Craft Council, Central Cottage Industries Emporium, Craft Council of India, among others owe their existence to her. Therefore, the cute google doodle remembering her on her birthday in 2018.
In her personal life too, KC was a trailblazer. Thanks to patriarchal norms, she was married off at 14, was widowed at 16, but hey married again because of course, she challenged widow remarriage. Her second husband, Harindranath Chattopadhyay (Sarojini Naidu’s brother) wasn’t the best either (according to Devaki Jain’s memoir) and was seedy, and did not respect women’s personal space to put it politely. So, KC’s divorce was the first to be granted by an Indian trial court — note though, that she was fortunate to have been borne to an upper caste family and economic privilege which made it relatively less difficult (difficult regardless!) for her to build an outside option. It’s all about the outside option, (read: financial independence) ladies and gents!
Finally, she also founded the Family Planning Association in 1930 to work on access to contraception and sexual liberation of women in India. She pushed for reforms for greater representation of women in trade unions, recognition of unpaid labour by women, property rights of women, and child custody — not all the reforms her team lobbied for went through. But we have her, along with other activists to thank for the Child Marriage Restraint and Age of Consent bills.
Since this is just supposed to be an introductory blog, I’ll stop here. But here is an article by her on the issues facing women in post-independence India in the EPW, there’s a paywall :(. And here is a link to a readable biography of a woman who paved the way for us!