Umabai: When a Defiant Widow Led 150 Women to Fight for India’s Freedom

An unsung woman freedom fighter, Umabai Kundapur championed the rights and education of women. Here's her forgotten story.

As public outrage engulfed the country in the aftermath of the Rowlatt Act, 1919, a young woman, all of 27 years old, felt something stir within her.

Gandhi had made an appeal to Indians to oppose this unjust act, which allowed trials without juries, and thousands of protestors marched onto the streets of Bombay. Umabai, on her way to take her matriculation exams, had to walk to her examination hall in the wake of public transport being disrupted due to protests.

Just a week later, the country came to a standstill when protestors were gunned down at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar for peacefully protesting the law. This time, Umabai was amid the thousands that came out on the streets to protest against the tragedy.

The following year, she, along with her father Anandrao and husband Sanjiv, would find herself amid surging crowds once again, when Bombay’s streets spilled over to attend Lokmanya Tilak’s funeral.

As people wept and rued the loss of India’s strong leaders, Umabai felt something shift in her. Here she found a new determination to join the freedom movement.

Doing the near impossible

For Umabai Kundapur, fighting for India’s freedom was much more than just dethroning colonial power. Independence to her meant very little without social reforms such as education, affordable healthcare and women empowerment.

Raised amid an affluent background, and married into a well-to-do family at the age of nine, she was pushed by her father to complete her education.

“She had made an invaluable contribution to the freedom movement and was instrumental in laying the foundation for one of the largest voluntary organisations in the country. She selflessly served the people day and night, but always preferred to maintain a low profile. She refused the honours and offers that came her way, even after the country attained independence,” Vice President of India, Venkaiah Naidu wrote in a tribute post for Umabai.

Like most Indians, her first step against the British was to give foreign goods, and her wardrobe was now full of khadi sarees. Soon, she realised the dearth of women in marches and rallies and started mobilising women through door-to-door campaigns.

Just when she was fully understanding the urgency and seriousness of protests, life threw another curveball.

In 1923, her husband passed away due to tuberculosis. She was only 31 at the time.

Devastated by the loss, Umabai moved to Hubli in Karnataka with Anandrao’s help. There, she was encouraged to look after the family-owned Karnataka Press and the ‘Tilak Kanya Shala’, a girls’ school.

While the idea was to help her move on from the tragedy, she ended up acquiring a stronger resolve to uplift society.

Her work towards inspiring children and their parents to join the freedom movement was soon noticed by freedom fighter Dr N S Hardikar, who made her the head of the women’s wing of Hindustani Seva Dal.

As part of her job, Umabai trained several young people in spinning, weaving, camping, drills, etc. As more and more people joined the Dal and participated in the activities, national leaders, including Gandhi, were impressed with her work and determination.

Alongside working for Harikar, Umabai realised the need to mould women’s potential to make the freedom struggle even more stronger. From her own education and literacy experience, she decided to educate other women and established her own NGO, Bhagini Mandal.

Her efforts to mobilise women from different parts of Karnataka paid off when she was one of the organisers for a session to be presided over by Gandhi.

It is imperative to point out that in those times, the freedom of women was still restricted and reserved. In such a scenario, Umabai achieved a near impossible task, and gathered over 150 women volunteers (including widows) for the historic Belgaum Congress Session in 1924.

Salt Satyagraha to Quit India Movement

While Umabai’s exact involvement in Salt Satyagraha in the early 1930s is not known, according to historical literature and VP Naidu’s post, she was kept in Pune’s Yerwada Jail for four months. The imprisonment took place around the same time when thousands of people were marching on the streets as part of the Dandi March, led by Gandhi to oppose the 1882 Salt Act.

When she was released, another tragedy awaited her. This time, her father-in-law had passed away. To make things worse, the British had confiscated the Karnataka Press, shut the school for which she was in-charge, and declared Bhagini Mandal as unlawful.

These setbacks motivated her to work harder for her rights and freedom. She opened the doors of her house to freedom fighters who sought refuge and a place to hide. She also provided them with monetary assistance and food.

In 1934, when houses in Bihar came crashing down due to the devastating earthquake, Umabai once again came forward to help the affected. She and her team of volunteers travelled to Bihar and provided assistance.

Unafraid of the British, she gave shelter to underground workers even during the 1942 Quit India movement.

Apart from her big heart, one can only imagine the courage she must have gathered to put herself at risk every time her house hosted a guest that was fighting against the authorities. She was ready to risk going to jail again if it meant helping her fellow citizens.

Umabai’s bravery did not go unnoticed. In 1946, Gandhi appointed her as the head of Kasturba Trust. Under the Trust, she trained several women including young widows and destitutes in arts and crafts to make them self-sufficient.

Her work brought her several awards and accolades after independence, but she never accepted any, for she said she did the work without expecting anything in return.

Umabai, who was defiant, a revolutionary, and a champion for disempowered women, was hailed by Gandhi, admired by the freedom fighters, and will always be celebrated by every generation for her extraordinary contribution.

Sources

Vice President Venkiah Naidu/Facebook 

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Edited by Divya Sethu

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