With the passage of the Rowlatt Act in 1919, thousands of Indians came onto the streets to protest the indiscriminate trials with juries and suppression of revolutionary activities.
A week later, when crowds gathered in Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh to hold a peaceful protest against this tyrannical Act, they were met with unprecedented violence that left thousands dead and more injured.
For Umabai, 27 years old at the time, this marked a powerful shift — one that turned her into a fiery revolutionary.
Umabai came from an affluent background and a supportive family that encouraged her to complete her education. For her, India’s freedom — beyond dethroning colonial power — also meant social reforms like education, affordable healthcare and women empowerment.
When she joined India’s freedom struggle, she, like most Indians, started by giving up foreign goods — her wardrobe was now full of khadi sarees.
She also understood the importance of women’s participation in revolutions, and began mobilising women to take part in marches and rallies through door-to-door campaigns.
After her husband’s death in 1923, she moved to Hubli in Karnataka, where she started to look after the family-owned Karnataka Press and the ‘Tilak Kanya Shala’, a girls’ school.
Her work was soon noticed by freedom fighter Dr N S Hardikar, who made her the head of the women’s wing of Hindustani Seva Dal.
From her own education and literacy experience, she decided to educate other women and established her own NGO Bhagini Mandal.
While Indians acclaimed her work, the British authorities 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 and she opened the doors of her house to freedom fighters who sought refuge and a place to hide. Unafraid of the British, she gave shelter to underground workers even during the 1942 Quit India movement.
Umabai’s bravery did not go unnoticed. In 1946, Gandhi appointed her as the head of Kasturba Trust, under which she trained several women including young widows.
In a tribute several years later, former vice president Venkaiah Naidu recalled, “...She selflessly served the people day and night…[and] refused honours and offers that came her way, even after the country attained independence.”