MRIDULA SARABHAI: Rebel with a Cause

Item Code: IDG132
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Author: Aparna Basu
Language: English
Edition: 2003
ISBN: 9780195667943
Pages: 290
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5" X 4"
Weight 330 gm
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Book Description

About the Book:

'If I had a hundred women like Mridula', said Gandhiji, 'I could launch a revolution in India'. Born in 1911 into the Sarabhai family of Ahmedabad, she came under the spell of Gandhi and left her home to join the Salt Satyagraha. She was imprisoned several times between 1930 and 1944. Deeply influenced by Nehru's ideas on socialism and secularism, Mridula Sarabhai was involved not only in the freedom struggle but also in the fight for women's right to equality, civil liberty, and in the individual's right to dissent.

Based on Mridula Sarabhai's private papers, the book will be of interest not only to students and scholars of gender studies, history and politics, but to the lay readers as well.

About the Author:

Aparna Basu is President, All India Women's Conference and former professor of History at University of Delhi.


I had the privilege of knowing Mridula Sarabhai, her parents, her brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces. She was the eldest child of a distinguished family headed by one of India's top industrialists which also produced a renowned nuclear physicist, a poet-novelist, several social workers and dancers of repute. As far as I am concerned she was the most outstanding woman of her times that I have known. Let me elucidate.

Boss as she was known to her family and friends had really noth- ing very bossy about her. She was blissfully unaware of being the daughter of a wealthy mill owner; she talked on equal terms with the most powerful of politicians as she did with humble factory workers and peasants; she was more at ease sitting on broken charpoys in dhabas than on plush sofas in five star hotels. Although somewhat impatient to get on with the job in hand, she never raised her voice in anger at anyone. She was in fact a no-nonsense, serious minded woman who had no small talk or gossip. She was earnest about every- thing she did, come to think of it, I rarely saw her smile and not once saw her break out in guffaws of laughter. Though attractive, she took pains to make herself appear as plain-looking as she could; short cropped hair, simple, loose fitting salwar kameez of coarse khadi with a khaki dupatta thrown over her shoulders, leather chappels on her feet. Despite her small stature and nondescript appearance, Boss was a formidable ,Person who made her presence felt wherever she was. It was hard to believe that Mridula had been reared in the lap of luxury and had been dandled by Bapu Gandhi who looked upon her as his own daughter. As a young Congress party worker in Gujarat she had come in close contact with leaders of the Freedom movement like Sardar Patel, Acharya Kripalani and Morarji Desai. She idolized Jawaharlal Nehru who, in turn, gave her affection. Later when he became the first Prime Minister of India, Nehru turned to Mridula and entrusted her with the dangerous task of rescuing women ab- ducted by goondas on either side of the newly drawn borders separat- ing Pakistan from India. She was the only woman who without any official status could cross from one country to the other, persuade police officials, civil servants and army personnel to accompany her to refugee camps and homes where women were being kept in cap- tivity and return them to their relatives. At the worst times of tension between India and Pakistan she commanded the respect and affection of people of both countries. She displayed a kind of fearlessness and courage that defied description.

What made Mridula Sarabhai unique among the many women close to the leaders of Independent India was that while others ac- cepted rewards for what they had done by becoming ministers of the Central Government, Chief Ministers and Governors of States, Boss remained totally uninterested in gaining any kind of recognition for herself. She was a living example of the principle of Nishkama Karma; to her the performance of the task given to her was all the reward she wanted.

After Independence when the communal strife in Punjab had sub- sided, Mridula got her involved in sorting out differences that cropped up between the Prime Minister of India, Pandit Nehru and the Prime Minister of Kashmir, Sheikh Abdullah. Both men were her friends and she did her best to bring them closer to each other. It didn't work out the way she had hoped. Sheikh Abdullah, at one time lauded as the Lion of Kashmir for having opted for a Secular India rather than join the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, was accused of treason. Nehru was pressurised by his advisers to dismiss him and put him under arrest. Mridula maintained that Nehru had been mis- guided by people close to him and espoused the case of Sheikh Ab- dullah. While Sheikh Sahib was in jail, she looked after his entire family, organised funds for lawyers to defend him in court and tried to rouse public opinion in India in his favour. A very reluctant Pandit Nehru was pressurised into ordering Mridula's arrest and detention in jail. It hurt her as much as it hurt. Pandit Nehru. Strangely enough it did not diminish their regard or affection for each other.

Mridula Sarabhai left a massive collection of correspondence she exchanged with leaders from the time she entered public life to her death in 1978. A sizeable portion of this including letters Mahatma Gandhi wrote to her were in Gujerati. The Sarabhai Trust had it catalogued and filed. I was partly responsible for persuading Gautam and Gira Sarabhai to commission some competent author-historian to write her biography based on these documents. We were fortunate in finding Dr Aparna Basu, Gujarati wife of a Bengali Civil Servant and herself an established professor of history to undertake this ar- duous task. This biography is the best tribute the Sarabhai family could have paid to this truly great daughter of India.


At twenty Mridula Sarabhai was already a household name in Gujarat. Stories of her unusual courage and oaring during the 1930's Civil Disobedience Movement had spread throughout the province. She had courage as well as qualities of leadership. The awestruck shopkeepers used to call her Pathan when she picketed their liquor stores. At home her family and friends affectionately called her 'Boss'.

Jawaharlal Nehru admired her as 'an extraordinarily brave girl' , one of the bravest persons he had known and also as 'a tremendous worker, a great organizer with amazing grit and courage" Sarojini Naidu described her as the 'Joan of Arc' of Gujarat.

Unmindful of the danger to her life, she would rush out at midnight to rescue an abducted girl or to a site where a train carrying refugees had been attacked. During the riots in 1947 in Punjab, when com- munal frenzy was at its height, a respectable residential area of Lahore had become like a slaughter house. Mridula wanted to rescue an abducted girl from that locality. Her colleagues asked her not to go but she said 'Let me go myself and see what it is like to be gripped by fear'. She walked alone into the area, unmindful of the violent mobs roaming around, made the necessary enquiries and returned. On the way back she picked up a one-and-a-half or two year old boy who was sitting in the middle of the road and carried him safely to a police station. She said later that the boy had been her protector and no one attacked her because of him.

'She is the bravest man in the Indian army', said General Thimayya. Near the village of Shahjahanpur, in Meerut District, she had stood on a tree for seven hours pacifying an armed Jat mob from attacking Muslims. Mridula was adventurous and liked to test her ability to face danger without being daunted.

She remained fearless throughout her life. Once, when asked whether she had experienced fear, she had replied that when con- fronted with danger the instinctive reaction was of fear. But if one trained oneself to face danger, it was possible to function. To be non-violent and courageous called for conviction in one's beliefs. Prominent among those who influenced Mridula's life and thought apart from her parents Saraladevi and Ambalal Sarabhai, were Mahart- ma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Mridula first met Gandhiji in 1918 when she was seven years old Gandhiji had great affection for her-'I carried her in my arms when she was a little girl', he said in one of his last prayer meetings.' As the years went by, because of her family's close relationship with the Mahatma and also because of her own involvement in the freedom struggle, she grew closer to him, worked with him and imbibed many values from him, including that of fearlessness,-both physical and moral. She had the courage of her convictions to differ from Gandhiji. 'I was never his disciple, I was at a distance yet close to him.' She was to record later.

Jawaharlal, she adored and hero worshipped since her teens. Jawaharlal's letters also show his deep concern for her. When Mridula was recovering from an illness in 1938, he invited her and her sister Bharati to Khali, near Almora in the Himalayas to spend a few days with him. He took personal pride in Mridu, 'because to some extent, I have helped and advised her during the past few years.' He was very keen that Indira should meet her and get to know her. To Padmaja Naidu, he wrote that Mridula was 'quite an exceptional girl' With an amazing capacity for work.

In the pre-independence days, whenever Jawaharlal went to Ah- medabad, she. organized the arrangements. She visited him regularly when he was in jail in 1941 when she herself happened not to be imprisoned. In the early years of Nehru's prime ministership, she often functioned unofficially as his Personal Assistant.

Despite her deep personal loyalty and regard for Jawaharlal, she was no sycophant and did not toe the official line. She was outspoken and did not try to curry favour. If she felt that Gandhiji, Nehru or Patel were not right, she promptly and unhesitatingly told them so. In the beginning Mridula had received a great deal of encourage- ment, support and personal guidance from the Gujarat Provincial Congress under the leadership of Sardar Vallabhabhai Patel and Morarji Desai. She had enjoyed a warm cordial relationship with them. She however, often found them conservative, authoritarian and undemocratic. As time went by, it was clear that her leanings were with the Congress Socialists under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru. Soon it was also evident that working in Gujarat would not be congenial.

Mridula was an institution builder. She had the capacity to train and enthuse workers, and inspire loyalty in them for the cause. As soon as she could hand over the running of the organization to a competent colleague she moved on to the next assignment offered to her by either Gandhiji or Jawaharlal.

Till 1946, her headquarters were at Ahmedabad and her activities were limited to Gujarat. She then moved to Delhi at the instance of Jawaharlal and was assigned a suite at the Constitution House from 1946 to 1953. Her work took her to U.P., Bihar, Noakhali, Punjab, and she frequently visited Pakistan trying to restore communal peace and harmony, rescuing and rehabilitating refugees and recovering ab- ducted women.

Thousands of women from both sides of the frontier were rescued and rehabilitated in a span of six years. The best in Mridula emerged in these years and her capacity for work as well as qualities as a leader and organizer became established. Jawaharlal fully supported and trusted her. During this period Mridula frequently visited Kashmir and made a first hand assessment of the complex political situation that was fast deteriorating.

On the night of 9 August 1953, Sheikh Abdullah, chief minister of Kashmir and a friend of Jawaharlal as well as of Mridula, was suddenly arrested and in his place Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad was installed as chief minister. Mridula was in Amritsar when she heard this news and could not believe that Jawaharlal could have been a party to this decision.

Soon after independence in 1947, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Fron- tier Gandhi, had been put, without a trial, under indefinite detention, by the Pakistan Government and there was a great deal of criticism in India of this undemocratic act. How could India under the leader- ship of Jawaharlal do a similar thing in Kashmir? Mridula could not reconcile herself to such a contradiction. She suspected that Jawahar- lal had been purposely misinformed about the Sheikh and the situa- tion in Kashmir. Since assuming office as the prime minister, he was gradually losing direct contact with the masses and had started depending more and more on his official advisers and she thought that he must have been misguided. She was convinced that once Jawaharalal knew the true facts he would change his stand. But in this she did not succeed.

Mridula believed that Sheikh Abdullah was the only real, popular leader of Kashmir and it would be both politically expedient and morally correct for the Government of India to support him rather than put him in jail. She felt that a government operating from Delhi should not make and unmake governments in Kashmir: in the process it would become suspect and lose popular support in the Valley. The anti-Indian, pro-Pakistan lobby would snow ball with Sheikh's arrest. Only through an understanding with the Sheikh could India achieve a lasting integration of the State.

Though deeply interested in politics Mridula did not believe in sacrificing principles in order to get power or position.

Jawaharlal was exasperated and was not willing to accept her as the keeper of his conscience and this is perhaps where the main con- flict lay between him and Mridula when it came to the question of Kashmir.

Since she could not immediately succeed at the political level to remedy the situation, in a desperate move, she tried almost single handedly, to inform and convince all those who were at all sym- pathetic and whose opinion mattered, in India and abroad, by putting before them the true facts.

Excerpts from Review:

'...this book is important, not only for the value of its research, but also for the contribution to setting the balance straight on the invisibility of gender, and of women, in our history.'



  List of Photographs xv
  Introduction 1
I Early Influences 11
II Satyagraha 29
III In Prison 41
IV The Indian National Congress 54
V Towards Women's Equality 68
VI Communal Riots 88
VII The Great Migration 103
VIII Recovery of Abducted Women 122
IX Kashmir 147
X The Crusader 230
Mridula Sarabhai-Biographical Sketch 238
Appendix I : List of Persons Interviewed 247
Appendix II : Letter of Mahatma Gandhi to Mridula Sarabhai 249
Appendix III : Letter of Jawaharlal Nehru to Mridula Sarabhai 250
Appendix IV : Number of Women and Children Recovered from
Notes 253
Bibliography 264
Index 267

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