Gandhi’s Women Warriors: Perin Captain

This month as we remember the Father of the Nation Gandhi, it is also a good time to remember some of the many women warriors who played significant parts in the march for Indian independence. Among these was Perin Naoroji Captain.

Perin was the granddaughter of the ‘Grand Old Man of India’ Dadabhai Naoroji. She was born on 12 October 1888 in Mandvi in the Kutch district of Gujarat. Her father Ardeshir, Dadabhai Naoroji’s elder son was a medical doctor and her mother Virbai Dadina a home maker. Perin’s father died when she was only 5 years old. She did her schooling in Bombay and moved to Paris for higher studies where she did a degree in French language.

It was while she was a student at the Sorbonne in Paris that Perin met Madam Bhikaji Cama who was living there in self-exile. Bhikaji had gone to Europe, and then to London in1902, to rest and recover from the bubonic plague of 1896 which she had caught while volunteering to work with the victims in Bombay. Though she recovered, the disease left her in poor health. While she was in London Bhikaji met Dadabhai Naoroji who was a strong critic of the British economic policy and she began working for the Indian National Congress. She also was a close associate of Veer Savarkar. It was while she was in London that Bhikaji was informed that she would not be allowed to return to India unless she signed a statement that she would not take part in nationalist activities. Bhikaji Cama refused to do so, and remained in exile in Europe from where she continued to support the revolutionaries in every possible way.

At the time when Perin met Madam Cama, the latter was deeply involved in trying for the release of Savarkar who was imprisoned in London for defying the British. During her Paris student days Perin was actively involved in a number of ‘revolutionary’ causes including the conspiracy to get Savarkar out of jail, and working with Polish émigré organisations who were opposing the Tsarist rule in Russia. During these interactions, Perin and her sister Gosi also learned how to use firearms and assemble bombs.  

Perin returned to India in 1911. An opportunity to meet Gandhi transformed her ‘revolutionary’ zeal into a lifelong belief in the power of non-violent protest as an effective weapon. By 1919 she was fully committed to the Swadeshi movement and started wearing khadi. In 1920 she helped to establish the Rashtriya Stree Sabha, a women’s’ movement based on Gandhian ideals. She married the eminent lawyer DS Captain in 1925. The couple did not have children. 

The countrywide civil disobedience movement that Gandhi launched with the Salt March in 1930 marked the first time that women, en masse, became active  participants in the country’s struggle for freedom. Thousands of women, in cities and villages, demonstrated their support by joining the protest marches, picketing of foreign goods, and manufacturing and selling salt. In the first ten months of 1930 as many as 17,000 women were convicted for these activities.

 Perin Captain, along with other women leaders like Kamaldevi Chattopadhyay was on the forefront of the protests in Bombay. Every day they led groups of satyagrahis, singing national songs, to the seaside to bring sea water which was dried in cement pans. The salt was packed in small packets and the ladies went to different places to sell the packets. Sometimes the salt packets were auctioned and sold to the highest bidder (at one place the highest bid was two rupees). Perin and Kamaladevi addressed a number of public meetings encouraging people to show their solidarity and join the peaceful protests. This was all under the watchful eyes of the British police. The name of Perin Captain features frequently in the Daily Reports of the Police Commissioner of Bombay submitted to the Secretary to Government of Bombay Presidency. The police intelligence was keeping a close watch on the unfurling movement of civil disobedience, as well as its leaders.

As an active member of the Congress party Perin was also trusted by Gandhi to ensure that the protests remained scrupulously non-violent and passive. On 4 July 1930 Perin was arrested as she was setting out for the Congress office. As a newspaper reported “she cheerfully submitted to the officers who came to her home”. Once the news of her arrest spread, the Municipal Corporation of Bombay adjourned, the Sugar Merchants’ Association passed a unanimous resolution to boycott British refined sugar.

Perin Captain’s leadership qualities saw her playing an active role in many other areas, but the Civil Disobedience Movement was a defining episode in her public life.

Perin was a trusted and active member of the Congress party in the state. In 1932 she became the first woman president of the Bombay Provincial Congress Committee. In 1937 the Congress Party came to power in eleven provinces in the provincial elections. In order to prepare for the future responsibilities that such developments would lead to, the Indian National Congress formed a National Planning Committee with Jawaharlal Nehru as Chairman. The Committee was clear that in such a future, women would be on an equal footing with men, and any planning should be based on this premise. Perin was a member of the sub-committee on Women’s Role in a Planned Economy. This committee debated and planned policy for issues such as women’s social, economic and political status, education, marriage, maternity and succession.

Over time smaller Gandhian bodies were merged into what became the Gandhi Seva Sena. Perin became its Honorary General Secretary, a post she held until her death. The Gandhi Seva Sena promoted khadi by selling rural and khadi products from their stores.

Even after independence Perin continued to work actively in the field of social work and welfare.  Perin was appointed Chief Commissioner of Bharat Guides. She was honoured with the Padma Sri in 1954, the first batch of civil awards presented in independent India. She died in Jahangir Nursing Home, Pune in 1958.

Perin Naoroji Captain was not only the granddaughter of the Grand Old Man of India, she was a true daughter of India’s swadeshi movement who boldly carried the message of the Mahatma to thousands of her fellow sisters.

–Mamata

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