The women of India should have as much share in winning swaraj as men. …I hope that women all over India will take up the challenge and organize themselves.”
It was in words such as these that the Mahatma appealed to the women of India to join the struggle for freedom.
Among the thousands of women across the country who responded to Gandhi’s call, and who continued to live and practise his message of satyagraha, self-reliance and dedicated service to the people right through their life, was a young woman from Gujarat—Poornima Pakvasa.
Poornima was born in Ranpur near Limdi in Saurashtra in a family of strong nationalistic beliefs. She first met Gandhi when she was eight years old, and this proved to be the defining moment in her life. By the time she was 18 years old she was an active participant in the Satyagraha movement.
Gandhi’s Dandi March in 1930 had ignited a nationwide fervour. Initially Gandhi had included no women in the Dandi March. But women everywhere protested this decision and insisted that they wanted to be full participants in the protest marches, demonstrations, boycotts, and even imprisonment. Kasturba Gandhi herself was equally adamant on this point. These women went from village to village and town to town, urging other women to come out of their homes and join the movement by picketing liquor shops, advocating the boycott of foreign cloth, and encouraging the spinning and weaving of khadi. Young Poornima was an impassioned crusader in the swadeshi movement and demonstrations of defiance to the British rule. It was during this period that she was arrested and put in prison in Rajkot. As it happened, she was incarcerated in the same cell as Kasturba Gandhi, Maniben Patel and Mridula Sarabhai who became her real-life inspirations and role models. While she was in prison Poornima spent her time teaching English reading and writing to the women inmates, including Kasturba. The two became close, with Kasturba nurturing the young girl, who in turn found in Kasturba the mother that she had lost. It is said that Gandhi was so pleased with Poornima’s efforts that he gave his blessings that she should continue on the path of education. And indeed, this is what was to become Poornima’s life mission.
In the meanwhile Poornima became more deeply involved in the politics of the freedom struggle. She participated in the 51st session of the Indian National Congress at Haripura in 1938. There was a massive turn out, estimated at more than half a million people, and Poornima proved her mettle as a volunteer in managing the crowds.
It was in the same year that Poornima got married to Arvind Pakvasa, the son of Mangaldas Pakvasa who was a close confidante of Gandhi, and who had left a successful practise as a solicitor to devote himself to the freedom struggle. He later became one of the first five governors of independent India. Thus Poornima moved into an active nationalistic family. But she herself took a break from political activism to devote time to her family, and bring up her three children. One daughter went on to achieve fame as the danseuse Sonal Mansingh. Poornima herself was an accomplished Manipuri dancer, and singer.
Having been a part of India’s struggle for Swaraj, Poornima could not but be drawn back into active engagement with the issues that the Independent India was challenged with. In 1954 she started Stree Shakti Dal an organisation for the cultural, physical and spiritual education of women in Bombay. She encouraged women to become physically and mentally strong; girls were trained in using laathis, rifle shooting, and self defence. She also headed the Bhonsala Military School in Nasik for 25 years.
Through the years, Poornima had been deeply concerned about the condition of tribal girls, and was strongly driven by a passion to do something concrete about this. Poornima remembered how, when she was just a teenager, Kasturba had nurtured her with love and compassion, and also Gandhiji’s belief that she could contribute to the field of education. She pledged that she would live up to the faith of Kasturba and Gandhiji, and strived to give generously of herself to better the lives of young tribal girls.
Her vision and mission fructified with the establishment of the Ritambhara Vishwa Vidyapeeth in the Saputara region of the Dangs district of Gujarat in 1974. The early days were challenging, in a place (a remote hilly area) and time when education for tribal girls was unheard of. Poornima herself went from door to door to convince parents to send their daughters to school. The school started with only 15 girls. Poornima mentored the young girls and inculcated in them a love for education, and classical arts, as well as empowerment through physical fitness and vocational skills.
Directed by Poornima’s vision and passion the Ritambhara Vishwa Vidyapeeth extended its activities to become a residential school and college for tribal girls of the area, where hundreds of tribal girls are provided free lodging and boarding facilities and education from 6th up to 12th standards. Over the years, thousands of tribal girls have emerged from the Rithambhara Vidyapeeth as self-confident and capable young women.
The Gramin Vikas Trust was set up to complement Poornima Pakvasa’s work in the educational field with overall developmental activities. Her trailblazing work and contribution to the nation was recognised by conferring on her the Padma Bhushan in 2004. But for the people of the Dangs, she was simply “Didi”– the big sister who was a mentor, a steady supporter, and an inspiration.
Poornima Pakvasa continued to live and work in Saputara until she passed away at the age of 102 on 25 April 2016. Her legacy lives on through the thousands of lives that she touched.