Thanks, but No Thanks: Awards Declined

Last week I was ruminating on KK Shailaja and her refusal of the Magsaysay award. She is not alone. There are several people across the world who for principles or personal choices refuse awards.

Arguably the most prestigious award in the world is the Nobel. But there are two people who have refused the Noble too.

The first was the author Jean-Paul Sartre, who in principle refused all official awards. He declined the 1964 Literature Prize, stating: ‘A writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honourable form.’

The other person who refused the Nobel was Le Duc Tho of North Vietnam. He and Henry Kissinger were awarded the 1974 Peace Prize together  ’for jointly having negotiated a cease fire in Vietnam in 1973’. However, Le Duc Tho refused the award ‘on the grounds that his opposite number had violated the truce’. He said ‘peace has not yet been established’.

Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman’s reason for declining the Fields Medal, considered the Nobel of mathematics, was similar to Jean-Paul Sartre. He said that he had no interest in money and fame and did not want to be on display like a zoo animal. Considering that the inaugural award was $1-million, that was a brave stand.

Arundati Roy
Arundati Roy

Protest against governments is often a reason to refuse awards. For instance, Arundhati Roy, Booker-winning novelist, refused the Sahitya Akademi Award for her collection of political essays  The Algebra of Infinite Justice saying she could not accept an award from an institution supported by the Indian government, whose policies on “big dams, nuclear weapons, increasing militarization and economic liberalism” she disagreed with.

Chinua Achebe
Chinua Achebe

Another author who refused an award from his government was the renowned novelist Chinua Achebe. Nigeria offered him the ‘Commander of the Federal Republic’. But Achebe in a letter to the then-president Olusegun Obasanjo expressed his great discomfort with events in Nigeria. His letter said ‘I had a strong belief that we would outgrow our shortcomings under leaders committed to uniting our diverse peoples. Nigeria’s condition today under your watch is, however, too dangerous for silence.’ He again turned down the honour again in 2011

Not against the government, but Marlon Brando registered his protest against the establishment—in this case Hollywood. He refused the Oscar for Best Actor for the film Godfather in 1973, citing the ill-treatment of native Americans by the film industry as the reason.

Several Indians have refused the government’s high honours for several reason.  Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, freedom fighter and our first Education Minister declined the honour, taking the principled stand that those who were on selection committees for national honours should not themselves receive them.

PN Haksar bureaucrat and diplomat who served as Principal Secretary to the PM was offered the Bharat Ratna in 1973 specially in the light of his role in brokering the Indi-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, as well as the Shimla Agreement. He declined saying ‘Accepting an award for work done somehow causes an inexplicable discomfort to me’. Some other civil servants have also taken this stand.

A communist who probably set the standard for KK Shailaja was EMS Namboodiripad, General Secretary of the CPI (M) and the Kerala’s first Chief Minister who declined the 1992 Bharat Ratna–he said it went against his nature to accept a state honour.

Some others like Swami Ranganathananda have declined awards because it was given to them as individuals, and not to the organizations that they were part of—in this case, the Ramakrishana Mission.

Two prominent journalists—Nikhil Chakravarty and K. Subrahmanyam (who was also a civil servant)—refused Padma Bhushans because they thought it was not appropriate for journalists to accept awards from the government. As Nikhilda put it ‘journalists should not be identified with the establishment.’

Romila Thapar the distinguished historian refused to accept the Padma Bhushan twice. Her stand was that she would accept awards only ‘from academic institutions or those associated with my professional work.’

Several distinguished people have refused or returned honours due to specific incidents, as a mark of protest against the government. These include Hindi author and parliamentarian Seth Govind Das, and Hindi novelist and playwright Vrindavan Lal Varma, both protesting against the amendment of the Official Languages Act to allow for the continued official use of the English language. The famous Kannada novelist Shivram Karanth  returned his award to protest against the declaration of Emergency. PM Bhargava, scientist and founder-director of Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology returned his award in protest of the Dadri mob lynchings and out of concern at the ‘prevailing socio-political situation’ in the country. Prakash Singh Badal ex-CM Punjab, and SS Dhindsa leader of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Democratic) party, returned their awards to show their support to the Farmers’ protests.

Some return awards because they feel the recognition has been delayed too long, or because they feel that people junior to them have been recognized before them. These include playback singer S. Janaki who felt it came too late. Sociologist GS Ghurye refused his award because he felt that people who had contributed less had been given more prestigious awards.

Whatever the reasons, when people of achievement refuse or return awards, governments and establishments need to seriously listen to the reasons. If they think the person is worth honouring, surely the point that they make by refusing the award must be worth listening to?


Celebrating the Gurus: Teachers’ Day

Rabindranath Tagore was the one who gave Gandhiji the title of Mahatma. Gandhi in turn called him ‘Gurudev’ in reverence to his wisdom and his learning, and saw him as a teacher to humanity.
Gurudev and Radhakrishnan at Shantiniketan where Oxford Univ held a special convocation in 1940 to honour Tagore
Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore gave India a different vision of education, of teachers and the teaching process. It is appropriate to remind ourselves of his views on these subjects on the occasion of Teachers’ Day, Sept 5. Trying to paraphrase him would be useless.  So better, I thought, to share a few quotes:
About teachers:
‘A teacher can never truly teach unless he too continues to teach himself. One lamp can never light another unless it continues to burn its own flames. Similarly, the teacher who has come to the end of his subject, and has no living traffic with his knowledge but merely repeats his lessons to his students, can only burden their minds, he cannot inspire them.’
‘Good teachers activate children’s minds instead of helping them to assimilate and collect information, and inspire children through their own self-development. They encourage them to work on the teacher’s own original projects and thereby travel together on their journey to more understanding.’
Gurudev always looked for gurus for his schools and educational institutions, rather than teachers. According to him, gurus are ‘active in the efforts to achieve the fullness of humanity”. They ‘will give their whole selves to their students instead of merely sharing the material as prescribed by the curriculum’.
His message to teachers:
‘Do not be preoccupied with method. Leave your instincts to guide you to life. Children differ from one another. One must learn to know them, to navigate among them as one navigates among reefs. To explore the geography of their minds, a mysterious instinct, sympathetic to life, is the best of all guides.’
He wanted teachers and school administrators to recognize the importance of letting children discover the joy of learning and what nature has to teach them. Nothing sums this up better than an excerpt from a lecture he gave in London in 1933, where he recounts one of his encounters with a more ‘traditional’ educator:
‘I well remember the surprise and annoyance of an experienced headmaster, reputed to be a successful disciplinarian, when he saw one of the boys of my school climbing a tree and choosing a fork of the branches for settling down to his studies. I had to say to him in explanation that ‘childhood is the only period of life when a civilized man can exercise his choice between the branches of a tree and his drawing-room chair, and should I deprive this boy of that privilege because I, as a grown-up man, am barred from it?’ What is surprising is to notice the same headmaster’s approbation of the boys’ studying botany. He believes in an impersonal knowledge of the tree because that is science, but not in a personal experience of it. This growth of experience leads to forming instinct, which is the result of nature’s own method of instruction. The boys of my school have acquired instinctive knowledge of the physiognomy of the tree. By the least touch they know where they can find a foothold upon an apparently inhospitable trunk; they know how far they can take liberty with the branches, how to distribute their bodies’ weight so as to make themselves least burdensome to branchlets. My boys are able to make the best possible use of the tree in the matter of gathering fruits, taking rest and hiding from undesirable pursuers. I myself was brought up in a cultured home in a town, and as far as my personal behaviour goes, I have been obliged to act all through my life as if I were born in a world where there are no trees. Therefore I consider it as a part of education for my boys to let them fully realize that they are in a scheme of existence where trees are a substantial fact, not merely as generating chlorophyll and taking carbon from the air, but as living trees.Ideal Teachers: Gurus vs. Schoolmasters.’
On Teachers’ Day, as we commemorate Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, another of India’s great educators, let us think about what education means in this changing world, and how the role of teachers must evolve.

Sweet Offerings

Meena’s biscuit trail led me to look into the history and story of what is perhaps one of the favourite pan-Indian sweets—the modak or laddoo. This seemed appropriate in a week marked by the preparing, offering and the partaking of this sweet for Ganesh Chaturthi.

The connection between the elephant-headed God and his love for modaks can be traced back to ancient lore and legends. One story goes thus. One day, Anasuya, the wife of the ancient rishi Atri invited lord Shiva, his wife Parvati, and their baby son Ganesha for a meal. Shiva was ready to start eating but Anasuya said that the adults could eat once the Bal Ganesha was fed. She laid out a sumptuous spread, and Ganesha immediately started to partake of the goodies. He ate and ate everything that was before him, but just did not seem to have had enough. His parents and hostess looked on in wonder. Anasuya then went in and brought a single piece of sweet and offered it to the seemingly ever-hungry Ganesha. As soon as he ate it, Ganesha let out a loud burp. At last, he was sated! At exactly the same time, by now  the very-hungry Shiva also burped 21 times. Parvati was curious to know what this wonder sweet was that seemed to have satisfied the hunger of both father and son. Anasuya told her that it was a modak. Thereafter Parvati expressed her wish that all devotees of Ganesha should offer him 21 modaks. This tradition has carried on to this day.  

While the traditional modak recipe is said to have its origins in Maharashtra, modaks  are prepared across India in a variety of ways, and are known by various names– mothagam or kozhukattai in Tamil, modhaka or kadubu in Kannada, or modakam or kudumu in Telugu. Modaks are made both by steaming, and by frying. Their traditional recipe includes fillings of grated coconut and jaggery with a hint of cardamom or nutmeg, encased in a covering made of flour.

Churma laddoo

While in several parts of India, modak refers to the steamed and stuffed version, in some states like Gujarat the word modak and laddoo are synonymous. The word laddoo is used to refer to the spherical sweet primarily made from flour, ghee, and sugar or jaggery. Laddoos themselves have a long history, both in lore as well as in the culinary culture of India.

An interesting folktale traces the origins of what may have caused the difference between laddoo and modak. The story goes that Ganesha’s maternal grandmother Queen Menavati used to indulge her grandson by feeding him with laddoos that she made. As he grew, his appetite for the sweet was insatiable. Grandmother could not keep up with his endless capacity to gobble them down, especially as making  laddoos is a laborious and time-consuming process, as each ball has to be individually moulded and set . She thought that by making a similar stuffed sweet that could be steamed together in larger numbers would hasten the process. Her grandson was equally delighted with this variation. And thus came about the steamed modaks, and Ganesha’s moniker Modakpriya—lover of modaks.

The history of laddoos can be traced back a long way. The term ladduka first finds mention in the Mahabharata. Sushruta Samhita the classical Sanskrit text on medicine and surgery also has references to laddoos. It is believed that Indian physician, Sushruta, used ladoos as an antiseptic to treat his surgical patients. In the 4th century BC, he used a concoction of ingredients like sesame seeds, jaggery and peanuts which had nutritional properties, to make laddoos which provided strength and energy. Even today new mothers and pregnant women are given laddoos with special additional herbs and seeds to boost their immunity, and improve lactation. Old texts also mention laddoos being carried during long journeys, and wartime because of their long shelf life.  

The wonderful diversity of culinary traditions across India has led to a mouth-watering array of ‘speciality’ laddoos made with different ingredients. Over the years, people from different communities started experimenting with the ingredients and replaced them with whatever was readily available in their region. Other elements like geography, weather and diets of communities also play a significant role. For example laddoos with gond (edible gum) are eaten in winter as they are believed to give warmth and energy. The Sankranti festival in Gujarat is incomplete without the variety of laddoos made from seasonal ingredients like sesame, peanuts and jaggery. 

From the besan laddoos which are common to several states, the boondi or motichur laddoo that is originally said to hail from Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, churma laddoo from Gujarat and Rajasthan, coconut ladoo and rava laddoo from the southern states, the Assamese black sesame laddoo–each region-specific laddoo has its distinct identity, and has specific associations with the local traditions and culture.

The laddoo also has associations with celebrations. While traditionally the partaking of laddoos is a part of certain festivals, the distribution and sharing of laddoos is an important part of any happy or auspicious occasion—an engagement, a wedding, the birth of a baby, exam results, a new job appointment. All “good news” was heralded by sending and receiving a box of laddoos.

Times are changing though. In urban areas, the time-honoured tradition is now being represented by boxes of designer chocolates, and gift hampers with imported goodies. Celebrity chefs are conjuring up fusion recipes for old sweets to create innovative desserts. And yet, for many of us, there is sense of nostalgia and comfort that the very word laddoo or modak brings. For me it evokes memories of my mother-in-law’s literal labour of love in making trays full of churma laddoos coated with poppy seeds, family feasts where these were consumed with gusto, and the wonderful feeling of being happily replete before sinking into a deep siesta. A modak by any name tastes just as sweet!


The Biscuity Taste of Nostalgia

Last week, some friends knowing that we had spent several years at Hyderabad, brought us a box of Osmania biscuits. One of the specialities of Hyderabad, as per the box, the recipe for the biscuits wsa thought up on the demand of the last Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan, who wanted a snack that was a little sweet and a little salty. So teatime this week has been pretty good!

Which made me think about biscuits in general. What exactly is a ‘biscuit’?

The word biscuit came to English from French (bis-qui), which is from the Latin root panis biscotus, which roughly means ‘bread twice cooked’. The origin of biscuits goes way back maybe even to Neolithic times. But for sure the Romans had them. In Roman times, biscuits were basically bread which was re-baked so that it would last longer, and hence could be useful for marching armies or travellers. From the 14th century onwards, biscuits became popular in England and were an important part of naval food supplies, carried on ships which set out on long journeys. These naval biscuits were highly inedible, but still an important part of a ship’s provisions as they could last for very long!

As per the dictionary, a biscuit is ‘a small baked unleavened cake, typically crisp, flat, and sweet’. Which of course is inadequate, as biscuits are often salty, and as we shall see below, sometimes leavened (made with yeast or other raising agent).

Biscuits apparently fall into four broad categories. The categories are differentiated by their recipes (mainly the amount of fat, sweet and water), and the baking process. These are:

Crackers:This covers a wide range of products characterised by crispy, open texture and savoury flavours. They are leavened.

Hard sweet biscuits: They have low sugar and fat. They have an even colour and texture,  and good volume.

Short doughs (moulded biscuits): The doughs for these are ‘short’ (ie, have more fat and less water) compared to the dough for crackers of hard sweet biscuits.

Cookies (inlcuding filled cookies): These are made from very soft doughs which are put directly on to the oven band for baking.

India is a pretty big consumer of biscuits—another legacy of our colonial past, I suppose.  Per capita consumption of biscuits in India has been estimated at 2 kilos. The biscuit industry was valued at Rs. 37,000 crore before the pandemic. Lockdowns were good for biscuits, as people stocked up on these foods with long shelf-lives, and the industry saw sharp growth.  The top-selling brands domestically are: Parle-G, Marie Gold, Good Day, Unibic and Bourbon.

India is also an important producer of biscuits along with the US and China. Significant quantities are exported to Haiti, Ghana, Angola, the UAE and the US

My all-time favourites are from a bygone era. In Delhi, my mother would take tins of atta, ghee and sugar to a nearby bakery in the morning, and send one of us to collect the biscuits in the evening. It was difficult not to slyly ‘steal the cookie from the cookie jar’ on the way home. These atta biscuits had typical stripes running along the length. I don’t know if local bakeries even exist today or take such custom-orders. But those biscuits were delicious!

Another biscuit I miss are the Mangaram wafers, or cream biscuits as we used to call them. They came in yellow and pink. They were more expensive than the normal biscuits and so were a special treat for special occasions—birthdays or if one did exceptionally well in a test or exam! Apparently, the Mangharams were from Sukkur, Sindh and had a major factory there from 1937 onwards (as also factories in Delhi, Calcutta and Mumbai). The Sukkur factory was declared evacuee property and given to a Muhammad Yakoob. It was re-named the Yacood Factory. JB Mangharam, the patriarch of the family, settled in Gwalior when they came to India during Partition, and started a factory there. After the death of the founder, the company was restructured in 1969 and again in 1977. In 1983 it became a part of the Britannia Group. Somewhere along the way, the cream biscuits fell out of favour. Was it that the family was too caught up in internal squabbles to pay attention to its star product? Or could they not keep with external competition? Or was it that tastes changed? Whatever the reasons, old-timers like me will always miss those light, sweet, exotic biscuits.


PS: Maybe modaks or ladoos would have been a more appropriate topic today. But somehow I feel Ganesha would be game to try something new—a plateful of sweet cookies for instance. Happy Ganesh Chaturthi!

Fighter for Many Freedoms: Hansa Mehta

This week as the Indian national flag flew proudly across the land, it was also a time when we were reminded of the fact that the right to fly this flag was won through a long struggle in which millions of people played their part, big or small.

Going back to the midnight session on 14 August 1947 which marked the birth of a free India. As the session was about to conclude, a lady member of the House came up to the podium in the Central Hall. She handed over the tricolour to the Chairman and announced “It is in the fitness of things that this first flag that will fly over this august House should be a gift from the women of India”.

This lady was Hansa Mehta who was not just a representative of the Indian women, but a champion for universal women’s rights, all her life.

Hansa was born on 3 July 1897 in an affluent and cultured family in Gujarat. Her father was a professor of philosophy at Baroda College and later served as the Dewan of the states of Baroda and Bikaner. Her grandfather Nandshankar Mehta was a social reformer and well known author.

As a student in Baroda Hansa was influenced by the progressive thoughts of the Maharaja of Baroda Sayajirao Gaekwad III, and the philosophy of Aurobindo Ghosh. After graduating with honours in philosophy from Baroda, she left for England to pursue further studies in sociology and philosophy. She also travelled to the United States as an exchange student, and was keenly interested in understanding how their educational system worked. While in England she got to know Sarojini Naidu and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur who planted in her the early seeds of nationalism.

The spark was truly ignited when after her return to India, it was once again Sarojini Naidu who introduced Hansa to Mahatma Gandhi. It was 1922, and Gandhi was locked in Sabarmati Jail in Ahmedabad. Hansa was, as she, recalled “visibly moved” by this meeting. This also proved to be the turning point that launched Hansa into the freedom struggle. She got actively involved in the Non-Cooperation and Swadeshi movements, organising protests, and boycotts of foreign goods, and courting arrest.

Her decision to marry Jivraj Mehta, the then Chief Medical Officer of Baroda, met with opposition from her family and community as the groom was from another community. But she received strong support from the Maharaja of Baroda Sayajirao Gaekwad III. The couple moved to Bombay where Hansa continued her active involvement with the freedom struggle.

On Bapu’s advice, on 1 May 1930, Hansa led the first batch of the Desh Sevika Sangh in a satyagraha which involved picketing foreign cloth and liquor shops. Her organisational skills led to her appointment as President of the Bombay Congress Committee. Hansa was arrested and sentenced to three months in prison. She was released along with the other political prisoners under the Gandhi-Irwin Pact signed on March 5, 1931. In 1932 Hansa and her husband, who was not actively engaged in political life, were once again arrested and detained.

Following her release, she got deeply involved in the political processes which would go on to define the future of Indian polity.

She contested and won the first provincial elections from the Bombay Legislative Council seat in 1937. This was significant because she refused to contest from a reserved seat and was elected as a general category candidate. She remained on the Council till 1949. With her entry into mainstream politics Hansa also began to get closely involved with the All India Women’s Conference, and became its President in 1946. Her progressive vision for women’s empowerment in all fields, starting from education, was reflected in all the work of this organisation.

She became President of the Conference in 1946. In this role she piloted the drafting of the Indian Women’s Charter of Rights and Duties—which became a manifesto for women’s equality. Embodying the spirit of progressive politics, the charter sought among other things equality with men in terms of pay, civil rights, access to health and education, distribution of property, and fair marriage laws.

The next significant milestone was Hansa’s election to India’s Constituent Assembly in 1946. She was one of fifteen women in the Assembly. Rubbing shoulders with other founding fathers, with the shared vision for a new India, Hansa infused the deliberations with her own passion, vision and championing of women’s rights and justice. While the world over suffragettes were fighting for women’s equality, Hansa Mehta was ensuring that India’s constitutional document ensured that women were equal partners. Even as she fought for her own countrywomen, Hansa got the opportunity to carry her mission to an international arena.

Hansa Mehta and Eleanor Roosevelt

Around this time Hansa was appointed as an Indian delegate to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. She found serving on the Commission as Vice-Chair to the Chair Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady of the United States. During the discussion on the document that we know today as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it was suggested that the opening words of the first Article should read “All men are born free”. It was the Indian delegate Hansa Mehta who registered strong protest at the wording. Hansa argued that this could later be read to exclude women, and suggested that the word ‘men’ should be changed to ‘persons’ or ‘human beings’. The proposal was seconded by Eleanor Roosevelt. The suggestion was put to vote and was finally enshrined in the document thus: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Thus Hansa put her indelible mark on what is, even today, a milestone document in the history of human rights. Her legacy is not forgotten. In 2015, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon reminded that “The world can thank a daughter of India, Dr Hansa Mehta, for replacing the phrase in the UDHR”.

Hansa Mehta continued her advocacy of women’s education and rights, even as she herself went to attain many “firsts”. She became India’s first woman Vice Chancellor with her appointment at the SNDT University in Bombay. In 1949 she was appointed as the Vice Chancellor of the newly established Baroda University, the first woman to head a co-educational university. She was a prolific writer, and researched and published over twenty books, many focussing on women and children. She was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1959. She passed away in 1995.

‘Feminist’, ‘Activist’, ‘Reformist’—Hansa Mehta was all these well before the labels became fashionable. A woman ahead of her time, who spent her life fighting for many freedoms, for the cause of her fellow women.


‘Gandhi Budi’ Matangini Hazra

It is in this week, 80 years ago, that Gandhi’s call for Quit India reverberated through the length and breadth of the country, and struck a chord in the heart of old and young. People everywhere gave up their all to heed Gandhi’s call of “Do or Die” as they joined protests against the British government, boycott of foreign goods, and demonstrations in support of swadeshi goods. Last week we remembered a young girl Kanaklata Barua from Assam, who gave her life for the tricolour.

The movement was not confined to the young. People from every walk of life, and of every age threw themselves into the nationalist cause with fervour, undaunted by the challenges, and the risk to their own life. One of these was a poor, uneducated woman from Bengal who lived, and died, for a dream of a free India. This is the story of Matangini Hazra.

The first statue of a woman revolutionary put up in Kolkata in independent India was that of Matangini Hazra.

Matangini was born in 1870, a girl child in a very poor family in Hogla village near Tamluk in Midnapore district in what was then the Bengal Presidency. Her family could not afford to send the child to school, and she remained unlettered all her life. The family circumstances also led to her being married off early to a sixty-year old widower. The child bride became a widow herself by the time she was eighteen. Thereafter, Matangini returned to her parent’s village but chose to live separately. Over the next few years she spent most of her time helping people in her community.

The turn of the century also brought a turn in the life of the young widow. The nationalist movement was gaining momentum; the idea of engaging in a cause that transcended her own village and community attracted the interest and attention of Matangini. She began to participate in local events of protest. Even as she continued her work with local community, she was following the growing movement for independence across the country.

Years passed, as Matangini grew older, but still full of spirit and passion for the cause. On 19 December 1929, the Indian National Congress passed the historic ‘Purna Swaraj’ (total independence) resolution at its Lahore session. A public declaration was made on 26 January 1930 – a day which the Congress Party urged Indians to celebrate as ‘Purna Swaraj’ or ‘Total Independence’ Day.

The Purna Swaraj declaration was followed by the announcement of the Civil Disobedience movement which was led by Mahatma Gandhi. Protesting against the taxation on salt production, Mahatma Gandhi led his followers on a 26-day Dandi March which lasted from 12 March 1930 to 6 April 1930.

On 26 January 1932, the menfolk of Matangini’s village took out a procession to create awareness about the non-cooperation movement, and the political situation in the country. As they passed by her hut, Matangini felt herself being irresistibly drawn into the heart of the action. She joined the procession and marched with the young men, chanting slogans against the British. She was 62 years old, small, and frail in health, but strong in resolve; and she vowed to proactively fight the struggle for independence.

There was no looking back. She joined the nationwide Salt Satygraha. She walked long distances to attend various Congress meetings, and threw herself into all the protest activities. She was arrested for the first time when she took part in salt manufacturing at Alinan, her late husband’s village. After her arrest she was made to walk many miles before she was jailed. She was then released because she was a woman, and her advanced age.

She later participated in the movement for the abolition of the chowkidari tax, a tax collected from villagers to fund a small police force in their areas. This was not only unfair, but the police troops were also used as spies against the villagers by the British Government

During a march towards the court building, to protest against the Governor’s harsh decision to punish all agitators, Matangini was arrested again and made to serve a six-month prison term at Baharampur jail.

In 1933, the then Governor of Bengal Sir John Anderson came to Tamluk to address a gathering. There was tight security everywhere but Matangini managed to reach the dais and stage a black-flag demonstration. She was sentenced to six months rigorous imprisonment. While she was incarcerated, she came in contact with other political prisoners and used this opportunity to learn more about the movement and Gandhi. She was strongly drawn to Gandhi’s ideas and committed to following these in practise. After being released she became an active member of the local unit of the Indian National Congress. She took to regular spinning of khadi on her own charkha, even as her eyesight was failing and her health was deteriorating.

In an incident during the same period, the story goes, that one summer afternoon Matangini was part of a freedom march in the district capital. The marchers reached the residence of the Governor who was standing on his balcony and observing the demonstration while his soldiers cordoned off the immediate area. Matangini, who was leading the protesters managed to break the cordon, and holding aloft the freedom flag rushed ahead shouting Go Back. She was beaten up by British police for this daring act, and was severely injured.

Even as her age increased year by year, so did her rebellious acts. So closely did she associate with Gandhi and his movement that she began to be locally called Gandhi Budi or ‘old lady Gandhi’.

Her feisty spirit and commitment to the cause culminated with the tidal wave of Quit India that was sweeping India. On 29 September 1942, Gandhi Budi led a procession of about 6,000 protesters, mainly women, heading for the Tamluk police station. The plan was to take over the police station from British authorities, and establish home rule in the small town.

Just as the team reached the outskirts of the town, the British police arrived and ordered the marchers to disband, or else be penalised for violating Article 144 (Unlawful Assembly) of the Indian Penal Code. There was chaos. The police tried to stop the march by threatening to shoot at the advancing crowd. Matangini appealed to the police force to refrain from shooting at the protestors. But the police were in no mood to listen. Even after they started to fire, Matangini continued to advance alone, holding aloft the tricolour. The police bullets hit her three times. Injured on the forehead and both hands, Matangini continued to struggle onwards, uttering Vande Mataram and not letting the tricolour fall. She continued marching till she collapsed and died.

Matangini Hazra was 72 years old. She lived a life of dedication to service, and died a hero’s death in the service of the cause of freedom.



Fabrics for Freedom: Khadi and Beyond

We are all aware of how central khadi was to our struggle for independence. It was not only about defying the British and refusing to buy their imported cloth, but a potent symbol that it was not mere freedom from colonial rule that was critical, but also economic independence—a means of livelihood for millions of people of the country. In the words of Divya Joshi: ‘Gandhiji presented khadi as a symbol of nationalism, equality and self-reliance. It was his belief that reconstruction of the society and effective Satyagraha against the foreign rule can be possible only through khadi….The spinning wheel was at one time the symbol of India’s poverty and backwardness. Gandhiji turned it into a symbol of self-reliance and non-violence.’


But India is not the only country where spinning and weaving of textiles were a core part of a movement for independence. Another large British colony also used this as a weapon. This was the USA!

Britain saw its colonies including the American territories, as suppliers of raw material, insisted that they export all cotton to it, and buy all finished cloth from it. And of course it imposed huge taxes on all these products including fabric.

In defiance, the people in the American colonies started spinning their own cloth, and the spinning wheel because as important a symbol of patriotism in Americanin the 1760s and 1770s as the charkha was to the become in the 20th century in India.

Women were at the forefront of the spinning movement in the American War of Independence, and created their own homespun cloth to disrupt the British monopoly.  Fabric made this way was called “homespun.” Wearing homespun was a symbol of patriotism.  

In certain areas like New England, women showed their protest by going to ‘spinning bees’ where they would set up spinning wheels and keep each other company while they spun yarn. And these were not isolated events—for instance, in a single area, from Harpswell, Maine to Huntington, Long Island, over 60 spinning meetings were held over 32 months starting in March 1768.

The Daughters of Liberty, a group of political dissidents who got together to fight for liberty, were at the forefront of these spinning bees. They organized boycotts of British goods, especially tea, and they manufactured replacement products, especially cloth.

As in India, spinning was at the centre of a lot of publicity and was a rallying point for the freedom fighters. Newspapers reported elaborately on the smallest cloth-making development to amplify the message. Spinning schools were set up and awards were offered for the person who wove the most cloth. Old and young learnt to spin—it is reported that a 70-year-old woman in Newport, R.I., learnt to spin for the first time during the movement. Competitions were held—‘in 1769, two Connecticut women held an all-day spinning contest in which the winner spun seven skeins and two knots of fine linen yarn, just a little more than her competitor’.

The boycott of imported fabric and other goods from tea to molasses, worked, and it is estimated by some sources that the value of imported goods from Great Britain to the US fell by half in 1769 over the previous year, from 420,000 to 208,000 pounds.

So ‘swadeshi’ proved a potent war cry against imperial colonizers halfway across the world!

As it did in India almost 150 years later–rallying self-confidence, morale, giving a sense of identify.

Happy Independence Day!

Buying one pair of Khadi clothes a year can contribute to livelihoods for our millions of weavers. And they need it more than ever now, as the spinning of the national flag, which was their monopoly, has been taken away.


‘Birbala’ Kanaklata: Teenage Martyr for the Tricolour

Here is a mantra, a short one that I give to you. You may imprint it on your hearts and let every breath of yours give expression to it. The mantra is ‘Do or Die.’ We shall either free India or die in the attempt; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery. Every true Congressman or woman will join the struggle with inflexible determination not to remain alive to see the country in bondage and slavery.

These words spoken by Gandhi on 8 August 1942 launched the Quit India movement. Although Gandhi and many other leaders were arrested within hours of his speech, with the expectation that without their leadership the resistance movement would be rudderless, the effect was the opposite. Thousands of Indians, young and old, heeded this call and plunged into the movement, each contributing in their own way.

This mantra shared by Gandhiji at the Gowalia Tank Maidan Park in Bombay echoed across the country. Its reverberations reached the eastern corner of India, to Assam, and lit a spark in the heart and mind of a young girl named Kanaklata.

Kanaklata Barua was born on 22 December 1924 in Barangabari village of Gohpur, now in the Sonitpur district in Assam. Her mother died when Kanaklata was only five years old, and the young child developed a sense of responsibility much beyond her tender age. Her father remarried but he also died when she was thirteen. With added household responsibilities, and caring for her siblings, Kanaklata had to drop out of school and could not continue her studies after third standard.

Even as she was growing up in her village in Assam, the sparks of the nationwide freedom movement were spreading across the length and breadth of the country. The non-cooperation movement was gaining strength. The movement reached a climax with Gandhi’s call for “Do or Die”, and the wave of the Quit India Movement surged to new heights.

In Assam too there were widespread protests against British rule, and young and old joined in. Initially the protests were peaceful, but the British arrested all the Congress leaders of the state, and stepped up their brutal repression of the people. This only strengthened the opposition, and engendered underground conspiracies to fight the British. Among these was the setting up of a suicide squad which engaged in subversive activities like derailing and burning trains, attacking army outposts and snapping communication channels.

Seventeen-year-old Kanaklata was inspired and fired by the cause, and eager to contribute. Her dream was to join the Azad Hind Fauj, but as she was still a minor, she was not permitted to do so. Undeterred, she volunteered to join Mrityu Bahini–a suicide squad. For this too she was technically underage, but her determination and passion for the freedom movement was considered suitable for granting her membership. Subsequently she became the leader of the women’s cadre of the Mrityu Bahini.

The then president of the local Congress committee, Kushal Konwar was an ardent believer of non-violence proposed by Gandhi. He was falsely accused by the British for derailing a train which killed many British soldiers, and he was hanged. After the martyrdom of Kushal Konwar, the revolutionary camp of Gohpur division, under the leadership of Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, decided to mark their protest by removing the British flag and unfurling the National Flag at the local police station.

On 20 September 1942, Kanaklata led the procession of members of the Mrityu Bahini, walking proudly with the national flag in her hand, and with cries of Vande Mataram. The officer-in-charge of the police station was anticipating this. He warned the procession not to proceed further. He threatened that the police were duty-bound to start firing if the protesters advanced. Kanaklata responded by saying that he could do his duty while she carried on with her duty.

The procession carried on towards the police station; Kanaklata was leading, with the tricolour held aloft in her hands. As they neared, the police fired. Kanaklata fell to the bullet, with the flag still firmly held up. Before the flag could touch the ground it was taken by Mukunda Kakoti, another member from the group. He too was felled by a police bullet. Two young lives, snuffed out even before they attained adulthood. Kanaklata was not yet eighteen years old, and did not live to see the independent India of her dreams.

Their martyrdom did not go in vain. Even as their comrades were breathing their last, the others in the group did not let the tricolour down. They picked it up and with cries of Vande Mataram, the flag was eventually unfurled at the police station. One of the millions of small but significant gestures that added nail after nail to the coffin of the end of British rule in India.

While Kanaklata’s tale is not well known, it has at least been told. This month as we remember the many struggles and sacrifices that contributed to the unique non-violent movement that led India to become Independent, let us also pay tribute to the many unsung heroes and heroines who gave their all, even their life, for this cause.  

And as we swell with pride to see the Indian tricolour fly freely and fearlessly, let us not forget the brave young woman “Birbala” Kanaklata Barua who gave her life for it.


The Proud Tricolour

75 years ago, on 22 July 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru moved the motion for the adoption of the national flag. This is what he said on the occasion: ‘the national flag of India shall be horizontal tricolor of deep saffron (kesariya), white and dark green in equal proportions. In the centre of the white band, there shall be a wheel in navy blue to represent the chakra.’

Indian flag

Today, there are many who interpret the symbolism of the flag in different ways. But it would make sense to go back and understand the thinking of the founding fathers of the nation, who discussed and debated these issues long and hard. And what better way to understand this than through the words of one of the most eminent thinkers of the 20th century, academic, statesman and philosopher, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan?  Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan later President of India, speaking on the motion moved by Nehru, explained the meaning of the flag design. Here are some quotes from this speech:

‘The world is full of misunderstandings, suspicions and distrusts. In these difficult days, it depends on us under what banner we fight. Here we are putting in the very centre the white, the white of the sun’s rays. The white means the path of light. There is darkness even at noon .. but it is necessary for us to dissipate these clouds and control our conduct—by the ideal light, the light of truth, of transparent simplicity which is illustrated by the colour of white.

We cannot attain purity, we cannot gain our goal of truth unless we walk the path of virtue. The Ashoka wheel represents the wheel of the law, the wheel of Dharma. Truth can be gained only by the pursuit of the path of Dharma, the practice of virtue. Truth, dharma, virtue, these ought to be the controlling principles of those who work under this Flag.’

‘The red, the orange, the Bhagwa colour, represents the spirit of renunciation. …Our leaders must be disinterested. They must be dedicated spirits.’ ..’That stands for the fact that the world belongs not to the wealthy, not to the prosperous but to the meek and humble, the dedicated and the detached.’

‘The green is our relation to the soil, our relation to plant life here on which all other life depends. We must build our Paradise here on this green earth. If we are to succeed in this enterprise, we must be guided by truth (white), practice virtue (wheel), adopt the method of self-control and renunciation (saffron).’

 In the same speech, he refers to the need for our society to change what is wrong with it. ‘Dharma is something that is perpetually moving. ..There are so many institutions which are worked into our social fabric like caste and untouchability. Unless these things are scrapped, we cannot say that we either seek truth or practice virtue. ..Our Dharma is Sanatana, eternal, not in the sense that it is a fixed deposit, but in the sense that it is perpetually changing…So even with regard to our social conditions, it is essential for us to move forward.’

Dr. Radhakrishnan occupied the George V Chair in Philosophy at Calcutta University; served as Vice Chancellor of Andhra University and Benaras Hindu University. Oxford University appointed him to the H.N. Spalding Chair of Eastern Religions and Ethics. He served on India’s Constituent Assembly and also as chairman of the University Education Commission. He was a chairman of the Board of UNESCO and leader of the Indian delegation to the same. He was Indian Ambassador to Moscow, then Vice President of the country, and its second president from 1962 to 1967.

He was a nationalist who believed in an India built and guided by those who were truly educated, by those who had a personal vision of and commitment to raising Indian self-consciousness.

His scholarly works include: Indian Philosophy, 2 vol; The Philosophy of the Upanishads;  An Idealist View of Life Eastern Religions and Western Thought;  East and West: Some Reflections; A Sourcebook of Indian Philosophy; and The Pursuit of Truth.

And of course, many of us have grown up reading his Ramayana and Mahabharata!

So as we mark the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Tricolour, and are almost upon our 75th Independence Day, it is time to re-dedicate ourselves to the real meaning of the flag, which Dr. Radhakrishnan’ sums up as: ‘The Flag tells us ‘Go ever alert, be ever on the move, go forward, work for a free, flexible, compassionate, decent, democratic society in which Christians, Sikhs, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists, will all find a safe shelter.’


More Than Just a Paper Bag

12 July is marked as World Paper Bag Day to celebrate environment-friendly paper bags as an alternative to harmful bags made of plastic.

This month marks an important step for the environment. The Government of India has mandated a ban on manufacturing, import, stocking, distribution, sale, and use of single-use plastic items. Over the years while there have been both legal as well as voluntary efforts to reduce the menace of plastic pollution, the figures and ground realities across the world indicate an alarming trend of increase in throw-away plastics.

It is at a time like this when there is a deluge of information, and debates, about more eco-friendly alternatives. It is a time when paper bags are remembered and revived.

While the paper bag is an easy shop-and-tote item, it does not often merit much thought beyond its immediate function. However the humble paper bag has a fascinating history, not just as an object, but as a symbol.

Historically packaging material and containers were made of metal, wood, canvas, and jute. While these were durable and sturdy, their production was time-consuming and expensive. In the 1800s paper was introduced as packaging material. It was in 1852 that Francis Wolle an American priest and inventor invented a machine that could cut and paste paper into an envelope-shaped bag. This enabled mass production which lowered the manufacture time and cost; and these bags became popular with grocery stores in the United States.

The next important development in the design of the bag came from Margaret Knight, who then worked for the Columbia Paper Bag Company. Margaret’s job was to fold paper bags by hand, a slow and inefficient process. Margaret had an inventor’s mind; she started thinking of ways to improve the design as well as the process. She noted that the shape of the bag prevented it from being used for a number of items that would not comfortably fit at the bottom. She began to work on designs for a machine that would modify the shape of the bag so that it was flat at the bottom, and automate the manufacture. Within six months she had created a wooden prototype which was more efficient, but not sturdy enough. So she looked for a machinist who could make the machine in iron. After making refinements Margaret felt that she had created a design, and a machine unique for its time. When she filed for a patent for the machine and design, she found that a Charles Anon had already been awarded a patent for the same machine; her invention had been stolen. Margaret was a feisty woman. Not only was it unusual for a woman to file for a patent in the 1800s, she also hired an attorney (beyond her modest income) to fight her case, where her opponent claimed that because she was a woman, and not highly educated, she could not possibly have invented a complex piece of machinery. Margaret won the case, and the legitimate right to her own invention. On July 11, 1871, she became one of the first women to receive a patent. The inventor also became an entrepreneur when she later started her own company the Eastern Paper Bag Company.

The paper bag continued to be symbol of early feminism in the United States. In the 1920s schools in poorer rural areas where children were often underfed, established lunch programmes in schools. But among the more affluent class, the dominant idea was that mothers should be at home to provide children with hot lunches when they came home from school for a midday break. To send a child to school with a packed lunch was considered to be a dereliction of a mother’s duty. In the mid-1970s twenty mothers in New Jersey sent their children to school with their lunch packed in a brown paper bag. This caused some children to be suspended, and became a debated issue. But it also heralded the message that women need not to be confined to the kitchen, and could go out to work, even while ensuring a suitable meal for their children to carry. Paper bags thus became a rallying cry for women who wanted the freedom to be able to work, whether they needed the income or simply wanted a life that involved more than being home to provide hot lunches.

Today in the United States, the term ‘a brown bag meeting’ denotes an informal meeting or training that generally occurs in the workplace around lunchtime, and where participants typically bring their own lunches, which are associated with being packed in brown paper bags.

While the brown paper bag was a symbol of liberation for women in the United States, it was a symbol of discrimination based on colour, in the same country.

Slavery was abolished in the United States only a few years before the paper bag became popular in shops. Slavery itself had its own nuances of ‘colourism’. The slaves were not all of a uniform colour—their complexion ranged from very dark-skinned ones to varying shades of light-skinned. Over time, the lighter-skinned slaves acquired more privileges and education. When slavery was abolished it gave way to a strong hierarchy among the black people, based on the shade of their skin. In the early 1900s upper class Black American families, church and civic groups, and educational institutions devised their own systems of colour-based discrimination. They required members of the Black community to pass a ‘brown paper bag test’ for inclusion.  If an applicant’s skin was lighter than a brown paper bag, they were accepted. Those with skin too dark to pass the test were kept out. Even in prestigious Black universities like Howard University, there were “paper bag parties” where a brown paper bag was pasted on the front door; only those whose complexion matched, or were lighter in colour, could gain admission. It was a brown paper bag that held the key to access to certain public spaces or social events.

Thus the brown paper bag that was a liberating symbol for women in America, also became a symbol of discrimination, reinforcing colourism among the Black communities.

Meanwhile the square-bottomed brown paper bag continued to be popular for its more practical use as a convenient carrier of goods. Innovations were added to further enhance its capabilities. Pleated sides were introduced which expanded its holding capacity, and made it easier to fold. At some point, handles were added which made it easier to carry.

It was in the 1980s that plastic bags began to creep into the market. By the 2000s the plastic tsunami had swept across the world. Plastic bags were touted as the answer to all packaging requirements, as being reusable, and also cheaper to produce and market. Paper bags almost became a luxury, or a symbol of the emerging generation of ‘green consumers’. Today the havoc wracked by that plastic tsunami is evident in the alarming pictures of un-degradable throw-away plastics that are clogging our waterways and oceans, and piling up on our land. There is a clarion call for looking for alternatives, among which the paper bag heads the list.

Perhaps it is time to relook at the history of the paper bag that we hardly give a second thought to. And give it a new use and mission.