ARUNA ASAF ALI (1909–1996)
Aruna Asaf Ali was a prominent freedom fighter and social activist and became famous for hoisting the Congress flag at the Gowalia Tank maidan in Bombay during the Quit India Movement in 1942. She was born Aruna Ganguly in a Bengali Brahmin family, grew up in Nainital and was educated at Lahore. Refusing to hear of her parents’ plans of marriage for her, she took up a job teaching at the Gokhale Memorial School for Girls in Kolkata. Shortly afterwards she met Asaf Ali, a Muslim barrister from Delhi some 20 years her senior, and married him against her parents’ wishes in 1927. Since her husband was involved in politics she too was drawn into the movement and came under the influence of Jai Prakash Narayan, Achyut Patwardan and Ram Manohar Lohia.
Though she did not hold a university degree, she was a voracious reader and studied politics, economics and Marxist literature. She became a radical nationalist and an advocate of uncompromising struggle against British Rule. She participated in the Civil Disobedience Movement in the 1930s and went to jail. On 9 August 1942, she hoisted the Indian flag at Gowalia Tank Maidan in Mumbai. Subsequently she went underground with her socialist friends in 1943, hoping to organise the fury of angry mobs into a disciplined resistance to the British and dislocate the war effort. In her book The Resurgence (the title is an echo of Garibaldi’s ‘Risorgimento’) Aruna said: ‘Telegraph wires are cut, fishplates on railway lines are removed, bridges are dynamited, industrial plants are put out of order, petrol tanks set on fire, police stations burnt down, official records destroyed—they are all acts of dislocation. But a bomb thrown at a marketplace or a school or a dharmashala [a shelter for pilgrims] is not dislocation. It is either the work of agents provocateurs or misdirected energy.’ Gandhi disagreed with Aruna’s tactics though he had great respect for her personal bravery. In 1947 she came out of hiding and was elected President of the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee.
Her radical views came into conflict with Congress politics in the post-Independence period. In 1948 she joined the Socialist Party, only to break with it two years later, forming the Left Socialist Group and taking an active interest in the trade union movement. This was avowedly loyal to the aims and ideals of the Soviet Union—some thought excessively so. In 1958, she became the vice-president of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC). But she had become so disillusioned that she never sought public office again. Her politics, both during her period of attachment to the Nehrus and later in her socialist phase, were more a matter of the heart than the head.
She was elected the first Mayor of Delhi in 1958. Innumerable honours, both national and international were bestowed on her, including the Lenin Prize and the Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration. She was awarded the Bharat Ratna posthumously.