Back in 2011, Ramon Magsaysay Laureate Ela Bhatt, founder of Ahmedabad's Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA), was giving a talk at the India International Centre in New Delhi, where she introduced the audience to Ansuya Sarabhai.
Bhatt said: "Ansuyaben is best known as the woman who joined hands with Mahatma Gandhi, led one of the earliest strikes in Ahmedabad in 1917 and founded one of the largest trade unions in India, the Majoor Mahajan Sangh (or the Textile Labour Association)."
And then Bhatt made a point that historians may have overlooked or considered not so important. She said Ansuyaben had already led a successful strike of her own before Mahatma Gandhi came onto the scene, and "one can be so bold as to say that it was Mahatma Gandhi who benefited from her groundwork and the trust she enjoyed among the mill workers of Ahmedabad."
Bhatt went on to describe the Majoor Mahajan Sangh and said what is special about the institution Ansuyaben built is not that it was a large trade union, but the kind of trade union it was.
The non-confrontationist attitude, the emphasis on arbitration, the forward-looking programme, and the agree-to-disagree culture had their roots in her life and philosophy and could be be credited to Gandhiji alone. Bhatt observed: "Establishing a common ground, I believe, is characteristic of a woman's approach, which avoids the us-versus-them kind of unionism," Bhatt pointed out.
Ansuya Sarabhai was born in 1885, the same year as the Indian National Congress, in one of the most prominent Jain families of Ahmedabad. They were progressive in their outlook and the women in the family were literate. Ansuyaben used to say that her mother enjoyed reading Shakespeare. And her father would prepare Chinese tea and serve it to his children in pretty porcelain cups with great ceremony.
Her parents, however, died in 1918-1919, making her, a nine-year-old, her brother Ambalal, then five, and her younger sister Kanta, who was just a year old, orphans. Their uncle and aunt brought them up, but unfortunately for Ansuya, her uncle did not believe in educating girls. All that Ansuya could do was to stay back and listen in on her brother's lessons.
She was married at the age of 13, thrown into a family whose ways she could not adjust to. She also had no interest in her husband who was dull in studies. Her brother, who was to become famous as the pioneer of the mechanised cotton textile industry, stood by her after their uncle's death and Ansuya left her husband's home forever at the age of 23. This support changed her life.
In 1912, Ansuyaben set sail for England to study medicine, but upon realising that her studies would involve dissection of animals, against her Jain beliefs, she decided to get into the London School of Economics to study labour and welfare.
She lived in a women's hostel, which was an intense and exciting experience for her. She learned ballroom dancing from other women in the hostel and also picked up smoking. "Abdulla No. 8, Ladies Cigarette, was my great favourite," she would recount later.
She also joined suffragette rallies demanding that women be given the right to vote. She attended lectures by George Bernard Shaw and Sydney Webb, and listened to their public debates with G.K. Chesterton. But her London sojourn was cut short when Ansuyaben received the news of her sister Kanta's death due to meningitis. She rushed back home.
Ila Bhatt quoted Ansuya Sarabhai, who said: "I rented two rooms for two rupees each at the end of an alley so I could have a small garden. I thought I would help young girls. At that time, I assumed everybody who was poor was unhappy. In this way I started working. The cost each month was around forty or fifty rupees, which my brother paid.
"One morning I was sitting outside in the school compound combing the children's hair when I saw a group of some fifteen workers walking by as if in a trance. I asked the reason for them looking listless, they said, 'Bahen, we have just finished thirty-six hours of work.'
"They had worked for two nights and a day without a break. Those words filled me with horror. What could I do to change the situation? Then I found out that even children worked double shifts. That troubled me to no end. I decided to do something to stop this."
Bhatt said Ansuyaben never lost sight of the fact that the workers were being exploited by the mill owners and that one of them was her brother Ambalal. In 1917, the plague broke out in Ahmedabad. Mill workers began to flee the city to the safety of their villages.
The mills had so few hands that the mill owners offered to pay these village workers bonus wages. but the workers from Ahmedabad did not qualify for the same. So they went to Ansuyaben.
She declared, "If the workers do not receive a response within 48 hours, they will go on strike and a notice to that effect will be sent to all the mills." The mill owners ignored the demand to increase the hourly rate from 12 paisa to 15 paisa and the workers called for a strike.
Again, Ila Bhatt quotes Ansuyaben as recalling, "At that time my brother was the head of the mill owners association. He came to my tent directly from Matheran. I was staying in the tent due to the pandemic. He said, 'What have you done? You don't realise what you have done. The mills could all close down.'
"That was when I realised that what I had done was indeed the right thing. I said, 'Bhai, I have done what had to be done. Considering the difficulties these poor mill workers face, I have risked nothing. I am ready to face the consequences, whatever they may be'."
There is no doubt that without her strong support, the strike would have fizzled out. Instead, it went on for 21 days before the mill owners agreed to open negotiations under pressure from Gandhi. They may have been on different sides of the fence, but both brother and sister could not tolerate injustice; both wanted to be fair. The sister led this strike alone, through trial and error. And in return she found her own voice, her true calling, and most importantly, the trust of the workers.
This Satyagrah gave birth to the Majoor Mahajan Sangh, or the Textile Labour Association -- a new kind of labour union -- in 1920.
In the next two decades Ansuyaben was actively engaged with various aspects of labour welfare. She set up creches for women workers, neighbourhood nurseries for children and night literacy classes for adults. She also started a residential school for Dalit girls in the compound of her home. It was to become a cause close to her heart in her later life till her last breath.
Mallika Sarabhai, granddaughter of Ambalal Sarabhai and renowned dancer, told IANS: "A person with such commitment and fortitude is needed today. The condition of these institutions has deteriorated due to a lack of such persons."
Mallika continued: "Today, people are afraid of selflessly fighting for the rights of others. Imagine, a brother and a sister living in the same house, yet the sister opposes her beloved younger brother, yet no one can doubt the integrity of both. Both had the unwavering trust of the people on their side, yet they did not try to influence each the other with their ideas or insistence."
She concluded by pointing out: "I am sure other mill owners must have tried to influence Ambalal. But he did not stop his sister's funding. It was only because of the 'Mota Ben' (elder sister) that the mill labourers were able to have the courage to agitate. Ansuyaben did not get as much credit as Mahatma Gandhi for the labour union because this is a male-dominated society. The men always get more credit."
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