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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 31 New Delhi July 21, 2018

Looking back on August 1942 - Aruna Asaf Ali Interview / N.C.’s tribute

Saturday 21 July 2018

July 16 this year marked the 109th birth anniversary of Aruna Asaf Ali, the legendary heroine of the 1942 ‘Quit India’ struggle, the last battle for India’s independence. Here we reproduce the interview she gave to Mainstream (published in this journal’s August 8, 1992 issue) on the occasion of that movement’s fiftieth anniversary. This is being followed by the reproduction, on page 29, of N.C.’s moving tribute to her after her demise on July 29, 1996.

Looking back on August 1942

How do you reflect on those unforgettable days of August 1942 after fifty years?

Aruna Asaf Ali: Gandhiji’s ‘Do or Die’ message and his statement that every person is his own leader thrilled the masses and some of us. A few of us decided that going to jail was no way of serving the national cause. So we thought we’ll stay out of jail and lead the masses in the ‘Do or Die’ battle.

That’s how we then felt. We did not kill people for the sake of killing but we decided that we would upset railway trains carrying war materials to the front.

Really speaking, when Jayaprakash Narayan escaped from the Patna Jail, he immediately became our hero. We asked him to come and join us. There were four or five people who were prominent in those days: Achyut Patwardhan, he is still living (I don’t know why people don’t go and meet him), Rammanohar Lohia, Jayaprakash and myself.

Today I feel we did what we could not resist doing. It was an act of will—to do something that would further the cause.

The very fact that Gandhiji used to write to me asking me to surrender quietly and he met also secretly... He had the courage to meet me and to persuade me to stop doing whatever I was doing and surrender myself which I could not do. I could not agree to surrender to the British while they had the warrant of arrest against me... You can call it stubbornness. I cannot describe it.

I subsequently threw myself into the socialist cause. This newspaper Patriot came into existence in that context. Edatata Narayanan, P. Vishwanath—all those who were together in the fortytwo movement—got together and started this paper. Jawaharlal Nehru warned us that it is difficult to organise a paper and keep it alive. But he also told us that when you have come to this big building you must see that it survives. This building, as you know, was built brick by brick through contributions from friends like Biju Patnaik. And we are still surviving, pulling on.

While describing you Jawaharlal Nehru had written in the Foreword to your book Travel Talk in 1947: “Aruna Asaf Ali was no newcomer on the political scene. But 1942 transformed her and made her different from what she had been.” How did you yourself feel the difference?

A.A.A.: Pandit Nehru’s observation was very correct. I discarded the prison-house of the domestic world to which all Indian women are dedicated. My home was no longer my world. I was unfortunately very cruel to my husband but somebody has to pay for the consequences of the break with the past. I broke away from home and wandered about among socialists, socialist-minded people all over India.

I did go occasionally to see my husband wherever he was—whether as the Governor of Orissa or the Ambassador to the United States—but for short visits. And when I came away I knew I was causing Mr Asaf Ali great pain, the pain of loneliness. Ultimately long years of loneliness affected his health with the result that he passed away in Switzerland. I had gone there to accompany him for a few weeks and it was then that he passed away to my utter regret.

I thought I would spend some time with him but unfortunately he passed away.

When I brought back his body to Delhi—Maulana Azad had asked me to do so (he was a great friend of Asaf Ali saheb)—the whole of Delhi went on simultaneous strike—hartal—for three solid days as a mark of respect to him. He was so attached to Delhi and Delhi was so fond of him.

The spirit of idealism and sacrifice that moved millions in this country in the 1942 movement is sadly lacking today. What, in your opinion, are the reasons for it?

A.A.A.: The withdrawal of leadership that Gandhiji gave—and which leadership was later provided by others like Pandit Nehru—has been disastrous for us. So people are absolutely leaderless and there is no attachment to any values, except the craving to accumulate money for onself.

Maulana Azad once told me that a man came to him for a party ticket. He said: let me get elected at least once. I have one daughter who is yet to be married and I can ensure that only by becoming an MP. That shows how low we have fallen.

How do you visualise the future for our country and the world at this juncture?

A.A.A.: That’s for you young people to sit down and think. I can’t think now. Mine has been a very long journey. I have lived for 83 years.

But with the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe what do you think is going to happen?

A.A.A.: The Soviet Union itself has collapsed. The Soviet Union was a guide for us. . .

But I can tell you, whether socialism has collapsed in the Soviet Union and elsewhere or not, the hungry millions in our country will need socialism. The Soviet Union has become a victim of American imperialism. They are very happy, that is, the imperialists of the world, Britain, America and other countries, they feel that they have succeeded. But in India they cannot succeed for here the hungry millions will perforce continue to battle for satisfying their hunger; and there, I think, young people like you and others should show the way and lead them.

In brief, what would be your message to the new generation today, when we are observing fifty years of the 1942 movement?

A.A.A.: In 1942 the masses showed the way and we plunged into the masses giving them the assurance that we are there to help them. And we did help them. Upto a point, I think, we did help them.

But like all mass upsurges this upsurge too ran its course. Burning heat doesn’t last very long. The fire doesn’t last unless there is fuel to feed it.

There were no leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, Azad to lead the people after a period of time.

Power is very degrading—this lust for power. And when it comes to a select few they settle down and forget about the people. While in office they can’t do anything.

The next phase will come when the hungry millions will rise. They will not be satisfied with the existing state of affairs. That is when a new leadership of men and women will be thrown up by the masses.

Do you then think that a second 1942 movement would become inevitable?

A.A.A.: It will be necessary. For the hungry millions. Because hunger and want do not subside.

(Mainstream, August 8, 1992)

From N.C.’s Writings

A Tribute

Generations spanning over centuries have been told that the French Revolution devoured its own children. In a sense, this could be said also of the Russian Revolution in which many of its heroes had themselves to face the firing squad.

There is however the other side, the heroic aspect of every revolution as it throws up leaders, and these in turn try to carry forward the revolution itself. Aruna Asaf Ali was one of these beautiful children reared by the Indian people’s revolution for freedom. And she dedicated the rest of her life in the service of the great revolution yet to come, in which the meek and the dispossessed are destined to inherit the many-splendoured land of ours.

Aruna Asaf Ali came from a well-known family of Barisal, now in Bangladesh. She grew up in the high society of north India in those days. Her marriage to Asaf Ali, a romance on its own, brought her in touch with the political elite of the day. Soft-spoken and stunningly beautiful, a picture of elegance enthroned, those of us who had the opportunity of meeting her in those days in Delhi’s oasis of opulence, could never believe that this frail body carried so much of fire within, which was lit up by Gandhiji’s Do-or-Die commandment in 1942. In the face of police brutality she raised the Tricolour at the historic Gowalia Tank on that stormy day in Bombay. From the comforts of luxury, she went without any faltering steps into the rigours of underground life, which brought her into the world of the Socialists—Jayaprakash Narayan, Rammanohar Lohia and Achyut Patwardhan, and also her close companion and mentor, Edatata Narayanan.

When the leaders came out of prison, Arunadi was still underground, and it was only on Gandhiji’s written behest, that she surfaced into active political life, one of the leading lights of the resuscitated Socialist Party. But disillusion soon set in for this impatient revolutionary, who could not equate the compulsions of power with the ideals that she had nurtured in her revolutionary ardour about the free India of her dreams.

Then started the eternal quest. After a couple of years of activity in the Socialist Party, she and Edatata set out on a fresh voyage of discovery for the new world of tomorrow. They travelled far and wide, at home and abroad, and came back to start the Left Socialist group imbibing Marxism. Soon after, they joined
the Communist Party, but it was a short stint, as Khrushchev’s version of Stalin at the Soviet Communist Party Congress in 1956, disenchanted both her and Edatata. They continued as friends of the Communists and the Socialists, but ceased to be card-carrying party members.

Meanwhile with the help of Dr Baliga and Krishna Menon and the blessings of Nehru, Arunadi launched her new venture into the field of media—Link and Patriot came, heralding a new genre into Indian journalism. However, the experiment fell into unworthy hands after Edatata Narayanan’s demise, though Aruna Asaf Ali tried valiantly to carry on almost single-handed. Her last days were the days of tragedy, this excursion into the media world.

Aruna Asaf Ali’s charm was her weakness too. She had a remarkable quality of building personal rapport, but as the world consists of black and white, it can be a minefield of deception. Many came and loved her, but not a few deceived her. However, the frail body, stooped with age, was never a broken spirit.

The freedom struggle of our great people has witnessed a whole galaxy of Titans, whose memory is embossed in our history. Today they are all in that unforgettable dream garden of Elysium, as the pure and the mighty live in our memory. In that haven of bliss, her countrymen in eternal gratitude shall always ensconce Aruna Asaf Ali, whose patriotism was as pure as the lily white flowers with which men and women of our great motherland shall cherish her, for ever and ever.

(Mainstream, August 10, 1996)

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