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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 31

Looking back on August 1942

Aruna Asaf Ali’s interview to Mainstream

Tuesday 22 July 2008


[(Aruna Asaf Ali’s Birth Centenary Celebrations Begin

Aruna Asaf Ali’s yearlong birth centenary celebrations have begun on July 16.

Born as Aruna Ganguly in Barisal (now Bangladesh) on July 16, 1909, she emerged as one of the most striking freedom fighters especially at the last stage of our battle for emancipation from foreign yoke. Her dedication to the cause of liberation of the toiling millions remained undiminshed till the very end and she tirelessly worked in various capacities to realise the dream of an exploitation-free, new and radiant India she and her colleagues in the national movement had before them when they participated in the 1942 ‘Quit India’ struggle under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and guidance of Jawaharlal Nehru with Jayaprakash Narayan as a comrade-in-arms. With Arunaji’s death in New Delhi on July 29, 1996 one whole epoch—a glorious chapter in our chequered history—indeed came to a close.

Having seen her from close quarters and having worked for several years in the Link House as a journalist trained and moulded by her close friend, associate and compatriot, Edatata Narayanan, one finds it extremely difficult to write about Arunaji whose elegance, charm, simplicity, infectious youthful vigour, and incessant urge and impatience to help the poor and the dispossessed will forever remain etched in one’s memory. One can never forget her deep affection for her younger colleagues. One is ever proud to have been reared in an institution nurtured by such a personality; and at the same time one frequently feels a gnawing pain whenever one thinks of the tragedy that struck her in her last days—how she was unceremoniously thrown out of the Link House by the downright hypocrites and opportunists who had once promised to carry on her, Edatata Narayanan’s and P. Vishwanath’s legacy.

As a mark of tribute to her abiding memory we are reproducing here her interview to Mainstream (published in this journal’s August 8, 1992 issue) on the occasion of the ‘Quit India’ struggle’s fiftieth anniversary since Arunaji was the virtual embodiment of that last battle for India’s freedom from alien rule. Initially she had declined to grant the interview but eventually gave in to one’s persistent and persuasive skills which could, however, succeed only because of her affection for this writer. That was one of Arunaji’s last interviews to any publication, and it brings out her feelings, ideals and goals as well as what had motivated her to plunge into the public life of struggle for the welfare of humanity as a whole. -S.C. )]

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

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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

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