Aruna Asaf Ali: Building a New Vanguard for Peace

By Archishman Raju.

The Indian freedom struggle is usually associated with the names of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Bhagat Singh. These figures are sometimes seen to be in opposition to each other. Aruna Asaf Ali is a name who is not known, or discussed, but she lived to participate both in India’s struggle for freedom and the task of building a nation after independence. She interacted with all of the figures of the Indian freedom struggle and interpreted their ideas in a creative and dialectical fashion.

The life of Aruna Asaf Ali covered, almost exactly, the period of the 20th century. Born in 1909 in Punjab to a Bengali family, she lived until 1996 and stood witness to the upheavals which defined India’s birth into freedom: from struggle and elation to the tragedy of Partition and building of a new nation. 

In a time when so few of us appreciate the real importance of history, even as it unconsciously controls us, Aruna Asaf Ali would spend her life making that history and then constantly analyzing and re-analyzing it as new challenges presented themselves and her thinking matured under a free India.

Central to her thinking was the concept of the making of a new vanguard which could both serve people and engage in ideological struggle. In a time which has been defined by protest and rebellion but lack of organization and ideology, her thinking takes on a particular importance. In a time when identity politics passes for revolutionary thought, her conceptualization of the necessity of ideals and sacrifice provide us with guidance. Her historical evolution provides us a lesson that we cannot afford to either forget or ignore.

Aruna in the mainstream of the struggle for freedom

Aruna was a non-conformist from an early age. She came from a Bengali family living outside of Bengal and part of the Brahmo Samaj sect of Hinduism. She ran away from home and, against the wishes of her family, married a much older Muslim man, Asaf Ali, who was a member of the Congress party and connected to the top Congress leaders of the time.

She thus came in contact with a host of figures and was herself brought into the movement by a  stalwart of the peace movement, Rameshwari Nehru, who suggested that Aruna join and work for the Delhi Women’s League. It was Rameshwari Nehru who mentored her in the art of organization and political activity. Along with Rameshwari Nehru, the foremost woman leader in Delhi in those times, Satyavati Devi also took Aruna under her wing and inspired her to commit herself to political activities. 

Thus from an early age Aruna was brought in to the mainstream of the freedom struggle and interacting with the vanguard of the freedom struggle of the time. Her earlier ideas were perhaps closer to, though not aligned with, those of Bhagat Singh who believed in individual and violent acts of heroism rather than the slow engagement and building of support among the masses of people. 

Aruna would participate in the salt march, getting arrested in 1930 and being sentenced to one year imprisonment. Even as other political prisoners were released in 1931, she was held in prison. Her prison-mates refused to leave the prison until she was released. She was subsequently arrested again in 1932, and protested the harsh and inhuman conditions of prison. For this, she was put into solitary confinement and her thinking and conceptualization of the national movement evolved during this period.

In 1942, in the middle of the second world war, Gandhi gave a call to Quit India and the British subsequently arrested all of the Congress leadership. This created a vacuum of leadership at a critical point in the freedom struggle. Aruna rose to the occasion and became the de-facto leader of the movement unfurling the Indian flag at a public meeting and then evading arrest and become part of an underground movement along with other socialists. Subsequently she was asked to surrender by Gandhi himself who wrote to her saying “I have been filled with admiration for your courage and heroism. I have sent you a message that you must not die underground. Do come out and surrender yourself.” In response, Aruna wrote “please forgive me if I say that the word surrender in your letter has surprised me. It hurts my pride to think that I should be expected to humiliate myself. I am in no mood to surrender to an unrepentant enemy. That would imply voluntary submission and willing renunciation of my revolt.” Gandhi would write back “My whole heart goes out to you. I consider myself to be incapable of asking anyone, much less you, to do anything that would hurt your pride…This struggle has been full of romance and heroism. You are the central figure.” 

In 1946 the Royal Indian Navy Ratings would go on a strike protesting discrimination, poor pay and lack of adequate nutrition. Aruna would join in with the strike of the ratings, and ask the Congress leadership for support. She would differ with the view of the leadership that this was an inopportune moment saying she would rather unite Hindus and Muslims at the barricade than on the constitutional front. Even as she became a heroine of the national movement, her own assessment was to say “I was but a splinter of the lava thrown up by the volcanic eruption of a people’s indignation”.

Nobody can deny the heroism and courage of Aruna Asaf Ali in this period. She associated herself with the younger socialists in the party. However, evidently, even as Aruna Asaf Ali was part of the mainstream of national movement, she was constantly searching for alternative paths. Her ideas were constantly evolving with the changing social situations. She would write “Passing through a long procession of crises our national struggle has arrived at a turning point. It has either to turn into the bylanes of economic and social struggles and fight the entrenched enemies of the people or dissolve itself into nothingness.” 

Early on in her life, Aruna’s thinking resembled that of many young participants of the freedom struggle who confused radical disruption and rebellion with revolutionary change. However, in the period after independence Aruna re-conceptualized the role of the Freedom struggle and the challenges ahead. She would write her thoughts in the Link magazine in 1958 with the patronage of Jawaharlal Nehru and Krishna Menon. The pages of the magazine still hold some of the most important ideological discussions held in India in the post-independence period. These are under-studied but most important parts of her thinking. It is in this period that she participated in the peace movement, in the movement of Afro-Asian solidarity and the Women’s International Democratic Federation. In her own words, “For many of us the decade after independence was a period of quest and a search for a new theoretical base rooted in the facts of Indian history and social tradition.” It is then that she called for the building of a new vanguard for peace and social transformation. 

Building a new vanguard

Aruna was to give the call of building a new vanguard several times in her later life. How was this new vanguard to be made? First, it must appreciate the importance of history and all that can be learned from the old. She said:

“Correct opinions and a noble ideology unless supported by concrete proofs of effectiveness have merely an academic place in human affairs. Therefore, this nucleus of new men and women must first recognize in themselves individuals who have a duty to those whose sharp differences with the elders have left them adrift. Fresh reservoirs of energy have to be tapped, weeding out redundant elements has to begin, before the foundations of a new brotherhood can be laid. The new order if it is to be new in spirit rather than in form only, has to draw its strength from all that is still vital in the old. Truth, simplicity and sincerity are not to be scoffed at. Age old precepts cannot be thrown away on grounds of antiquity.”

Second, it must become close to the masses of people, be able to learn from the people and be a model of discipline and conduct. She said

“To build a society of free human beings, we need to be alert once again and resolve afresh to rededicate ourselves to our social and moral requirements. A new generation of nation builders must come forward to resist the many temptations that power brings in its wake, shun pride of office and abstain from indulging in extravagant luxuries so that they may evoke the respect and admiration of their fellow countrymen. These exhortations will sound trite to many and even pontifical. But if we want the masses of our people to respond to those who want to lead them, they cannot escape these compulsions.”

Aruna was to understand and admire the idealism of youth. However, at the same time, she was wary of the pitfalls and ideological traps of inexperience. She was particularly critical of westernized intellectuals who would refuse to root themselves in an understanding of their conditions. She was opposed to a dogmatism that did not allow for a fresh appraisal of conditions and to find in them the direction for a new society. She did not believe that it was mere charisma and smooth oration that would create a new leadership, but rather it was principles and a strong belief that there could be an end to social and economic stagnation that would create the base for new leaders. She believed that a second struggle would have to be waged, against neo-colonialism and poverty. In her words, 

“Enlightened men and women of the post-freedom generation have a world to conquer and many worlds to lose. They have no option but to respond to the appeal of the masses for a united leadership for winning fresh battles in the great patriotic war against poverty, exploitation and armed as well as unarmed imperialist aggression.”

Hence she saw the struggle for peace, or the struggle against imperialist aggression as closely linked with the struggle against poverty and exploitation. She fiercely fought those who believed that the salvation of an underdeveloped country or a people lies in copying and emulating advanced Western countries. 

Finally, she believed that there must be a struggle for a principled unity among forces of peace and social transformation. This unity was not to be a mere superficial alliance of forces and individuals who self-identified as left, but rather of serious political formations which could respond to the call of the masses of people. Such unity was not to be gained at the cost of anti-communism or a disparagement of indigenous traditions. It was to respect indigenous traditions and at the same time learn from the experience of socialism in the 20th century. 

Lenin and Gandhi

It was this that allowed her to make a formulation that was equally comfortable with Lenin and Gandhi. As natural as this seemed to her, it made her a rare personality at a time when there were those whose radicalism consisted of dogmatic application of European concepts. At the same time, she refused the anti-communism of those who extolled Gandhi for his non-violence and vilified all aspects of socialism hence rejecting the consequences of Gandhi’s message. 

Instead, she was equally comfortable with the role both of these personalities had played in history. She says in a tribute to Lenin,

“Humanity’s long and exciting search for happiness, its search for spiritual bliss and the good things of life, would not have been so consistently progressive without great leaders and teachers who showed the way by telling people how they should live, what they should think and why they should never yield to evil. Whether it is a Buddha, a Christ, a Gandhi or a Lenin…their advent changed men’s thinking profoundly and made their followers better and nobler human beings…As we in India ponder over the life of this memorable son of Russia who changed the history of his country,…we are reminded of our own leader Gandhi whose birth centenary almost coincides with Lenin’s. Both of them wanted to end the suffering of all who are compelled to starve..Working in very dissimilar circumstances they evolved different techniques for realizing their aspirations and both were able to witness the breaking of a new dawn for their people.”

Writing on Lenin, she admires his intellect, persistence, ability to face hardship and commitment to humanity’s liberation. She says “Thus with the passage of time Lenin will not be forgotten because the problems that he dealt with await lasting solutions. Lenin’s teachings will live because they are needed by the millions who long for peace, for bread, and for freedom.”

In Gandhi, she admires his understanding of the Indian political and social environment, his concern for the oppressed and suffering and his role in awakening the masses of India. Of the young radicals who considered Gandhi to be soft on British rule or thought he was Utopian and unnecessarily introduced spirituality in Indian politics she would say

 “This superficial view of Gandhian ethics was particularly fashionable among the more westernised of our young people…India’s new young intelligentsia of the post British period has been unable to make an impact as yet on the minds and hearts of the people of our country. Can this be because they have not been given an opportunity to assimilate the experience of Gandhi-Nehru and other leaders of the immediate past?”.

Aruna was convinced that even as we must fashion new methods of struggle for our times, we must remember and imbibe the past leadership that the country had seen. Writing in the preface of a book, she says 

“Ebb and tide in the values that move a nation are perhaps inevitable…They are like the troughs and peaks in the lives of individuals. In any case, it will strengthen us in meeting the challenges of these troubled times if we can recapture something of the spirit of the Gandhi-Nehru years. I shall feel rewarded if the book contributes to that end.”

Indeed she ends her book with a call to renew the Gandhi-Nehru legacy. She again calls for the development of cadres, a “corp of dedicated volunteers who would be willing to forgo lucrative careers and to work for the cause of national regeneration on a modest allowance.”

Aruna Asaf Ali today

In studying Aruna Asaf Ali today, we study the best of our traditions and one of the most important of our leaders. Her thoughts and ideas take on a renewed importance today. We must work to build that dedicated circle of volunteers who will be willing to build peace, who either come from, or are not afraid of associating themselves with the poor and working masses of people. This circle will have to think through the challenges of our age afresh, but unless it is able to root itself in a radical organic tradition, it will be led astray.

Our time calls for a new leadership and the work of regeneration has to be done for the sake of those who come after us. Leaders like Aruna Asaf Ali continue to inspire us and give us hope for as she, so poetically, says,

“In the human spirit hope never dies; phoenix like it springs again and again vibrant with the glow of sunrise to spur it on its way through new heavens. The thought of ‘those who come after us’ and that we must not betray them, haunts us. We must not seek solace in self pity. Through sacrifice and effort let us work for victory over an evil order.”

Further reading

  • Fragments from the past: Selected Writings and Speeches of Aruna Asaf Ali
  • The resurgence of Indian women: Aruna Asaf Ali
  • Aruna Asaf Ali: A compassionate Radical, GNS Raghavan

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