On August 8, 1942, after Gandhiji’s historic ‘Quit India’ call to the British Raj at Mumbai’s Gowalia Tank maidan, the police immediately swooped in to arrest all the top leaders of the Indian National Congress (INC) present there in an attempt to crush the movement.
The following day (August 9, 1942), a plucky 33-year-old woman Aruna Asaf Ali – who later defied even Gandhiji – managed to sneak in there and hoisted the Indian Tricolour, raising slogans of Vande Mataram, shaking the Britishers.
This was at a time when most crestfallen Indians felt that all was lost, and with the top INC leadership behind bars, the ‘Quit India’ movement would be stillborn.
But, it was largely credited to Aruna’s dare-devilry – under the noses of the Britishers – that sparked a new life into the crusade which ultimately saw the collapse of the foreign rule in just five years – August 15, 1947 – and a grateful nation later decorated her with a Bharat Ratna (1997) posthumously.
Born with a silver spoon into an elite Bengali Brahmin family in Kalka (Punjab) on July 16, 1909, little Aruna Ganguly was educated in the prestigious Sacred Heart Convent School for girls in Lahore (now, Pakistan), and then graduated from the All Saints College, Nainital (now, Uttarakhand).
Her father, Upendranath Ganguly was a prominent restaurateur and her mom was Ambalikadevi Sanyal, hailing from a reputed Brahmo family, while her younger sister Purnima Banerjee was later a member of the Constituent Assembly of India – which adopted the Constitution of India – and also served as Uttar Pradesh MLA.
Aruna’s uncle Dhirendranath Ganguly was a renowned photographer, later one of the earlier Bengali film actors, producer-director-writer and was conferred the Dadasaheb Phalke Award (1975), while her second uncle was Prof. Nagendranath Ganguly was married to Mira Devi – the daughter of India’s first Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore – but their relations were largely strained.
After graduation, Aruna worked as a teacher with Gokhale Memorial School in Calcutta and also met a prominent INC leader, Barrister Asaf Ali – Independent India’s first Ambassador to the US, later Switzerland and also served as Odisha Governor twice, and jailed several times, including in August 1942 in Mumbai.
Their marriage in 1928 raised many eyebrows, not only because of the religious differences, but also the fact that Aruna was just 19 and Ali was 40, so her family quickly disowned her as ‘dead’.
Since Ali was a prominent member of the INC, she also joined the party, the couple ‘witnessed’ the bomb thrown into the Central Legisaltive Assembly in Delhi in April 1929 by Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt which injured many Britishers, and then they (Aruna-Ali) participated in the Salt Satyagraha of 1930 after which she was arrested.
The next year, the famed Gandhi-Irwin Pact, which among other things called for scrapping the tax on salt, lifting the ban on INC, and release of all political prisoners, was signed.
But, Aruna – charged with being a vagrant – remained in jail, only to be released after agitation by women co-prisoners, the general public and Gandhi’s direct intervention.
In another stint in Tihar Jail and later in solitary confinement at the Ambala Jail, she fought for better amenities to the prisoners which led to several reforms subsequently.
Post-jail terms, though of an indomitable spirit, she remained physically weak and was largely inactive for almost 8-10 years.
However, it was her famed streak with the Tricolour on August 9, 1942 that shot her into history books, presiding over the remaining AICC Session, dodging police bullets and then vanishing underground.
While in hiding, Aruna ran a small band of revolutionaries fighting the Britishers who announced a whopping Rs 5,000 award for information, and Gandhiji penned a personal letter to her.
“I have been filled with admiration for your courage and heroism. You are reduced to a skeleton. Do come out and surrender yourself and win the prize offered for your arrest. Reserve the prize money for the Harijan (People of God) cause,” said the hand-penned note.
Aruna defied Gandhiji’s plea, later her properties were confiscated and sold, but she continued to edit the INC’s fiery publication ‘Inquilab’ along with a Congress stalwart Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia – who was one of the broadcasters of the Secret Congress Radio run by another plucky woman, Dr. Usha Mehta.
She came out of hiding only in 1946 after the arrest warrant against her was canceled, but despite other political differences and earning criticism from Gandhiji, she treasured his hand-scrawled note till the end.
At one point, Gandhiji openly castigated her for supporting the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny (Feb. 1946) – when the demand for Pakistan was peaking – and the revolt which started in Mumbai spread to ports in Karachi, Calcutta and Madras, almost jeopardizing Great Britain’s commitment to give India full Independence in August 1947.
Post-Independence, she heeded Gandhiji and joined the INC, but after his martyrdom, she hopped to Socialist Party (1948), followed by a few years with Communist Party of India (CPI) in the mid-1950s, and turning a full circle by returning to the INC in 1964.
Though a Communist at heart, she devoted her energies to the media through the Link publishing house (founded post-Independence) with a weekly magazine and the Patriot daily newspaper which was patronized by the high and mighty, starting from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
She launched the National Federation of Women (1954) and served as the first woman Mayor of Delhi in 1958.
After rejoining the INC, she became close to the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi though she criticized the Emergency (1975-1977).
In 1983, Aruna led a 100-strong group of volunteers to Amritsar’s Golden Temple in 1983 to espouse social harmony at the peak of militancy there which led to Operation Blue Star (June 1984) and culminated in the assassination of PM Indira Gandhi (October 1984).
Later, she even enjoyed good relations with the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, while continuing with her media and social activities.
Having lost her husband in 1953, Aruna lived a full and active public life, always at her modest one-bedroom flat in New Delhi, till her demise on July 29, 1996, aged 87, in New Delhi.
She earned many accolades, honors and awards capped off with the Bharat Ratna (1997), besides several roads, institutions all over India, a postage stamp in honor of Asaf Ali (1989) and her (1998), and the All India Minorities Front’s annual ‘Dr. Aruna Asaf Ali Sadbhavna Award’ to eminent personalities in her memory.