In 1942, the political atmosphere in India was charged. Public meetings and demonstrations demanding Independence were at a peak. Mahatma Gandhi was fasting in Aga Khan’s palace in Pune. His condition at one time was critical. Arrest warrants had been issued against many freedom fighters including 34-year old Sucheta Kripalani, forcing her to work underground. Disturbed by Gandhi’s deteriorating health Sucheta decided to pay him a quick visit.
“I am Mrs. Kripalani, and I want to see Gandhiji now at his place. And you must allow me to go and see him; you can arrest me when I am on my way out, this much you have to do for me,” she said to the Home Secretary in Mumbai. The Home Secretary consulted the Governor and allowed her to meet Mahatma Gandhi, advising her to leave the city in 24 hours. No arrest was made.
While committed to the Gandhian ideology, Sucheta was fearless in mind and spirit and chartered her own independent course. Her marriage to freedom fighter Jivatram Bhagwandas Kripalani popularly known as Acharya Kripalani was to some extent shaped by Gandhi. When both Sucheta and Acharya decided to get married, many opposed the decision. Acharya was 20 years older to Sucheta. At first Gandhi too rejected the alliance saying he would lose an important man in the freedom struggle-his “right arm JB Kripalani”.
Sucheta argued he would get two workers after the marriage. When advised by Gandhi to marry someone else she replied saying it would be “immoral and dishonest”. Acharya and Sucheta eventually got married. She became a staunch supporter of Gandhi and led rehabilitation efforts during the Partition and ensuing riots. Sucheta was among the 15 women elected to the Constituent Assembly tasked with formulating the seminal document that was to shape a stronger republic.
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As India ushered in its Independence Sucheta was invited to sing Vande Mataram, Saare Jahan Se Acha and Jana Gana Mana before Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny” speech. In 1963, Sucheta Kripalani, a Congress leader became the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, a first for any woman in the country while her husband Acharya remained an opponent to the Congress. He had established the Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party (KMPP) in 1950 after differences with close friend and Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru.
Sucheta, who had ideological differences with Nehru, disassociated herself with her husband’s party and re-joined Congress after a brief stint with the KMPP in 1952. Both husband and wife had different political loyalties and never questioned each other, exemplifying democracy of a different kind. Born in 1908 in present day Ambala in Haryana, Sucheta and her sister Sulekha were seeing the fight for India’s freedom unfold before their young eyes. In her book “An Unfinished Autobiography”, Sucheta recounts the emotion she felt as a ten-year old after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
“I could understand enough to feel great anger against the British. We vented out anger on some of the Anglo-Indian children who played with us, calling them all kinds of names,” she writes. The urge to be part of the freedom struggle kept niggling the two sisters. In another incident, Sucheta narrates how the two sisters were outraged when they were made to stand in honour of Prince of Wales but could not pick up the courage to refuse. “This did not absolve our conscience of feeling of shame. We both felt very small of our own cowardice,” she writes. Sucheta’s desire to join the freedom movement was paused by the death of her sister and father in 1929. She took over the responsibility of caring for a large family and joined the Banaras Hindu University as a professor.
Even here as students took out protests, Sucheta did not take classes, but lectured them on the importance of the ongoing struggle. It was during this time, in the 1930s, that Sucheta met Acharya Kripalani. He would visit BHU looking for volunteers to participate in the freedom struggle. Both became close during the Bihar earthquake relief operations. While in Bihar, she was invited to join the Mahila Asharam in Wardha, a national institute started to train women for national service Sucheta recalls how Vinobha Bhave who was to approve her joining was at that time fasting to make amends for the “sin of two people who fell in love”. Appalled by this Sucheta put off the idea of joining the Asharam.
Under the guidance and influence of her husband, Sucheta started her political innings, actively participating in the Satyagraha and was sent to a year in prison. “I was keen to start political work. I used to feel small before the veteran jail-goers, as I had not graduated through jail life. Kripalani wanted me to do any work of my choice, not necessarily politics. Early in life his advice to me was ‘Apna daman saf rakhna,’” she notes in her autobiography.
When Independence was finally announced both Sucheta and Acharya were given the work of rehabilitating refugees. At a camp in Noakhali, while Sucheta and others were distributing relief material, Gandhi asked them to let people work for the help they receive. Sucheta was shocked at the idea.
Gandhi then said, "Don’t take away their self-respect, don’t make them into beggars." In the book, “Understanding Gandhi: Gandhians in conversation with Fred J Blum” Sucheta says, “While working with Gandhiji in other spheres I learned that it is not just enough to help people by giving them things from above. What we should try to do is generate strength in the people to help themselves.” Sucheta passionately argued with Nehru on the rehabilitation of refugees and the projects taken up by the government.
During her political journey, she founded the All India Mahila Congress. In 1949, she was a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly and led the Indian delegation to the International Labour Organisation in 1961. As Chief Minister of the largest state of India from 1963-67 Sucheta Kripalani proved deft and transparent administration. She controlled the state economy that was on a downward slide.
During this period state employees staged a 62-day strike, demanding hike in wages. Kripalani is believed to have remained firm in her decision and accepted the request of workers when they were ready for compromise. In 1971, Sucheta Kripalani retired from politics. She died in 1974, a life devoted to a strong and independent republic.