Swarnakumari Menon: An Interview

Smt. Swarnakumari Menon is known to us only as the President of All India Women Conference, Kerala chapter. But in fact she is one of the persons who created history in the freedom movement of our country. Clad in white khadhar with a whiter hair, she has sparkling eyes that are still confident, and she looks like the rising sun even at the age of 78. She stays in the SI. Apartments, Calicut. She has lived all her life for our country, for the freedom of our country. She has all memories of Kasthurbha Amma and Gandhi mahaan who came and stayed in their house during 1930. She stays all alone in the flat, but loneliness is not a problem for she is accompanied by memories of the past. Even now she is disturbed by the political happenings in Kerala and the declining social location of women. She is the President of the All India Women’s’ conference.

How did you enter politics?

It was during the home rule movement that Gandhiji first came to Kerala. It was during this time that the earlier arrests took place here. My father, late Sri. U Gopala Menon, and Sri.K. Madhavan Nair were the first to court arrest. There was no violence during the Home rule movement. I was studying in school during this time. I got attracted to politics through my father. I enquired why father was arrested and all that. My mother also was engaged in mobilising women through women’s meetings. Both myself and my sister got interested and started working from the school days onwards. We wanted the freedom of India – that was the only slogan, and that was the need of the time. Nehruji came here in 1928. He stayed with us for two days. We could not give much comfort but still he was quite happy. Gandhiji also had come. What a personality!. He is an idealist. He is like a lamp that is lit. His wife. Oh what a wonderful woman! After bath, she came and sat in front of us and told us “Please dry my hair, girls”. We all joined competed with each other to do that. She arranged the dining table, came, joined us to light the lamp in the evening, cut vegetables etc.

Entering politics is still a controversy as far as schoolgirls are concerned. How was it possible in those days, when family restrictions and social restrictions were at its peak? How were you activists viewed by others?

See, there is a whole difference between today’s politics and the politics of my time. “Freedom to Bharath” was the only aim. That was the thought day and night. Even during sleep, we used to shout slogans. There was no personal interest like becoming a Minister, or getting hold of power. There was no power politics. Politics had only one meaning and that was “get rid of British” and attain “Swaraj”.

See, I may be wrong. But still if you see the activists’ details, most of the activists were from the matrilineal households. We were accepted. We had better freedom. We were not controlled by our husbands. Of course, father/uncle/ brother used to restrict our mobility but when they themselves are in the movement, they only encouraged us, never discouraged us. However small the tarawad was, we get a part of it. Whether it is a grain of rice or two. In those days a girl child is privileged. Now that has changed. Today as soon as you marry, you are suppressed. Whether she goes to Germany or Burma whenever you feel you are unsafe or insecure you can come back. Nobody ever asks why you came back here. Of course, I accept, you people got education, freedom to travel etc. That is also there. You girls are free now.

Shri. P.K.K.Menon is perhaps the only historian who has mentioned about women’s participation in the freedom struggle. He talks about a school girl named Jayalakkshmi who was very active in the freedom movement. Do you know her?

Oh! Yes. She is in Bangalore now. She is a Brahmin girl. Her father was very active in Congress. See, all of us had somebody active in politics from the tarawad or house. That was the passport for us to enter. We were together. We had a Balika Bharatha Sangham. We were all girls aged between 10 and 11 years. There was a programme called “Prabhatha Bheri” Early morning we walked through the streets taking a flag in hand and went in procession singing songs. We were some ten to fifteen girls. We song Pora..Pora naalil naalil ….. and Jhanda Oonja Rahe hamara……. etc. and walked through the road early in the morning. Each day we were given some specific area. Say for example, Chalapuram. We covered all the streets of Chalappuram till afternoon. We also worked for the “Harijan” fund. Carrying a small box in hand we collected money. People took this very well. My father was arrested then. All people were with us. There was no leader other than Gandhiji . No violence or terror at all. What we wanted was only freedom. That was the first and the only demand. As students our work was basically through the Balika Bharath Sangham. In fact, Indira Priyadarshini started this at Delhi. It was in 1930. Apart from students, women also participated in large numbers. Kunjikkavamma, Lakshminkuttyamma etc. were the leaders here.

There was a house which was a centre for this activity known as Verkot House. There was one Narayanai Amma who used to fix the route and direct us. We all met there in the morning, and the flag and route etc. was read. We collected the songs and flag and left. By afternoon, we met again at this house and dispersed. Smt. Jayalakshmi and her sister Kamalam also used to be with us throughout.

Other than Verkot Narayani Amma, there was Kunjikkavamma, Mrs. Prabhu, Lakshmikuttyamma, etc. who were all very active and keen on getting freedom. Mrs. Prabhu has stayed with us. There used to be review at night regarding the “Prabhathabheri”. There were days when we sat throughout night and discussed and wrote what happened during the day. We gave one copy to the press in the morning. A sincere Bala Bharath Sangh activist came to distribute the papers. There were days when we sat throughout night and wrote. But one day we were all arrested. They did not say anything. They took all of us; but we were released. We followed non-violence throughout. There was no shouting, beating or killing. There was absolutely no violence.

Guruvayoor referendum was one of the milestones in the Temple entry movement in Kerala, wasn’t it? What are your memories regarding that?

Temple Entry was a movement then. In order to fight the British we had to stand together as Indians. We had hundreds of castes and sub-castes and religion of different types and all sorts of anomalies were connected to it. Opening the Guruvayoor temple to the public was the demand. A referendum was conducted in Guruvayoor. I have participated in the Guruvayoor referendum. We stayed outside the temple. It was an opinion collection. We gave our opinion. There were a lot of women along with us. It was only after the referendum that Guruvayoor was open to the public. Every Hindu can enter now. Earlier not all Hindus were allowed. Kasthurbha Gandhi came during the time of referendum. Kasthurbha Amma stayed in our house. Even now when I think about her, I feel so elated. She was very fond of our customs. When we lighted the lamp during evening, and recited slokams she used to come and sit with us. She was so fond of Kerala. She had never acted a leader. She joinsed us in cutting vegetables, helped us in serving, and used to come along with us when we go for Khadi propaganda. That was a glorious time. Now you cannot see such people in the national level. Guruvayoor temple was a small temple then. Only savarnas could enter the temple then. But still non-Hindus were not supposed to enter it seems. But it had to be changed. Do gods’ have religion? Only we make the difference. When we went for Ghosha yatra or Prabhatha Bheri, we kept metres of khadher clothes in our shoulders, and propagated it. We also sold them. Despite rain or scorching sun, we stood in front of the shops, khadi on our shoulders. Some bought because small girls of reputed houses were selling it, they were forced to buy out of sympathy or respect or reverence. We used to feel proud standing like that. It was not our private earning. We sold this for the country. That was deep in our heart. But now… who needs khadi? How many families are depending on this you know? Everybody wants foreign clothes now. Nylon came first, and then polyester etc. Nobody uses cotton now. There was a time when we burnt all the foreign clothes. But our daughters want only only foreign clothes. That scene — the scene of the bon fire in the Calicut beach is still before my eyes. We all went to the beach in a procession. All of us carried foreign cloth with us. After the bhashan on self-reliance, one by one we all threw our foreign clothes in the fire. I still remember it. Time has changed — so has values.

We kept a small box with a slit in the middle and we went to people and asked for money. There was no question of dignity or anything. Everybody knew that it is for the Harijan fund. We also told them. Please donate for the Harijan fund and extended our box. They all wanted freedom for our country. Even officials never said no. Donating Rs.5/- was something great. You can see no Rs. 100/- notes. Even I haven’t seen a hundred rupee note in those days. We collected money.

How many people from your family have entered politics?

All of us, in fact. Myself and my sister and brother were there in politics. Then my mother used to do weaving and spinning. My mother was with the Mahila Samajam. She was very happy working with women and children. We worked on the thakkli. Under the Khadi Board, there used to be competitions. We took cotton and made threads, and handed it over to Khadi Bhavan. They wove whatever we wanted. A Thorthu Mundu( Towel) or Melmundu( Upper cloth). That was a part of self-reliance movement. Through this, what Gandhiji dreamed of was the financial independence and self-reliance for women.

       We are still discussing the entry of politics in the school campus–whether such a political education has to be given to students or not. In a way politics makes them confident and questions the atrocities in the society, on the other hand it gives them unwanted power which spoils them. Because they are too small to realise. In fact, this politicisation of school campus has started from the freedom movement onwards, hasn’t it? How was it viewed by the authorities then?

Yes. Here also I have to tell about the generation gap, I think. The school campus politics then was non-violent. Teachers also were aware that we were going for the jatha and picketing, and became absentees. We had the backing of our parents. Moreover, there was an aim to our politics. Now…. Education itself is commercialised. A small child is carrying tonnes of books. And pays through her nose various types of fees which her parents cannot afford. But still they go for it. For what they feel is better education. Are they getting it? How many of them have heard of Mahathma Gandhi or Swami Vivekananda? They lack patriotism. See, children used to call me for flaghoisting in our flat. I am very particular that August 15th is memorable and it has to be celebrated. I do the flag hoisting every year. This year they said. “No, auntie! We are not celebrating. We have Cricket test.” I literally cried. Where is patriotism? Do they realise that India is free and a lot of people have suffered for it?

There is a big difference between politics in the school now and the politics of the 40s. We students were very active. Young blood you know. We believed in the ideology. Still I remember, when Motilal Nehru died, we all took leave as a part of mourning. I was studying in a Mission School. When I went to the class next day the Head Mistress asked why I was absent the day before. I said that the day before was hartal due to the death of Motilal Nehru. She got wild and said that “ Don’t you know that hartal is not permitted in India , now? You will be dismissed from the school. Unless you apologise.” I came and told my father that the Head Master said like this. He asked me whether I am ready to apologise, and I said “No”. He soothed me, “You are correct. There is no need to apologise. If they are not ready to take you back, we can look for some other school.” No political education used to be given in school. But there were some good schools where the Head Master himself participated in politics.

       Media has played a big role in the time of freedom struggle. How do you see the difference now?

Media…..now they are only sensationalising the news. The newspaper reading is like reading a novel. No international news is given in Malayalam papers. I depend on English newspaper to get the news. The controversy of Pakistan cricket players etc. is in the front page. Which in fact induces religious feelings. We parted as friends. Not as enemies. We had not seen them as enemies. Even now we cannot see our brothers as enemies. How friendly we were when they were taking leave. It was only like a tarawad breaking up. Nothing more than that. The times have changed (sigh).

Somebody asked me whether I should start a Vridhasadanam, and I said that there is no need, because Kerala has become an old age home.

Can you tell us about all India women’s conference?

It started in 1926. This is a Kerala chapter. We were a handful of women. V. Parukuttyamma was there, and also Santha Balakrishnan. Now we have a school at Ramanattukara where we teach the dropouts and failed S.S.L.C. students. And also a tailoring class. It is not a political association. I go there only once in a month. I cannot . My health never permits. There is a lot to be done. I am not doing anything now days. My health never permits, my child. It is now for people like you to take over and do something for the society.

We are fortunate to be your descendants We are working in the platform created by people like you. It was you people who fought for our education; it was you people who fought for our liberty. You have lived the whole life. Everyday you lived your life. Whereas we are only surviving. We are only surviving in the grounds you made for us. And do you think we do justice to the country or society or to ourselves?

I think yes. I have great hopes about the future.

Is a social scientist and she has done pioneering work on “Women Freedom Fighters of Kerala”. She is a regular contributor of scholarly articles to periodicals and research journals. Her doctoral work was on the Impact of Changing Land Relations and Social and Political Movements on Namboodiri Women.

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Is a social scientist and she has done pioneering work on “Women Freedom Fighters of Kerala”. She is a regular contributor of scholarly articles to periodicals and research journals. Her doctoral work was on the Impact of Changing Land Relations and Social and Political Movements on Namboodiri Women.

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