Completing her graduation, she worked as a teacher at the Gokhale Memorial School in Calcutta. It was in Allahabad that she met her future husband, Asaf Ali, an eminent Congressman. The two married in 1928.
Following her marriage to Asaf Ali, she adopted the life of her husband and became an increasingly active member of the Congress party. She turned to Indian politics and aimed at making valuable contribution.
Gandhiji’s ideals and belief greatly influenced her as did the opinion of others in the Indian National Congress. Her first ever active venture into politics started with the active participation in public processions during the Salt Satyagraha in 1930. She was arrested on the charge that she was a vagrant and put in jail.
Unlike other prisoners who were released on account of the Gandhi Irwin Pact in 1931, she wasn’t released but a public agitation secured her release.
In 1932, she was yet again arrested and put in Tihar Jail in Delhi for participating in the freedom movement. While at jail, instead of mourning over the incarceration and awaiting release, she organized political prisoners and protested against the ill treatment being meted out to them by launching hunger strike.
Her active stand made jail authorities wary of her. She was transferred to Ambala Jail, which only had male prisoners and as a result, she had to live in solitary confinement and isolation. However, in the aftermath of her protests, the state of political prisoners improved considerably.
After being released from jail, she switched to socialism instead of concentrating on Congress doctrine. She aimed at educating the lower downtrodden class about caste hierarchy, poverty and gender oppression.
Along with her husband, she attended the 45th session of the Indian Congress held in Bombay and became an important participant of the event. The All India Congress Committee passed the Quit India Resolution.
In order to suppress the Quit India movement, British rulers arrested all the important leaders from the convention with the aim that a leaderless movement would be easier to suppress.
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Not wanting to let the spirit of revolution to die down, she took over the remainder of the session and rushed to Gowalia Tank Maidan as originally scheduled to hoist the Congress flag, thus marking the commencement of the Quit India movement. It was this gallant behaviour that earned her the title of ‘Heroine of 1942’ movement or ‘Grand Old Lady’ of Independence Movement.
Infuriated by her strong rebellious action, the police attacked the assembly, targeting tear gas at the people and trampling the flag that she had hoisted. However, the damage was done as there were sparks of protests and demonstrations all over the country.
With the aim to organize the resistance movement, she moved from Bombay to Delhi. However, with the danger of being caught by the police who hunted for her, she went underground, thus escaping seizure.
It was while being underground that she edited Congress party’s monthly magazine ‘Inquilab’. In 1944, he urged the Indian youth to stop the futile discussion of violence and non-violence and participate actively in the freedom struggle.
It was in 1946 when the warrant against her was finally withdrawn that she came out of her hiding. Having an inclination towards socialism, she soon became one of the members of the Congress Socialist Party.
Post India’s Independence, while Asaf Ali took over as the Minister of Communication, she worked towards upliftment of the state of women.
She encouraged women education and saw it as the only way to emancipate women from the clutches of the male-dominated society. To achieve this objective, she started the weekly journal, ‘Link’ and the daily newspaper ‘Patriot’.
In 1954, she formed the National Federation of Indian Women and served as its President but left the party in 1956.
In 1955, the Congress Socialist Party merged with the Communist Party of India of which she became a member of the Central committee and Vice President of the All India Trade Union Congress. However in 1958 she left the Communist Party.
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Same year, she served as the first elected Mayor of Delhi. In the position, she closely worked with other reputed leaders for the social development of the state. In 1964, she re-joined Congress Party but did not participate actively in the political pursuits.
Awards & Achievements
In 1964, she received the prestigious International Lenin Peace Prize.
The Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding was awarded to her in 1991.
In 1992, she received the India’s second highest civilian honour Padma Vibhushan.
In 1997, she was posthumously conferred with Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award.
Personal Life & Legacy
It was in Allahabad that she met her future husband, Asaf Ali, a successful barrister and member of the Congress Party. Though the two fell much in love with each other, their family strongly opposed their union.
Asaf Ali did not just belong to a different faith, him being a Muslim while she belonged to a Bengali Brahmo family, but was 22 years elder to her. However the religious difference and the age gap meant little for the two and they tied the nuptials following Muslim rites in 1928.
The unorthodox marriage created quite a rage as she was subsequently disowned by her family and relatives. Post marriage, her name changed to Kulsum Zamani but she was popularly known by the name Aruna Asaf Ali.
During the later years of her life, her health deteriorated. After suffering from a long bout of illness, she breathed her last on July 29, 1996.
Her contribution to the freedom struggle and national movement is invaluable. It was for her valour and gallantry that she received the label, ‘Heroine of 1942’ or ‘Grand Old Lady’ of the Independence Movement.
In 1998, the Government of India issued a stamp commemorating her contribution in the Indian National Congress and the freedom movement.
Every year, the All India Minorities Front distributes the Dr Aruna Asaf Ali Sadbhawana Award to deserving candidates.