(Last Updated on : 16/01/2009)
Anasuyaben was a labour leader, social reformer, a feminist, an intellectual, a nationalist as well as a mother to workers and the poor. She believed in women's freedom and empowerment. She was the first Indian woman who built the foundation for a trade union movement. She was the founder of the first trade union, the Textile Labour Association. She worked towards the formation of the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC). The trade union movement has left its strong marks on the labour scene in India today. It has presented a model of how harmonious relation between labour and capital can be established. It can be asserted that the story of Indian trade union movement is the story of Anasuyaben. She led the trade union movement under the guidance of Mahatma Gandhi
Anasuyaben Sarabhai was born in 1885 to a wealthy and affluent, industrialist family in Ahmedabad
. Her parents died when she was only eleven years old. It was her uncle who brought her up. She was married at a young age of 12 to a boy from a family with a social standing lower than hers. She did not like to stay with her in-laws because of their constant abuses and torments. She told her husband to let her free from his life and he should not interfere with her life again. Anasuya's married life ended there.
She found refuge in the religious books of Swami Vivekananda
. She decided to give up the material world and became a Jain Sadhvi. Her chance meeting with Dr. Erulkar was a turning point in her life. He advised her to study medicine if she was really interested in serving the world. With the support of her family she left for England at the age of 26, to study medicine. In those days single young women were not send beyond the seas for the purpose of education. But her family allowed it, as they were not slaves to old traditions and customs.
Her stay in England changed her life dramatically. On seeing the carcass of a young calf in a shop in London, she decided to leave her medical studies where one had to dissect and study human bodies. She therefore decided to study social work at the London School of Economics. Here she was exposed to the major ideologies of feminism and Fabian socialism, which had a great impact on the later part of her life. Later she returned to India and she decided to work for industrial workers and their families.
These were the times when workers lived and worked in miserable conditions. She actively involved in working for the children of textile workers. She started the first nursery school in Amrapura. She started cooperative societies for free workers, an Ayurvedic hospital, night schools for adult education, a bhajan mandal etc. All these activities evolved on the concept of truth and non-violence.
Anasuyaben could not remain unaware to the problems -of workers. When Ahmedabad was hit by a plague epidemic, a lot of laborers ran away to their village, which created problems for textile mills. The textile owner's granted bonus for outsiders but the workers who belonged to Ahmedabad had nowhere to go and were denied bonus. These workers came to Anasuyaben and requested to take up their cause. She accepted their request and asked them to strike work if their demand was not accepted.
For the first time an organized effort was made to get benefits for workers. Anasuyaben addressed the first meeting of workers on the banks of the river Sabarmati
and gave a notice of forty-eight hours to mill owners to fulfill the demand. At the end a strike was announced as the mill owners did not fulfill their demand. Anasuyaben was on the side of labour and her brother, Ambalal was the president of the Mill Owners' Association. Mahatma Gandhi observed their strike and wrote to the mill owners to raise the wages of the local workers. The strike was a success as the mill owners agreed to pay higher wages to workers. This strike was a significant event in the history of the trade union movement in India. Thus, the seeds for the trade union movement in India were sown.
Another crisis came when weavers came out with their demand. This time Gandhiji and other leaders guided Anasuyaben. Mill owners declared a lockout, but ultimately the workers won. At first, Gandhiji was hesitant to support the workers move to form a union. But ultimately he yielded. Mill owners also were ready because a union would help in conducting discussions with workers. Finally, the first trade union, The Textile Labour Association, was formed. Gandhiji made it clear to the mill owners that the union was not against them but it was to serve the workers.
Anasuyaben evolved an effective model of the strike, which was based on truth and non-violence. The success of this model resulted in harmonious relationship between the workers and mill owners. Her concern for workers, her openness in approach to the mill owner's, and her positive attitude were important factors, which led to the success of the organization. Gandhiji's model would not have worked well if Anasuyaben and her brother were not there. The model does not believe in the class struggle but accepts workers and employers as belonging to the same family. Both have duties and rights, and both, especially workers, should pay first attention to duties. Owners should pay adequate " wages" to the workers and should ensure healthy working conditions while workers should perform their duties honestly and maintain dignity of labour.If at all, there are any differences in opinion, both parties should sit together and discuss matters.
Further it believes in a comprehensive concept of worker's welfare. It stressed that workers do not take alcohol and be addicted to vices. They should be religious and God fearing and lead a pious life. Workers should not be trapped by moneylenders and exploited by them. They should also have easy access to better health and education. Anasuyaben sincerely believed in these concepts and fought to achieve them for the workers. She moved in to workers' localities to understand their problems and to devise solutions. Anasuyaben's contribution to the Indian labour movement should not be underestimated. Though Gandhiji played an important role as the adviser and the guide, it was Anasuyaben who ensured effective translation of the Gandhian ideology into practice.
Though Anasuyaben belonged to an affluent family, she was down-to-earth and always kept a low profile. She was a disciplined and sincere worker who visited slums, and took care of poor children and the downtrodden mass of India. She adopted a life of simplicity. Her multifaceted personality and her multiple contributions to Indian society have assured her an important place in the Indian's renaissance.