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Indentured Labour

January 19, 1917 — Conference of the Prayag Mahila Samiti (Allahabad Women’s Association), Allahabad, India


Citizens of India, I think we represent almost every province here to-night. The words that you have heard from the previous speakers must have made your hearts bleed. Let the blood of your hearts blot out the shame that your women have suffered abroad. The words that you have hard to-night must have kindled within you a raging fire. Men of India, let that be the funeral pyre of the indenture system. Words from me to-night! No, tears from me to-night, because I am a woman, and though you may feel the dishonour that is offered to your mothers and sisters, I feel the dishonour offered to me in the dishonour to my sex. I have travelled far, gentlemen, to come to you tonight only to raise my voice, not for the men, but for women, for those women whose proudest memory is that Sita would not stand the challenge to her honour but called upon mother earth to avenge her and the earth opened up to avenge her. I come to speak on behalf of those women whose proudest memory lies in this, that Padmini of Chittore preferred the funeral prye to dishonour. I come to speak on behalf of those women who, like Savitri, have followed their men to the gates of death and have won back, by their indomitable love, the dehumanised soul of their men in the colonies abroad. I come to speak to you in the name of one woman who has summed up her frail body all the physical sufferings the women of India have endured abroad — in the broken body, the shattered health, of Mrs. Gandhi. I ask you to witness the suffering, the starvation and the indignities that have been suffered by the women because they loved their men and their men suffered for a cause. These women shared with their husband the martyrdom and the personal sorrow rather than prefer their own comfort while their men suffered for the sake of national honour and self-respect. I ask you in the name of that murdered sister, that sister of whom Mr. Andrews told us that found in death the only deliverance from dishonour. I ask you in the names of those two brothers who preferred to save the honour of their family and the religion in the blood of their sister rather than let her chastity be polluted.

National Honour

Do you think — you who are clamouring for self-government to-day — do you think you are patriotic, if you cannot stop the agony that is sending its echoes to you night and day? Self-Government — for whom? And for what? For a dishonoured nation that does not know how to avenge the insult offered to its mothers? Self-Government, — for whom? For men whose hands are folded while their women shriek, men whose voices are silent even in the face of the most terrible insult that can be offered to man? Wealth! What is wealth to us? Power! What is power to us? Glory! What is glory to us? How shall the wealth and power and glory of a nation be founded save on the immutable honour of its womanhood? Are we going to leave to posterity a wealth got with dishonour? Are we going to leave it to the unborn generations a sorrow and shame that we have not been able to wipe out? Men of India, rather the hour of doom struck than that after to-night you should live to say: “We heard the cries and yet we were deaf. We heard the call for help, but we had not the courage. We felt in our hearts the challenge to our national honour and yet we were cowards.” If, after to-night, men of India, if after to-night I say, it is possible for the most selfish interests to use the humanity of India to enrich, almost as a manure, the sugar plantations of the Colonies, if it is possible, I say, to let the forces of this greatest evil on earth daunt you, you are not only unworthy and degenerate sons of our mothers, whose name stood for glory in the past, but you are the murderers of national honour and national progress. You discount the future, nay, you slay the future. There can be no future for a nation when present men and women do not know how to avenge their dishonour. Does it matter that you as one of the speakers said, could sleep in your beds, with the thought that your daughters are safe, that your wives are safe, and that your mothers are set up upon a pedestal? Are not those wives and mothers, are not those virgins that might have been honored mothers, citizens of India? What are they gentlemen? What are they but the refuse that even fire will not care to burn? I have come to-day to speak, but I think the fire within me is so strong that it bids me be silent, because words are so weak. I feel within me to-day the anguish that has been from year to year the lot of those women who had better be dead. I feel within me the shame, the inexpressible, the immeasurable, the inalienable shame, gentlemen, that has been the curse of this indenture system of labour. And who are responsible but the men of India for this that our men should go abroad for bread? Why is not your patriotism sufficient to have resources enough to give bread to them who go to seek bread abroad? Why is not your patriotism so vigilant, so strong, and so all-comprehensive that you are able to guard the ignorance of them that go abroad, not merely to death — for death, gentlemen, is tolerable — but dishonour which it is not within the province of self-respecting manhood to endure. Ours has been the shame, because ours has always been the responsibility, but we were asleep or we were dreaming of academic powers, we were discussing from platforms the possibilities I the future, but we were not awake to the degradation of the present. Therefore, the shame is ours in a measure that can never be wholly wiped out wither by our tears or by the blood of those who have endured the dishonour for the sake of material profit and wealth. So, to-night if our patriotism means more than the curiosity to come by thousands to hear a few speakers, if it means more than the hysteria of the moment, if it means more than the impulse to pity, then I charge you, men of India — I do not appeal to you, I charge you, I lay upon you this trust, I entrust you with this burden, on behalf of those suffering women, on behalf of every women in this audience, on behalf of every woman from the Punjab to Malabar, I entrust you with this mission, to wipe out the dishonour that lies on our name. It is we who suffer, gentlemen, not those degraded people — it is the honour of the women in your homes who cannot show their faces. That mark of crime is written here on us because we have no destiny apart from our sisters. Our honour is indivisible, so must be our dishonour. That is, our destiny is one, and whether for glory or for shame, we share alike. And we women who give our sones to the country, we cannot endure our sons to think that their mothers belong to a generation a part of whose womanhood was dishonoured.

“When a Nation Grows Bitter”

Have I not said enough to stir your blood? Have I not said enough to kindle within you such a conflagration that must not merely annihilate the wrongs of the indenture system but recreate in the crucible a new stirring, a new purpose, a new unity of self-respect that will not sleep, that will not rest, that will e a sword to avenge, that will be a fire to burn, that will be the trumpet call to liberty that only comes when a nation grows bitter, that only comes when a nation says, “the health within me is rotten.” It is the bitterness that comes when we hear these wrongs abroad. It is the bitterness that comes when we feel that we have let ourselves sleep. It is when we have that indignation against the wrongdoer in our homes that we shall be able to see that we have felt the spirit of Sri Krishna reborn within ourselves for re-establishing our national righteousness. Is national righteousness possible when the chastity of your womanhood is assailed? Is national righteousness possible when the men of India sit still and see such crimes? Is national righteousness possible til every man amongst you becomes a soldier of the cause, a devotee, a fanatic, everything and anything which means destruction of the wrong and triumph of the right? Gentlemen, it is a stormy sea in a crowded boat that may or may not stand the burden of our sorrow, but like Khusru of old shall we not say, even when the night is dark, when the waves are high, when there is a rush in the boat, when there is no pilot with us, shall we not say — 

Nakhuda dar kashteeay ma gar na bashad gu ma bash.
Makhuda dareem ma ra nakhuda darkar nest.

What though there be no pilot to our boat? Go, tell him we need him not. God is with us, and we need no pilot.



Source: Speeches and Writings of Sarojini Naidu, Third Edition (Madras: G.A. Natesan & Co.), pp. 74-79.