ANASUYA Sarabhai, India’s First Female Trade Union Leader

November 12th, 2017 | by Pranab Kumar Chakravarty
ANASUYA Sarabhai, India’s First Female Trade Union Leader


GOOGLE, internationally noted search engine, on Saturday honoured Anasuya Sarabhai, a leading feminist and trade union leader, with a doodle on her 132nd birth anniversary. Sarabhai’s name will remain etched in eternal history for championing the women’s labour movement in India, says Google. She also founded the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association called Mazdoor Mahajan Sangh in Gujarati, India’s oldest union of textile workers, in 1920, in the textile city. She was affectionally called ‘Motaben by workers meaning their elder sister in Gujarati language. Anusuya was born on November 11 in 1885 in the Sarabhai family of Sarabhai and Godavariba, a wealthy family of industrialists and business people. Unfortunately, she was orphaned after demise of her parents at the age of nine. She and her brother and a younger sister were sent to live with an uncle. She was forced into marriage at the age of 13 but escaped to England with the help of her brother in 1912 for studying to become physician but later joined The London School of Economics as being a Jain she thought it would be unethical for her to approve animal dissecton.In England then the Fabian Society was influencing youngsters championing equality. She  was influenced by the Suffragette struggle. She came in contact with leading Fabianists like George Bernard Shaw, Sydney Webb and other free thinkers who rejected the revolutionary doctrines of Karl Marx and were for a gradual transition to a socialist society. Anasuya was inspired by their teachings to serve the cause of social equality. After returning to India, she started working for betterment the lot of the marginal and disempowered sections of the society .She also opened a school for their children.She was appalled to know that the workers were forced to work for as many as 36 hours nonstop minus any other benefits including rest. In 1914, she helped Ahmadabad’s weavers successfully organise their first strike for higher wages. She became their most vocal supporter, negotiating with mill owners, including her brother, for better working conditions.  Mahatma Gandhi, a friend of the Sarabhai family, was acting as a mentor to young Sarabhai. Gandhi began a hunger strike on the workers’ behalf, and the workers eventually obtained 35 per cent increase in pay hike. In 1920, Anusuya established The Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association. She was the aunt of Vikram Sarabhai, the great physicist who was also considered the father of the Indian space program . She mentored Ela Bhatt, founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association of India (SEWA). Anasuya Sarabhai died in 1972. On 11 November 2017, Google celebrated Anasuya Sarabhai’s 132nd birthday with a Google Doodle, visible to users in India. Anasuya dedicated herself to better the lot of the workers and had opened toilets and crèches for the children of working mothers. When epidemic affected Ahmedabad in 1914, condition of the mill workers worsened and they approached Anasuya to take up their cause. She gave an ultimatum to the mill owners and even went against her brother, Ambalal, who was the then-president of the Mill Owners’ Association, demanding better wages and working ambience for the labourers. Her endeavour was successful and the trade union movement in India took its baby steps. Mahatma Gandhi supported her trade union activities and in 1918, Anasuya compelled mill owners to accede to the demand of Ahmedabad weavers for a 35% wage hike. Tens of thousands of workers participated in the protest laying the foundation for Gujarat’s oldest labour union, Majoor Mahajan Sangh in 1920. But Anasuya ensured that the relationship between the mill owners and the union always remain harmonious and if there are differences, these should be sorted out through a dialogue. They are partners in the industry, she said. Ela Bhatt came in contact with her in 1950s.Motaben and she became one of her closest aides and their relationship became the backbone of the formation of the Self-Employed Women’s Association of India (SEWA) in 1972. However, only months later Anasuya passed away.

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