Imagine the days just before the Partition. Imagine two frail Maharashtrian women in a plane full of Muslims screaming the slogan, “Haske liya Pakistan, Ladke lenge Hindustan”, travelling from Bharat to Karachi, Pakistan. Now what would you say if I were to say that these frail looking Maharashtrian women were the bravest of women who were on their way to Karachi to meet the Hindu women who were stuck there and wanted to be guided on their next move?
One of those ladies was Laxmibai Kelkar, also known as Vandaniya Mavshi ji, the founder of the Rashtriya Sevika Samiti. Born in Nagpur, Maharashtra, in 1905, Mavshi ji was a woman who accomplished the task of grooming and encouraging young girls, housewives and old women to realize the Shakti within them while holding steadfast to Bhakti and Dharma. That was the time when the Freedom struggle was gaining momentum in Bharat and Maharashtra was one of the main centres for the Freedom movement. Lokmanya Tilak was making people aware of the ills of Colonisation by the British and used to communicate en-masse via his newspaper Kesari, via the Ganesh Chaturti Pandals and his speeches. Little Laxmibai (Kamal) and her Aunt and Mother used to gather the ladies of the neighbourhood to read to them, the articles in Kesari and acquaint them with the freedom struggle.
With such an upbringing it is hardly surprising then that when she grew up, Laxmibai wanted to plunge into social activism and the freedom struggle. “If prosperity is to be accomplished by the eagle-like Bharat, it is extremely necessary to have both the male and female wings powerful”, wrote Swami Vivekanand. This motivated Laxmibai to think of starting an organization (Sangha) for women on the lines of the RSS. She met with Dr. Hedgewar who had started the RSS and told him, “We women too ought to be trained and motivated for patriotism and self-defence by the Sangh.” He advised her to start a women’s organization independently with the common goal of upliftment. He told her to emphasise developing the inner strength of women. The Rashtra Sevika Samiti was founded in Wardha on Vijaya Dashami day on 25th October 1936. Women learnt cycling, swimming, lathi-charge, lezim along with motivational songs and stories, skill development and even about diet and health.
Unlike the RSS, women in the Samiti do not lead the life of a spinster. Mavshi believed in the role of women in Hindu Dharma as being the backbone of the civilization. In her words, “We have to build an organization of strong Hindu women having reputation and moral character. We have a tradition of Hindu culture.” Readers would be surprised to know that while doing all this, Mavshi looked after her family of 8 children (six sons and two daughters), her domestic and agricultural work almost single-handedly. She had become a widow at the early age of twenty-seven. Today’s modern women with all their modern gadgets and means of communication and ease of travel will find it difficult to accomplish what this diminutive lady with steely will accomplished across the length and breadth of Bharat.
Soon, Samiti work had spread to the provinces of Sindh, Punjab, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh too. It was at this time that the women in Sindh wrote to Mavshi asking her for guidance during the Partition. When most people were afraid of even visiting the riot-stricken areas, Mavshi ji decided to go to Karachi. She had received a letter from a young lady from there. It read …
It is very clear that we can’t live in our beloved Sindh. The Muslims have soiled the sacred Sindh through terror, arson and rape – here neither our honour nor our lives are safe any longer. Yet, we wish that before we are compelled to say a final goodbye to our beloved land, you should visit us. We once again wish to renew our vow of dedicating ourselves to the mission; in the presence of the sacred Sindhu and in the presence of a loving mother like you who will always inspire us to do our duty well in the future. We hope you will not disappoint us.
Mavshi ji went to Karachi as soon as she could, with Venutai, on the 4th of August 1947. There, she saw with her own eyes the communal hatred and anti-Bharat feelings. Killings and violence were rampant. Twelve hundred brave Sevikas attended the function where she told them, “Be Patient and strong to defend your honour. Be united. Be brave like Durga and no one will touch you.” She assured them that if the situation got worse, they should shift to Bharat and they would be looked after.
With Independence the work of the Sevikas did not stop. To breathe new life into the Sevika Samiti, Mavshi ji started holding Satsangs giving discourses on the Ramayana. She believed that Prabhu Sri Ram is our ideal. She also stressed on the role of Sita Mata and how She moulded Sri Ram’s character. Sita Mata was a devoted wife, a devoted mother and also a good Queen and all women could learn how to fulfill their duties and responsibilities from Sita Mata’s character. Later, during the Indo-China and Indo-Pak wars, during Emergency and other difficult times, the Sevikas guided by Pujya Mavshi ji, helped many families of those affected.
Laxmibai Kelkar is the embodiment of a Bharatiya Naari who was self-taught and taught others. She was brave and taught others to fight their own battles. Her thought process was modern and at the same time, as old as our civilization itself. She did not let widowhood or other struggles pull her down. She is a true role model for every woman of Bharat.
Article by Rati Hegde