Anasuya Sarabhai – India’s first woman to represent a trade union and a true inspiration for future generations

In Indian history, there are many outstanding women achievers who broke through barriers and inspired people to change society. Despite many famous women out there, there are some who are not celebrated yet contributed a lot. One among these is Anasuya Sarabhai, India’s first woman to represent a trade union.


Anasuya Sarabhai worked strenuously for changing the lives of the downtrodden. She was born of an affluent industrial family on November 11, 1885. At the age of 9, she lost both her parents. She along with her younger sister and brother moved to her uncle’s place, where she was forced to marry at the age of 13. Her unhappy marriage lasted for a short period of time and soon afterwards she returned home.


She was determined to study but faced strict opposition from her uncle. So she fled to London to work for a medical degree with the help of her brother Ambalal. She and Ambalal were very affectionate towards each other and this bond lasted for a long time despite all the odds.


In 1912, she received her degree and enrolled herself at the London School of Economics. She absorbed all the learning on social equality upon meeting the Fabian socialists and suffragettes in England. Here she formed her ideas and reasons to fight for social and gender equality among the people of her own country.


Anasuya Sarabhai’s Google Doodle

She returned to India in 1913 and worked with demoralized and disheartened groups. She established a school for poor children, as well as restrooms and creches for women. Additionally, she set up a hostel and a maternity home in her house for Harijan women. Later, she worked for the rights of mill workers.


Her goal was to give opportunities to the backward classes and women in order to improve their standard of living. While working towards this, she came across a discussion which graphically presented the realities of Indian middle-class workers.


She was heartbroken at the workers’ condition and determined to change it. She studied the life and work of mill workers. The ill-treatment the workers faced, their helplessness, and their utter poverty made her resolve even stronger.


An epidemic broke out in the year 1914. The union workers approached Anasuya and pleaded with her to take a stand for help in this situation. Anasuya accepted the workers’ request and an assembly was held for the workers on the banks of the Sabarmati river. She demanded better wages and superior working conditions. The mill owners were given 48 hours to agree to the demands, after which the workers would go on strike. Here she had to oppose her own beloved brother who was the president of the mill owners’ association, in order to protect workers’ rights.


A family friend of Anasuya was moved by the workers’ plight and penned a letter to the mill owners, urging them to agree to the demands. The strike went on for 21 days, after which a meeting was held and the mill owners agreed to increase the workers’ wages. This gave rise to the trade union movement in the country.


Anasuya’s beliefs were in keeping with Gandhiji’s beliefs. She was an active participant in the Kheda Satyagraha and was the first witness for the “Satyagraha Pledge” started by Gandhiji to fight the infamous Rowlatt Bill.


When the weavers of Ahmedabad appealed for a 35% rise in their wages, the mill owners provided only 20%.  Gandhiji, Anasuya and Shankerlal led a strike in which nearly 10,000 workers took part. The movement was successful after Gandhiji fasted on March 12, 1918. This led to the establishment of a textile labor union. On February 25, 1920, Majoor Mahajan Sangh which is also termed as Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association or TLA was founded. Gandhiji declared Anasuya as the life president of the association.


She established “Kanyagruha”, a school for the daughters of TLA workers in 1927. The union under her worked for the workers’ benefit not by opposing the mill owners but by practicing the Gandhian ideology of maintaining a balanced relationship between the owners and the workers. Due to her leadership and guidance, the trade union movement was a success. By 1978, it had grown to cover 65 textile mills with 1.5 lakh workers in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.


Ela Bhatt, who began working under Anasuya, was a young college graduate. People were against Ela as she did not cover her head while working, unlike other women. Anasuya stood by her proving how broad-minded she was even in those times. Ela was close to Anasuya and later founded SEWA, the Self-Employed Women’s Association of India. While working under TLA, Ela interacted with many women laborers in the Textile industry. This paved the way for establishing SEWA to support these women in 1972. In the same year, Motaben (meaning elder sister), Anasuya  left for her heavenly abode. Anasuya Sarabhai will always be remembered as a unique and incredible woman in Indian history who turned words into actions with her strong willpower.


As the finest member of an eminent industrial family, Anasuya was an implausible union representative. She was not only the most trusted representative of the workers but also participated in charting a course in the labor movement in India. This powerful woman guided nearly 2 lakh laborers and never misused her position. Due to this nature of hers, Gandhiji named her ”Pujya”.


A gallery was set up after four decades of her death with Ela’s assistance. She was a woman who moulded the social and economic structure of Ahmedabad. A heroic woman who devoted her whole life for the emancipation of the oppressed, Anasuya Sarabhai occupies an important position in the Indian history of gender and labor rights movements.