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The girl who hoisted the flag of freedom

August 9, 1942: The whiff of freedom was in the air. As shouts of ''Quit India'' rent the air, a frail young lady rushed forward and hoisted the tricolour at the Gowalia Tank maidan in Bombay.

The die was cast, the turning point of India's struggle had arrived and the country was headed irrevocably on the path to freedom.

The lady, who took upon herself to unfurl the flag in the absence of prominent leaders, who had all been arrested, was Aruna Asaf Ali.

On Thursday, the country honoured her with its highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, posthumously. She had died on July 29, 1996.

She is also the third woman after Indira Gandhi (1971) and Mother Teresa (1980) to be conferred with the Bharat Ratna. She is the fifth person to be given the award posthumously.

Born into a Bengali brahmin family on July 16, 1909 at Kalka (Punjab), Aruna Gangulee broke conventions at 19 to marry Asaf Ali, a prominent figure in the freedom struggle and 20 years her senior.

Her hotelier father's pleas fell on deaf ears as Aruna chose to tie the knot in the face of stiff opposition. her marriage also brought her face to face with the freedom struggle and social service which she pursued till her death.

In 1930, she was jailed by the British on charges of sedition. She courted arrest in 1932 during the Satyagraha movement launched by Gandhi. This time she stayed in prison for six months. Once she was kept in isolation in Ambala jail because there was no women's jail at that time. "It was hot and uncomfortable," she once said. Yet she described those days as "glorious".

The moment of reckoning came in 1942. The All-India Congress Committee had planned to launch the hoist the tricolour at Gowalia Tank maidan as a sign that the Quit India movement had begun. But the British got wind of the plan and swooped down and arrested all the top leaders, including Gandhi, a few hours before the event.

Maulana Kalam Azad was not to be seen. The crowd grew impatient. Aruna realised that if the chance was frittered away, even the movement could collapse. Unmindful of the danger, she rushed forward and unfurled the flag.

The police fired teargas shells and resorted to a lathi-charge to disperse the crowd. Aruna went underground to organise resistance movements throughout the country. She became a legend for thousands of youth who rose to emulate her.

The British offered an award for her arrest. But she remained free for over three years. Gandhi wrote to her, asking her to surrender, but despite her reverence for him, she ignored his advice.

After Independence she turned to social work, and served as mayor of Delhi.

The last of the Gandhians

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