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MANIBEN KARA (1905–1979)

Maniben Kara was a social worker and trade unionist. She was born in Bombay into an upper middle class family. Her father was a social reformer and Arya Samaji and believed in progress and women’s education. She attended St Columba High School, Gamdevi, a missionary school famous for social service. She was impressed by the dedication with which the Principal of the school carried out social work, and she wished to follow suit, but her studies suffered and she could not complete her Matriculation. So her father sent her to England for studies and she did a diploma course in Social Science at Birmingham University.

She returned to India in 1929, organized the Seva Mandir in Mumbai and started a printing press. She came into contact with the Radical Democratic Party. She published Independent India for M.N. Roy. She met N.M. Joshi, the father of the trade union movement in India. She began working in the slums of the Bombay Improvement Trust where conservancy workers lived. There she taught women and children hygiene and basic literacy. She formed a Mother’s Club and a Health Care Centre and started training volunteer workers the teach women good parenting skills and to send children to school. Inevitably, her work with these marginal people led her to understand the importance of trade unions. She began unionizing port and dockside workers, then textile workers and tailors. She led a series of strikes. Maniben joined the All-India Trade Union Congress and urged workers to fight for the freedom of the country as they fought for their demands. She was arrested on May Day in 1932 and put in virtual solitary confinement. After Independence in 1946 she was nominated to the Central Legislative assembly with a labour portfolio. The National Council of Women and others who had stuck to applying the traditional definition of social work frowned upon her work. She was also involved with the All India Railwaymen’s Federation, the Hind Mazdoor Sabha, and was a founder member of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.
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