Sarla Behn (Catherine Mary Heilman) English woman activist, Gandhian social worker and freedom fighter

Sarla Behn.(Catherine Mary Heilman)

Sarla Behn, (5 April 1901 – 8 July 1982) born Catherine Mary Heilman (German father and English mother)  near west London in 1901 was an associate of Gandhiji and along with Mirabehn, another English woman volunteer, in the ashram she used to accompany him on many a mission across the country.

Sarla Behn.(Catherine Mary Heilman)

She began her life as a clerk in England and in the1920s she heard about the father of  the nation and his active role in freedom struggle in colonial India  and in 1932 she landed  and settled down in India  Her long stay in India and her association with Gandhiji  had changed her perception of life and outlook. After a stint as a teacher in a school - Vidya Mandir in  Udaipur, Rajasthan, she met Gandhiji and joined the Sevagram in Wardha  near Nagpur, MH. While growing up back in England  during the WWI her father was held as a prisoner for some reason and her mother suffered  ostracism.   Sarla herself had an agonizing experience when she was denied scholarship  at school and had to leave it early. This made her get involved in a social cause useful to the people.

Deeply involved in social work in the ashram, as expressed by Gandhi who renamed her as Sarla Behn, she focussed more attention toward basic education, woman empowerment and most importantly environment. Being a hot region, Wadha did not suit her and summer  heat and bouts of Malaria were too much for her to bear. On Gandhiji's advice,  she shifted her base  to  Kausani in the Almora district of the United Provinces (now Uttarakhand) in 1940. Here, the climatic condition was congenial, healthy and most suitable to her, Having comfortably settled there, she  had established  an ashram  catering to the needs of hill people, in particular women. She dedicated herself to  empower the women of the hills in Kumaon and took interest in protecting forests. This region  had thick wooded areas. 

While in Kausani  Sarla Behn  won the ire of the British government because of her active   participation toward  the cause of India's freedom from the colonial rule.  In 1942, responding to the call of Quit India Movement launched by the Indian National Congress (INC) under Gandhi, she travelled extensively  and led the  movement with much vigor in the Kumaon district. being humane, she looked after the families of the imprisoned political leaders in the quit India movement under the oppressive British rule. 

Quite disturbed by the atrocious behavior of the police forces toward the family members of arrested freedom members, Sarla despite adverse cold weather condition and poor health covered many villages and visited the homes of the poor people to express her solidarity with them, boost their morale and arrange for help.  The British to instil fear in them auctioned their agricultural lands - their main source of income for the family

During  the Quit India Movement  she was imprisoned in Kausani and in 1944 was again  in prison  at  Almora and Lucknow.  Reason:  For violation of house arrest orders .  In 1946 with the aim of promoting women's empowerment, Sarla founded the Kasturba Mahila Utthan Mandal, Lakshmi Ashram in Kausani.  Even after independence she continued her  social activities in the area of education and ecology of the Himalayan region. The ashram encouraged manual labor and holistic training. In the late 1960s she worked with Vinoba Bhave  on the Bhoodan movement in Bihar in  and with Jai Prakash Narayan in the early 1970s. 

She helped the families of the surrendered dacoits of the Chambal valley.  Ms. Sarla was instrumental in starting the Uttarakhand Sarvodaya Mandal in 1961. In the  early 1970s,  Sarla Behn emphasized the importance of forest cover and the resources and consolidated the Chipko movement not only in the Himalayan region, but also other regions of India.  She played an active role to get the attention of the people and the government  on issues of environmental degradation and conservation of forests in independent India.  Leading social and environmental activists of Uttarakhand like Vimla and Sunderlal Bahuguna and Radha Bhatt  took inspiration from Ms. Sarla Behn.

She died in July 1982 and was cremated as per Hindu rites. ''Service to people is service to god''. This inspirational and courageous  English woman never ran after pelf, power and luxurious life,  rather chose a simple contented life in a foreign land and touched the heart of the peasants in Jharkhand and  made niche for herself in India's freedom history and the growth of Chipko  movement