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India@75: Meera Behn, Mahatma's confidante who took India's freedom struggle abroad

Madeleine Slade or Meera Behn was one of Mahatma Gandhi's confidants and a champion for India's freedom from British rule, abroad.

Jun 17, 2022, 7:50 PM IST

Meera Behn is a prominent name among the foreigners who laid down their lives for India's independence. Gandhi's close disciple, fellow traveller, and comrade in agitations, Meera, lived in India for 34 years.

Madeleine Slade was born in 1892 to an aristocratic family in London. Her father, Sir Edmund Slade, was a Rear Admiral in Royal British Navy. Florence Madeleine was her mother. Madeleine's passion was the 18th-century German composer Ludwig van Beethoven's music during her adolescence.

Meeting with the French writer Romain Rolland changed her life. Roland gave her his biography of Gandhi, which described the Indian even as early as 1924, as the greatest leader of the 20th century. 

Madeleine was overwhelmed by Gandhi's ideals and life. She immediately wrote to Gandhi seeking permission to be an inmate in his ashram. Gandhi replied positively if she was ready to undergo the ashram’s strict protocols. 

Madeleine arrived at Gandhi's Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad on 7 November 1925. She took the vows of vegetarianism, teetotalism, and celibacy. She learned Hindi and also hand-spinning on the Charka. Gandhi christened her Meera.

Meera accompanied Gandhi to London to attend the round-table conference in 1930. She courted arrest with Gandhiji partaking in the Non-Cooperation Movement. She was arrested again with Gandhiji and Kasturba in 1942 following the proclamation of Quit India agitation. They were all kept under house arrest at the Aga Khan Palace in Pune. 
Meera looked after the ailing Kasturba Gandhi those days who breathed her last at the Aga Khan Palace. Meera Behn lived in India for 11 more years after Gandhi's assassination. She spent her life trying to put Gandhi's ideals into practice in independent India. 

She set up Gandhian self-sustaining villages, worked to improve the lives of tribals in Chota Nagpur, and campaigned against deforestation in the Himalayas. Meera returned to her native England in 1959 at the age of 64. But soon, Meera migrated to Austria to pursue her adolescent passion -- Beethoven's music. 

She spent the rest of her life in the villages where Beethoven lived. Meera Behn passed away in Austria in 1982, a year after she was awarded India's second-highest civilian honour, Padma Vibhushan.

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