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Sarla Behn

(1901 – 1982) – (Uttarakhand)

Catherine Mary Heilman (Aged 81) also known as Sarala Behn, was born on April 5, 1901 in the Shepherd’s Bush region of West London. Her father was of German Swiss descent and her mother was English. Sarala was an English Gandhian social activist who created awareness about the environmental destruction in the Himalayan forests of the Kumaon region of India. Her contributions played a vital role in the development of the Chipko Movement and influenced many Gandhian environmentalists in India such as Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Bimala Behn, and Sunderlal Bahuguna. Sarala Behn, along with Mirabehn, was known as one of Mahatma Gandhi’s two English daughters. Both of these women’s work in Garhwal and Kumaon, respectively, played a significant role in drawing attention to issues of environmental degradation and conservation in independent India.

Sarala Behn worked at a school in Udaipur before meeting Gandhi, with whom she spent eight years at his ashram in Sevagram, Wardha. Here, she was deeply involved in Gandhi’s idea of “nai talim” or basic education, and worked to empower women and protect the environment. It was Gandhi who named her Sarla Behn. However, the heat and bouts of malaria affected her at Sevagram, and with Gandhi’s agreement, she moved to Kausani in the Almora district of the United Provinces in 1940. She established an ashram and worked to empower the women of the hills in Kumaon.

While in Kumaon, Sarala Behn continued to associate herself with the cause of India’s freedom movement. In 1942, in response to the Quit India Movement launched by the Indian National Congress under Gandhi, she helped organize and lead the movement in the Kumaon district. She traveled extensively in the region, reaching out to the families of political prisoners and was imprisoned for her actions. Sarala Behn served two terms in prison during the Quit India Movement for violating house arrest orders and served time at the Almora and Lucknow jails for almost two years. She passed away on July 8, 1982, in Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand, India.