Born on July 16, 1909, as Aruna Ganguli at Kalka in undivided Punjab, her family had a distinguished Brahmo lineage related to the family of Rabindranath Tagore. At the age of 19, breaking age old social conventions she married Asaf Ali, a leading Delhi Congressman in 1928 who was to become India’s first Ambassador to the USA and later Governor of Orissa. Aruna went to prison during the 1930 and 1932 Civil Disobedience Movements, and in 1940 in connection with Gandhiji’s call for Individual Satyagraha. In 1942, she hoisted the tricolour at Mumbai’s Gowalia Tank Grounds (now called August Kranti Maidan), after Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s arrest.
In 1947, she was elected President of Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee. In 1950 she joined the Communist Party for a permanent revolution of her own fashioning, only to leave the party two years later. She was elected the first Mayor of Delhi in 1958—the only woman mayor the city has ever had. As mayor, she was instrumental in bringing about some major reforms in the civic administration, but soon got disillusioned with the bureaucracy and the government and left the post after 14 months. In May 1964, she rejoined the Congress Party.
She was awarded the 1964 International Lenin Prize “for the promotion of peace among nations” and the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding for 1991. She bemoaned the “lopsided” development of the country after independence. Associated with numerous women organisations she was against giving reservation to women in jobs and law making bodies as she saw it as a badge of weakness and backwardness.
She served as President of the National Federation of Indian Women and also the All India Women’s Conference. She, along with Edatata Narayanan and A.V. Baliga, founded the Link and Patriot group of newspapers. Aruna Asaf Ali died on July 29,1996 after a long illness.