A series of firsts were achieved by the constituent assembly when it concluded its debate in 1950 after 2 years, 11 months, and 17 days of deliberations. It’s length and breadth of coverage of issues in India apart, it gave women and men equal stakes in the democratic process without a revolution by the women for suffrage, rights, or equality before the law. The constituent assembly debates were also unique, for amongst the 299 members there were 15 women who were voted to sit next to men, who argued, debated, and made their contribution to a stronger republic. There was not much doubt or concern expressed at the rights that these women held, and no protest regarding their equal status as assembly members. They were trailblazers in a way no women had been before them and made the assembly that much more spectacular.
Almost 70 years since they first signed their names as constituent assembly members, very little is known about these 15 women. The shadows cast by the likes of Ambedkar, Nehru, Patel, and Prasad and the other 280 men have ended up subsuming the contributions of Hansa Mehta, of Purnima Banerji, Durgabai Deshmukh and the rest. Their speeches by themselves do not have the majesty of Nehru’s or the honesty of Ambedkar’s. They do however stand apart for the simple reason that the diversity of their experiences as women freedom fighters, lawyers, reformists, suffragettes, and politicians were brought to the table. Their speeches include opinions on minority rights, reservation, judiciary, directive principles, women’s reservation, religious education, and schooling; all issues which are still contented today.
To be sure, they were not completely insulated from the criticisms of being the ‘wrong’ gender for politics, neither were they safe from tasteless jibes that called for protection against women for men. The diversity of opinions and leanings of the 280 men who also made up the assembly ensured that there were more than a few comments on the rightful place for a woman. There were disapprovals and doubts about what they could bring to the table and their concerns sidelined. In spite of these misgivings, the women did contribute to the making of the republic. They agreed, argued asserted, and raised their voices and made their mark on the constitution.
A lot of the discussion in India with regard to policies, law, and the constitution uses the work of the men involved in the making of the constitution. So much so that very few people realize that there were women involved in making these laws too. The problem with a biased conversation that highlights the contributions of men and only men is that it relegates women to the footnote and devalues their contributions. Gendered writing of history gives the idea that women’s rights, equality, equal status, were all unheard of concepts to date. Women who choose to follow unconventional paths are dissuaded because of lack of precedence and field including politics and law have come to be dominated by men.
My aim in writing this series is to bring greater attention to women who made substantial leaps in history and push for a more inclusive study of our country’s achievements. The exercise is in some ways a means to satisfy my own thirst for knowing more about the thoughts and pick apart the lives of these women who helped make the republic possible. The series will be my attempt to prove that there were women who took giant strides and paved the path. The sketches will show that what we are trying to attempt to learn and teach was already learned, not in part but wholly and substantially and these 15 women had hoped to be the beginning.
As a disclaimer, I need to point out that I’m neither a professional historian nor a lawyer. It is not a scholarly pursuit. The research is limited, in that, I’m relying for the most part on online resources, including the record of the debates in the Lok Sabha archives, Rajya Sabha’s selected speeches of the women, Granville Austin’s books, and other online publications that shed light on the debates, the people and the times. I welcome any and all discussion, pointers, and leads that would help me in building these rudimentary profiles. I also want to thank the people who have read a lot into my ideas and have suggested further readings and given their input. I promise to learn from them and incorporate them into the profiles. This in a way is how I’m choosing to tip my hat to my republic.