Hansa Mehta (1897 – 1995)

Hansa Jivraj Mehta served in the constituent assembly from 1946-1949. She was a member of the Fundamental rights sub-committee, the advisory committee and the provincial constitutional committee. On 15th August 1947, a few minutes after midnight, Hansa Mehta on behalf of the ‘women of India’ had the honour of presenting the Indian National Flag to the assembly. This was the first flag to fly over Independent India

Her appointment to the constituent assembly came from Bombay, where she was a member of the legislative council. She was, in 1946, also serving her one year term as president of the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC). She had also started a 2 year term at the SNDT university in Bombay, as the first woman vice chancellor in India. Internationally, in the same year, she was serving as a member of the United Nations sub-committee on the status of women, and vice chair, with Eleanor Roosevelt on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights committee.

Hansa Mehta’s background-as the daughter of Manubhai Mehta, the Dewan of Baroda state, her education-in Baroda university, and London, and her list of accomplishments would have been out of place in any other period of Indian history. In the hallowed chambers of the constituent assembly, however, she fitted right in with the other women. This sisterhood of extraordinary women included Sarojini Naidu who introduced her to Gandhi and the Indian women’s freedom movement when the two met in London in early 1920. With Rajkumari Amrit Kaur she framed the famed Indian Women’s Charter of Rights and Duties and fought for the Uniform Civil Code; and with Vijaylakshmi Pandit she worked on women’s equality and human rights in the UN.

Even before her stint in the constituent assembly, Hansa Mehta had made her mark as an educationist, writer, feminist and reformist. As an educator, she fought for continuing education for both boys and girls, set up home sciences as a university subject, and started a post graduate school of social work. The AIWC during her time, started the Lady Irvin College in New Delhi, a women’s college for home science, educational research and teacher training. A prolific writer, she wrote books for children in her native gujarati and in english, and translated books to Gujarati.

A staunch feminist, Hansa Mehta drafted the Indian Women’s Charter of Rights and Duties during the 18th AIWC session in Hyderabad in 1946. The charter demanded that women be treated as equal to men, and be given the civic rights, education, health on par with the men. The charter also called for equal pay, equal distribution of property, and equal application of marriage laws. The charter went above and beyond its intended audience, when the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights adopted the ideas into its document. As a reformist, Hansa Mehta played an integral role as a part of a strong women’s movement that pushed for abolition of child marriage (Sarada Act), abolition of the devdasi system, insistence of better educational opportunities for women and in personal law reforms.

Post the government of India Act, 1935, India conducted its first provincial elections in 1937. Hansa Mehta stood for the Bombay legislative council seat in the general category, after refusing to contest from a  reserved seat. She won the election and served as a principal secretary. She was in the council from 1937-1939 & 1940-1949, from where she went on to represent Bombay in the assembly.

Hansa Mehta’s most significant contribution to the constituent assembly debates was in trying to make the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) a justiciable part of the constitution. As part of the fundamental rights sub committee, she along with Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Ambedkar and Manoo Masani saw the UCC as part of the ‘state’s responsibility” to establish a single Indian identity over multiple religious identities. Their motion to pass this as a right was overturned. While Nehru provided justification for the reluctance to make the civil code a right, Hansa Mehta had hoped, in vain, that the advisory committee would reconsider their decision. The Uniform Civil Code went to become a non-justiciable directive principle. 

Hansa Mehta was also a part of the select committee that was convened post independence for drafting a Hindu code bill. The debate which started in April 1948 were part of a series of meeting held to “amend and codify certain branches of the Hindu law”. Impacting the lives of women specifically, the Hindu Code bill was a means to create a social revolution through adoption of laws that would ensure that women would not be bound by laws that sought to suppress their rights and straitjacketed them in orthodox interpretations of their religion. Hansa Mehta as part of the AIWC had already passed laws including the Sarda act that forbade child marriage, movements that ensured birth control instructions for women and more importantly education, both primary and further education for all women.

While welcoming the reforms suggested by Ambedkar that called for change in inheritance laws, divorce, property rights, and adoptions, Mrs. Mehta noted that “This Bill to codify the Hindu Law is a revolutionary Bill and though we are not quite satisfied with it, it will be a great landmark in the social history of the Hindus. But since this Bill was drafted many things have happened and one of the biggest things that has happened is the achievement of our political freedom….the new State is going to be a democratic State and democracy is based on the equality of individuals. It is from this point of view that we have now to approach the problems of inheritance and marriage etc. that are before us.” Her view, as agreed by many of her fellow women members was that laws should not bear those prejudices and traditions that might fetter future generations.

Hansa Mehta’s speeches in the assembly reflect her deeply held conviction that equality across the board for all humans was the surest way to ensure justice for all. She was dismissive of the idea of privileges, and concurred that they were not in the spirit of democracy. She noted in an argument during the objective resolution that “We have never asked for privileges. The women’s organization (AIWC) to which I have the honour to belong has never asked for reserved seats, for quotas, or for separate electorates.What we have asked for is social justice, economic justice, and political justice”. Her reflections on the constitution in a speech given on 22nd November 1949 pointed out that while “nowhere in the Constitution have we defined ‘minorities’”, the constitution has made every effort to ensure that everyone were guaranteed equal protection of law, equality of status, opportunity and religious rights.

Her last session in the assembly was made memorable, thanks to an openly sexist remark directed against women. A member Mr. Rohini Kumar Chauduri, had the honor of being on the receiving end of her derision when he remarked that the assembly had made no provision for “protection against women” in the constitution “because in every sphere of life they are now trying to elbow us out. In the offices, in the legislatures, in the embassies, in everything they try to elbow us out. They succeed for two reasons : one, our exaggerated sense of courtesy, and then because of their having some influence in the ear of those persons who have authority.” She dismissed him saying that the “The world would have thought very little of the men if they had asked for protection against women in this Constitution.”

It is one of the more enduring aspect of the times during which the constituent assembly was written that very few of the women representatives thought it necessary for reservations for women. AIWC, itself positioned itself as a non-partisan, non-political party that would strive to educate, empower and raise the position of women in society. All they expected from the government were laws emphasizing equality and assurance that their rights would be guaranteed. Hansa Mehta stood head above the rest in the fact that she expected the same degree of equality and emphasis on human rights in the international arena too. Her time in the assembly was limited because of the role as the Indian delegate to the UN human rights commission.

She was appointed to the United Nations Human Rights Council after Nehru recommended her to the position. She successfully championed her cause changing the phrase in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, from “All men are born free and equal” to “All human beings are born free and equal.” Her role in the commission went on for six years during which time she pushed for the rights commission to greater recognize the rights of women, to acknowledge the uniqueness of the Indian constitution and for the need for an international human rights that would acknowledge the realities of a post world war world.

She worked indefatigably for education and women’s rights post her UN service. She went on to serve on the board of UNESCO and was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1959. She also served as the First Lady of Gujarat, when her husband Jivraj Mehta became the first chief minister of the state in 1960. The M.S University of Baroda, where she served as its first vice Chancellor has a library named in her honor.  The legacy that Hansa Mehta has left behind is a testament to her indefatigable spirit and dedication to the simple idea that all humans should be equal, educated and empowered.