Purnima Banerji (1911 – 1951)

Purnima Banerji* was a part of the constituent assembly from 1946 – 1950. She represented the United Provinces in the assembly. She was serving as a member of the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly in 1946. Apart from her many debates in the assembly, she also led the chorus in singing Jana Gana Mana after its official adoption as the national anthem on January 24th, 1950.

Purnima Banerji was one among a radical network of women from Uttar Pradesh who stood at the forefront of the freedom movement in late 1930’s and 40’s. Her colleagues included Sucheta Kripalani, Vijaylakshmi Pandit, Uma Nehru, Rameshwari Nehru, Hajra Begum and many more. She was a member of the Congress Socialist Party since its inception in 1934, and a secretary for the Indian National Congress’ city committee in Allahabad. In 1941, she and Sucheta Kripalani were arrested for offering Individual Satyagraha. She was later arrested again for her participation in the Quit India Movement. She is said to have pursued her B.A in prison**. She was a close friend of the Nehru family, often sharing jail space with Nehru’s sisters, nieces, and with Indira Gandhi. Purnima Banerji was also the younger sister of freedom fighter Aruna Asaf Ali.

One of the more striking aspects of Purnima Banerji’s speeches in the constituent assembly was her steadfast commitment to a socialist ideology. She was 22 when Gandhi withdrew the civil disobedience movement in 1933. The Patel-Bose manifesto declared that Gandhi as a political leader had failed and called for a radical reorganization of the party, leading to greater acceptance of socialist ideologies and methods. Purnima Banerji’s political ideals are likely to have been shaped by the same forces that prodded the congress to acquire more diverse identities. Socialism, and communism became more mainstream, and official. This period also coincided with the introduction of voting rights for women in many provinces. The limited suffrage brought in greater awareness of political rights, and also pushed more women to contest for elections.

Purnima Banerji in her capacity as secretary for the city committee was responsible for engaging and organizing trade unions, Kisan meetings, and work towards greater rural engagement. She remained Gandhian in spirit, and Marxian in deeds-a duality that did not seem very strange or isolating in 1940’s India.

Purnima Banerji’s belief that education, and “right of livelihood and right of earning honorable bread” should be a part of the fundamental rights of the constitution accounted for many of her early speeches in the assembly. One specific instance of her requisitioning for greater government oversight was during the discussion on the fundamental rights on religious instructions in publicly funded schools. She wanted the addition of a new paragraph that would ensure that “All religious education given in educational institutions receiving statewide will be in the nature of the elementary philosophy of comparative religions calculated to broaden the pupils’ mind rather than such as will foster sectarian exclusiveness.” She debated that it was the government’s responsibility to ensure that through an approved syllabus, proper appreciation of all religions is inculcated into students for the sake of unity of the country. She also wanted an amendment to another clause in a justiciable fundamental right that called all state institutions to not discriminate against minorities seeking admissions. She wanted the words ‘state-aided’ to be added. Purnima Banerji’s arguments in these sessions and K.M Munshi’s rebuttal would later be cited by the supreme court in the T.M.A Pai foundation case in 2002.

Purnima Banerji’s debates in the constituent assembly extended to the composition of members of the upper house. She was particular that an upper house whose composition would be determined by a parliament would be unwelcome. She wanted some assurance that “it will not be a House of vested interests or of people with large properties who would stay any legislation which is necessary in the interests of the country.” She also moved an amendment that would bring down the qualifying age for the upper house, from thirty-five to thirty.

Her more significant argument came during the debate on Article 22 of the preventive detention clause in the constitution. Purnima Banerji agreed with many of her colleagues that while “any form of detention of persons without trial is obnoxious to the whole idea of democracy and to our whole way of thinking”, it would be necessary for a government to have that provision to defend itself. Her amendments to the originally proposed Article 15A asked for a specific time frame by which the detained person should be read their charges, in person appearance by the detainee in front of an advisory board and a maintenance allowance for the person detained, if they are the earning member in the family. The last of the amendments was negatived by Ambedkar who maintained that “If a man is really digging into the foundations of the State and if he is arrested for that, he may have the right to be fed when he is in prison; but he has very little right to ask for maintenance. However, ex gratia, Parliament and the Legislature may make provision. I think such a provision is possible under any Act that Parliament may make under clause (4).”

Purnima Banerji on October 19th, 1949 stood up to make a case for returning women to seats vacated by women in the parliament. She acknowledged that she was exhibiting a spirit of diffidence and was opening herself up for ridicule in asking that the clause which allowed casual vacancies in the parliament to be filled by persons belonging to the same community/religion also be extended to women. She wanted to “make it quite clear that women do not want any reserved seats for themselves, but nevertheless, I suggest to the House that in respect of the number of women who are now occupying seats in the Assembly, if any of them should vacate their seats they should be filled up by women themselves.” Her request came at a time when three seats in the constituent assembly had been vacated by women – Malati Choudhury, Sarojini Naidu who had died earlier that year, and Vijaylakshmi Pandit who had joined the UN. Banerji felt “that not only is the association of women in the field of politics essential but it is indispensable, and therefore I feel that this indispensable section of the people should be amply represented in this House” What was notable about this amendment was the response of her colleagues.

Shri H.V Kamath,a member from C.P and Berar countered her argument for more women to serve in government by pointing out that “regards the capability of women for government and administration is that woman is ruled more by the heart than by the head, and where the affairs of Government are concerned, where we have to be cold and calculating in dealing with various kinds of men, women would find it rather awkward and difficult to deal with such persons and that the head may not play the part that it must play in the affairs of government. If the heart were to rule and the head to take a secondary place then it is felt by many thinking men, and thinking women too, that the affairs of government might go somewhat awry, might not fare as well as we might want them to be.” Ambedkar in all his wisdom, rejected her argument.

Another argument of Banerji’s which was rejected by Ambedkar, because of redundancy was the addition to the preamble which she felt should reflect that the sovereign authority of the masses from whom power is derived. Her wording for the preamble which received support in the assembly was “We on behalf of the people of India from whom is derived all power and authority of the Independent India, its constituent parts and organs of Government, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign Democratic Republic and to secure to all its citizens..” She felt that as the ‘life-breath’ of the constitution, the preamble should adequately reflect the fact power was derived from the sovereignty of the people.

Purnima Banerji’s final speech in the constituent assembly was on 24th November 1949. She maintained that the constitution far exceeded the expectations of the people with its idea of negative and positive rights. She took great pride in the directive principles of state, which she felt gave future governments a means to change the structure of society. She maintained that her wish would be for a government that could more effectively control key industries and mineral resources of the country to protect them from foreign aggression. Purnima Banerji’s biggest disappointment with the constitution were the restrictions that it had put on the fundamental rights of speech and of meeting and forming associations. She declared that the Fundamental Rights of meeting and forming associations should under no circumstances have been circumscribed or limited by any provisos.” She held strong to the view that while “all rights are always absolute. They are relative, but when it comes to stating the rights, I should think, Sir, that they should not be burdened by giving the circumstances in which those rights cannot be exercised. If these circumscribing Clauses had not been stated in this Constitution the difference would have been psychologically great.”

Purnima Banerji’s political background, her ideology and her work is perhaps a testament to the varied ways in which the national movement shaped people from different parts of the country. She was very much a product of the place she lived in and the circumstances that molded the politics of the land she lived in. There is little available information about her relationship with her sister Aruna Asaf Ali, or her life before she joined the congress. She died in 1951 in Nainital.

Notes:

*Purnima Banerji’s name has been spelt in different ways in different places. They include Poornima Banerji, Purnima Banerjee, Purnima Bannerjee, and Purnima Banerji. Her maiden name was Purnima Ganguly. The Nehru family referred to her as Nora. I’ve used the one that is more widely used.

**Visalakshi Menon’s books on U.P politics and the United Provinces nationalism movement were the two books that I could find that spoke extensively about the politics that shaped the provinces and the many women who took part in the national movement in many diverse ways. She concedes that she could find very little information about a majority of these women, and her accounts were drawn from the more elite women who left behind some idea of their lives.

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