Vijayalakshmi Pandit (1900-1990)

Vijayalakshmi Pandit signed in as a member of the constituent assembly of India on 17th December, 1946. She represented the United Provinces at the assembly for a few months before resigning to fulfill her duties as Independent India’s ambassador to Moscow.

Vijayalakshmi Pandit was the face of the Indian woman on the international stage, and the voice of a country seeking its tryst with destiny, for an international audience. She was in many ways responsible for articulating, arguing and asserting India’s foreign policy, and building its profile in a post colonial world. Her diplomatic work lasted 15 years and across three continents-from Russia to the US, and Mexico, to Great Britain, and Ireland, and to Spain. She also served as the first woman president of the United Nations General Assembly in 1953. Her work within India, nationally and provincially acted as bookends to a career that spanned almost 50 years.

Vijayalakshmi Pandit’s first introduction to political activism, like many women of her time was through the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) in the early 1930’s. She, along with Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and other women pushed the AIWC to reconsider the aversion of bracketing women’s welfare and politics. They pushed for a resolution in 1931 that would declare anything the women’s group did for “self improvement or emancipation becomes a political problem”. She would go on to lead the AIWC from 1941-1943 and would spearhead resolutions that pushed the larger political establishment to consider everything from equal opportunity to gender rights, and more importantly reconsider Hindu Personal laws.

The 1937 provincial elections catapulted Vijayalakshmi Pandit to her first official political role, she was appointed as minister for local self government and public health in the United Province. As the first woman cabinet minister in India, she was one of the 56 women who entered the legislature that year. She would resign the post in 1939 along with the rest of the elected officials to protest against Britain volunteering India for the war without consultation of the elected government.

The 1937 elections were the first to be held under the Government of India Act of 1935. In spite of some distribution of powers as instituted by the act, the dissatisfaction that it did not reach far or achieve much remained. The call for a constituent assembly which would be empowered to create a constitution for India had been gaining traction during the early 1920’s and 1930’s. The successful elections in 1937, and massive victories for the party, gave Congress leaders the wherewithal to introduce a resolution condemning the 1935 Act, and demand an Indian constituent assembly for framing their own constitution. A draft resolution was sent to provinces, and introduced in their respective assemblies.

Vijayalakshmi Pandit in 1937, as a minister of the UP assembly moved to table the resolution that condemned the 1935 act, and demanded it be replaced by a new constituent assembly. The resolution noted that “The government of India Act, 1935, in no way represents the will of the Nation and is wholly unsatisfactory, as it has been to perpetuate the subjection of the people of India. The Assembly demands that this should be repealed and replaced by a Constitution for a free India framed by a Constituent Assembly elected on the basis of adult franchise.”

The coming of the civil disobedience movement, and the individual satyagraha, initiated by Gandhi, led to her imprisonment on several occasions. She served as the president of AIWC in 1943, and in 1945 headed the Indian delegation to the Pacific Relations conference in Virginia, which was set up to discuss the role of America in promoting democracies in colonies post the World War. Vijayalakshmi Pandit and other members from the Asian region highlighted the racial nature of the war in Asia, and warned that any harsh treatment of Japan could set back attempts being made by the US government to position itself as a champion of democracy. She was also present at the San Fransisco Conference on Charter of the United Nations. Although she was not part of the officially chosen British delegation representing India, she went there with the backing of Gandhi. She came down heavily on the charter, as it refused to give a voice to the people fighting for freedom from colonial oppression and turned a blind eye to the imperialism of the signatories of the charter.

Her tour of America, and her role as delegate lead to the UN was designed to drum up support for a newly emerging independent India. Her responsibility was to underline India’s foreign policies and its stance to a world skeptical of the newly formed democracy and its position in the new world order. It is also important to note that the positions she took emphasized the brutal nature of imperialism, the inherent racism, and the lasting impact it had on countries like South Africa, India and more. She was determined to push the countries of the world to embrace a call for being accountable to human dignity, equality and rights.

The theme of rights, & responsibilities, freedom and obligation was a theme that Vijayalakshmi Pandit would carry to the constituent assembly. In her only speech to the assembly delivered on 20th January, 1947, ten years after she delivered her speech at the UP assembly, she noted that imperialism maintained a death grip on countries like Burma & Indonesia. She saw India and its increased recognition in international circles as a country unto itself, as a sign of the power that India wielded in the region. She called for a sense of duty in the drafting of the constitution, a need to acknowledge not only the primacy of the moment for the people of the country, but how much it would mean for the colonized people to see a free, republic raising its voice.

She emphasized on the need to keep in mind the good of the whole and not sacrifice it for the betterment of the few. The central theme that ran through her speech was the importance of ensuring full economic, social and cultural justice to every person and the need to safeguard individual rights for all men and women in the country. She said “India must free herself socially, economically and then free others, and in the Resolution before us we find an attempt to work towards that end.” She pointed out the historic nature of the sessions and the need for India to stand up as a beacon of hope for other countries looking to craft an independent republic.

Vijayalakshmi Pandit came back to India, after her diplomatic postings to take on the role of governor for Maharashtra from 1962-1964. She went on to serve as a minister from the Phalpur constituency from ’64-’68. Her political life ebbed and waned during the emergency, ending finally with her resignation from the government. Her retreat from political life followed her appointment as India’s representative to the UN human rights commission in 1979.

She died in 1990


Malati Devi Choudhury (1904 – 1998)

Malati Devi Choudhury was sworn in as a constituent assembly member from Orissa, on 9th December 1946. She was serving her term as the President of the Utkal Pradesh Congress Committee when she was nominated. She quit the assembly soon after to work with Gandhi in Noakhali and focus on her own work with minority communities, and with children

In a letter extracted from the pages of her diary, written 25 years after the assembly first met she details the reasons why she thought herself unfit for the duty. She writes “when the eminent jurists like Shri Gopalswamy Ayangar, Shri Ambedkar, Munshiji, Durgaben Desmukh, sitting in the first row, were found busy in writing the Constitution of our country collecting materials from the constitutions of different countries, I, sitting in the last row, was feeling like a helpless school student. The thought crossed my mind that I did not have a place in the Constituent Assembly. The attempt to write the Constitution of our country by borrowing from the constitutions of other countries did not appear to me proper”

Malati Choudhury’s discomfort was not just about the elitist or inorganic nature of the constitution. There was also a strong belief that despite the granting of adult franchise, the “uneducated, poor, & hungry” were not going to be alleviated, and that the constitution would not go far enough in giving them a voice. The long, often contentious discussions & drawn out procedures would not have appealed to the restless nature of a woman who Gandhi nicknamed “toofani”. She stepped away soon after to heed Gandhi’s call for a peace march for Noakhali & to work with the “Namasudras of Tripura”

Born in 1904 in Calcutta, Malati Choudhury’s formative years were shaped by the twin forces of Gandhi and Tagore. A false start in response to the call for non cooperation in 1921, was tempered by the serenity of Shantiniketan. She was sent there at the insistence of her strong willed mother who wanted to see her complete her education. In Shantiniketan, she would meet, and marry her husband Nabakrushna Choudhary. The six years she spent in the company of Tagore & in the hallowed grounds of that school would shape her view of patriotism & give her the means to develop an identity during the freedom movement.

The late 1920’s and 30’s in India saw the rise of two parallel freedom narratives. One was of people fighting the more visible national battles trying to unite the country politically and philosophically. The other was one of people working in the trenches, at a more local level fighting battles on behalf of the Dalits, the tribals, the women and children. Gandhi & non cooperation movement bridged the gap in a significant way between these two narratives. His call for action, inspired political movements that worked at the grassroots & paid greater attention in trying to bridge income, and religious divisions with the Indian society itself.

Malati Choudhury was one women whose action had significant impact on the local narrative more than the national. Her move to Orissa saw her begin a series of measures to aid in rural reconstruction. Along with her husband she started adult education, women and children empowerment programs and dedicated measures to bring attention to the sufferings of the farmers. She, along with her husband and other socialist workers began the Utkal Congress Socialist Workers League in 1933. It was by many accounts the first openly socialist organization in India. The organization identified with Marxism and the idea of uniting the ‘workers of the world’. They rallied against casteism and untouchability. More importantly they declared that they would not own any private property, in keeping with the socialist philosophy. Malati Choudhury and her husband donated their house to the organisation, and Malati sold her jewellery. This was, in essence, the beginning of a life long career built around the ideologies of marxism, and around the idea that India could not be truly free if the masses of people were still subject to laws that oppressed them and their system of life. 

She started the Baji Raut Chhatrabas foundation in 1948. The foundation provided shelter and education to children of political activists. She also was one of the founders of the Utkal Navjeevan Mandal, an organization dedicated to the empowerment of tribal people. On the national stage, she worked closely with Gandhi during the salt satyagraha movement, and was sentenced to six months in prison in 1930 along with her 2 year old daughter. She was arrested again in 1942 for two years as part of the Quit India Movement protests she had organized in Cuttack.

She played a central role in the peasant uprisings in Orissa during the 1930’s. Her speeches and presence proved to be critical in mobilizing people against the government during the Dhenkenal, Bhuban and Nilakanthpur shooting incidents. The shooting was in response to a locally organized people group demanding abolition of forced labour and administrative changes to laws governing land and forest laws and demanding civil liberties.

She organized farmers to fight against systems which sought to oppress them, and brought education to the masses. She extolled the virtues of marxian philosophy, and encouraged citizens to adopt gandhian methods to overthrow capitalistic values. She raised her voice with Gandhi during the salt satyagraha, organized charka spinning protests and civil disobedience marches

She would become the first lady of Orissa when her husband was elected to the office of chief minister in 1951.

Her only direct political involvement came during the 1970’s. She stood as an independent against the Janata Party candidate Nandini Satpathy. The latter, who had previously served as Information and broadcast minister with Indira Gandhi was responsible for imprisoning Malati Devi and her husband during the emergency. She lost, but had made her displeasure known. She remained an activist till the end.

Malati Choudhury in many ways was one of the first and last true woman marxist leader in India. Her work & dedication to the cause of workers pushed Orissa towards socialism long before India became a socialist, republic. Her march against untouchability, tribal feudalism, superstitious beliefs, illiteracy changed the very nature of society in Orissa. Her work with tribals, education, dalits and farmers still resonates in Orissa.

She died in 1998.