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.

Leela Roy (1900 – 1970)

Leela Roy was sworn in as a member of the constituent assembly from Bengal on 9th December 1946. She was the only woman member from Bengal to be elected to the assembly. She resigned her post a few months later to protest against the partition of India.

Leela Roy’s fleeting appearance in the constituent assembly was a result of her disagreement with the congress party’s acquiescence to the partition plan. A staunch feminist, social activist and political activist, Leela Roy preferred being the driver, and a champion of the kind of social revolution that the constituent assembly would debate and put in writing a full two years later. Her dedication to the cause of women’s education & their upliftment, and her extraordinary commitment to the communist cause made her a force to be reckoned with in undivided Bengal. She was associated with Anil Roy & his band of firebrand revolutionists, & played a central role in Subash Chandra Bose’s Forward bloc.

Born on the 2nd of October, 1900 in Goalpara, Assam, Leela Roy grew up in a Bengal that was carving its own identity in the national freedom struggle movement. Her formal education led to a BA in English from Bethune college, and an MA from the newly minted Dhaka University. She was the first female student at the university. Leela Roy, along with 3 other women joined the masters course in Bengali and Sanskrit at the university prompting the university authorities to conduct evening classes separately for the women.

Completing her studies at a time when the country was navigating the non cooperation movement and the satyagraha movement, Leela Roy’s biggest challenge was in trying to defy the norms of traditional masculine and feminine roles that had steeped into the conversation surrounding the freedom struggle. S.D Gupta, the author of a paper on the Nationalist-Feminist movement, elaborates on the critical role that Leela Roy played in casting away the notion “that women’s role in the struggle against colonial masters had to necessarily be tailored in a way that would complement her roles as ‘mistress of the house’ and the ‘mother of man’, for picketing of liquor or foreign cloth shops and for spinning and weaving of khadi*.”

Her experiences during the flood relief effort she organized in 1922, and her work for women’s suffrage through the All Bengal Association convinced her that true emancipation for women could come only through an education that included every aspect of understanding the world, and training their mind and bodies at a level that would equal or surpass men’s education.

She started Deepali Sangha in 1923, a women’s group that encouraged and taught social, and political awareness to women, alongside leadership training, and physical fitness. Leela Roy’s motivation was to create a generation of women who would embrace politics wholly rather than accept roles that reduced them to role models & subservient activists.

Leela Roy was also the first female member to enter the ‘core group of an all male revolutionary party’, when she joined Shree Sangha in 1926. She joined the party at the behest of its founder Anil Roy whom she would later marry. Revolutionary groups like the Shree Sangha, and its predecessors the ‘Anushilan Samiti’ and ‘Juguntar’ were conceived primarily as all male bastions where men would pledge their lives for violent, nationalist causes. Women started stepping into ancillary roles initially, since they were less likely to attract police attention. They went on to occupy central roles and be part of integral missions in Bengal’s national freedom movement.

Leela Roy’s biggest contribution here, was her ability to attract, educate and empower Bengali women from every walk of life, & provide them with choices in their fight for freedom. Women entering Sree Sangha were taught to make bombs, work with arms & circulate seditious pamphlets. Women were also given a choice to be become part f the various social projects run by Deepali Sangha which included running schools, colleges and vocational training institutions.

In 1931, Leela Roy launched Jayashree Patrika, a magazine targeting women, edited and written by women. The magazine was set to tap into a new found nationalist fervour in Bengal that saw the launch of the Calcutta congress by Subash Chandra Bose, the Chittagong armoury raid, crackdown of press freedom, & a new generation of women revolutionists coming into play.

The editiorial board of Jayashree declared that “Women’s magazines meant household tips, cooking, sewing, knitting and so on. We wanted to stay away from all that. Ours was an endeavour for Indian independence—a journal through which women could express their own views and spread political awareness. Jayashree created space for many such views to be aired. We at ‘Deepali Sangha’ always made it a point to take up projects that would require women to come out of their walled existence and participate in public activities.”

Jayashree, after multiple shutdowns and restarts has been continuously publishing since March 1947.

Leela Roy was one of the key members of the Forward Bloc party, that was started by Subhash Chandra Bose. She and her husband were key in maintaining party unity during Bose’s arrest. She was also responsible for the forward bloc weekly during this period. Bose’s confidence in Leela Roy’s work, and his trust in her organizational capacity pushed her towards assuming greater responsibility within the organization & at many points Bose’s most trusted compatriot. Many of her editorials in the forward bloc weekly take a very scathing view of congress capitulation to British demands. She was severely critical of Congress’s acquiescence to the world war and its inability to forcefully, and violently push back against the British. She risked jail, censorship and alienation by more moderate forward bloc members to stand for the values which she believed to be the ones that Bose would stand by.

Her exit from the constituent assembly came at a time when the country was still reeling from the horrific violence that was set in motion by the division of the subcontinent. She went on work on ground in Noakhali**. Her organization, the National Services Institute worked at setting up relief camps, rescuing women and aiding refugees in and around a fractured Bengal.

Leela Roy was one of the many people who strongly believed that Bose never died in the air crash of 1945. Her personal correspondence, writings, and the official story of Jayashree remained that Bose came back to India.

Leela Roy’s life remains defined by the foundations that she lay for the education of women and for her unparalleled contributions in pushing women to the forefront of the freedom struggle. H.V Kamath, in her obituary wrote ‘her restless dauntless spirit roused the dormant energies of a youthful band of men and women in Bengal ,to whom she imparted her own zeal and spirit of devotion in considerable measure” Her life work pushed the boundaries of accepted feminism, & made significant inroads for women who were not satisfied with fighting for altruistic ideals. The endurance of the institutions she has built both in Bengal and Bangladesh are a testament to her foresight & dedication to see a stronger, more educated generation of women in power.

*Jayashree and the Nationalist Feminist Movement. S.D Gupta, Pakistan Journal of Women’s Studies Alam-e-Niswan Vol.17, No.1, 2010, pp.71-100, ISSN: 1024-1256. This was one of the most comprehensive paper that I could find on Leela Roy and her work.

**One narrative suggests that Leela Roy walked 90 miles, to reach Ramganj on the 9th of December 1946, to rescue abducted girls. The narrative is suspect for the simple reason that she was in Delhi, signing the register for the first constituent assembly session. Her name erroneously noted as Leela Ray is among the list of members who signed & presented their credentials.

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.

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.

Dakshayani Velayudhan (1912 – 1978)

Dakshayani Velayudhan was the first and only Dalit woman to be elected to the constituent assembly in 1946. She served as a member of the assembly, and as a part of the provisional parliament of India from 1946-1952. At 34, she was also one of the youngest members of the assembly. 

Dakshayani Velyudhan’s life was defined and shaped by the upheavals in Kerala society in the early 20th century. Even before her birth, two of Kerala’s biggest reformers, Sree Narayana Guru and Ayyankali had begun movements that would push Kerala’s virulently casteist society to the brink. They organized civil disobedience movements that defied the restrictions on movement and school entry for the depressed classes. They organized satyagraha marches and encouraged women and men to discard practices imposed on them as a sign of their lower class. Restrictions included walking on streets marked for upper class, walking with head bowed before the upper class, wearing necklaces to indicate caste and more.

One of the more novel forms of protests came from an organization called the Pulaya Mahajan Sabha in 1913. Founded by Kallachamuri Krishnaadi Asan, Pt. Karuppan and T.K Krishna Menon, along with K.P Vallon, the Sabha, named after the Pulaya caste, organized a Kayal Sammelan or lake meeting in Vembanadu lake. The meeting that took place on a catamaran was in defiance of the king who had proclaimed that no Dalit group could have a meeting in his land. By holding the meeting on water, the group claimed that “they did not disobey the order” of the king.

Dakshayani Velyudhan was the niece of Krishnaadi asan, and the sister of K.K Madhavan lawyer, MP and editor of Veekshanam (Congress Daily)*.

She was one of the first girls in her Pulaya community to wear an upper cloth. She was also a part of the group of people who saw the death of discriminatory practices in the then Travancore district that sought to clearly demarcate the upper and lower castes.

Growing up at a time of tremendous social changes, and into a family that spearheaded many of these changes, the right to wear an upper cloth was just the first in a series of firsts in her life. Movements that called for democratization of public spaces, education, work security, equality and abolition of caste slavery saw her generation become the first group of educated Dalits in India.

She was the first Dalit woman to earn a degree. Armed with a scholarship from the Cochin State government, she went on to get a BA and a teachers training certificate from Madras University. The stigma and the institutional discrimination she faced as an educator in a government school pushed her to reconsider her career and see politics as a valid means of getting justice for her community and as a chance to serve the country. She followed in the footsteps of her brother, K.P Vallon, and was nominated to the Cochin legislative council in 1945. in 1946, she was nominated to the constituent assembly from Madras Presidency.** She was the first and only Dalit woman to be elected to the constituent assembly.

Dakshayani’s term in the constituent assembly was defined by two objectives, both inspired and molded by her time with Gandhi and Ambedkar. One was to make the assembly go beyond framing a constitution and to give “people a new framework of life” and two, to use the opportunity to make untouchability illegal, unlawful and ensure a “moral safeguard that gives real protection to the underdogs” in India. Her idea of moral safeguards rested on the idea that an Independent India as a “socialist republic” would give equality of status and guarantee an immediate removal of social disabilities that would enable the Harijans to enjoy the same freedom that the rest of the country enjoyed. Interesting in her arguments, on the 19th of December 1946 soon after Nehru had tabled his aims and objectives resolution was the invocation of the Licchavi Kingdom of ancient India as an example a republic. Licchavi kingdom which originated in Benaras, was infact a tribal confederation as described by Kautilya. It had a council of ‘rajas’ who elected a leader to rule over them. The other notable part of the discussion is her take down of Churchill’s promise to safegaurd the scheduled castes in an independant India and her remark that the communist party was only exploiting the harijans. She held strong to the conviction that only an Independent socialist republic can help uplift the dalits and give them the liberties exercised by every other citizen.

Dakshayani’s admiration for Gandhi and his vision for India was only matched by her respect for Ambedkar and his mission to raise the status of untouchables in India. Their antithetical positions regarding the status of minorities, and her own views on how the minorities should be represented was one of her most defining speeches during the assembly. Delivered on the 28th of August 1947, after Sardar Patel submitted his Minority report, her arguments against separate electorates in any form and her censure of the reservation system was in support of a nationalist narrative that sought economic and social upliftment rather than looking to politics as a means to eradicate the system of untouchability. She noted in her speech on 28th August 1947 “As long as the Scheduled Castes, or the Harijans or by whatever name they may be called, are economic slaves of other people, there is no meaning demanding either separate electorates or joint electorates or any other kind of electorates with this kind of percentage. Personally speaking, I am not in favour of any kind of reservation in any place whatsoever.” Her dismissal of the separate electorates and reservations was in keeping with the notion that an Independent India should work towards creating a stronger, common national identity rather than maintain practices that would further the social fissures that the British left behind. Her concern as evidenced through her speeches was not the political safeguarding of minority rights, but the breakdown of integrity and stability of a nation that would push back the advancement of Harijans, economically and socially. She saw an independent, united India as being more beneficial to the abolishment of castes, rather than a measured divvying up of electoral politics.

Her speech in support of a system that would use economic and social means to create an equal and just society coincidentally came 15 years after the Poona pact of 1932 was signed. The fruit of Gandhi’s fast against the suggested separate electorate of the Communal Award and the Poona deal that Ambedkar would pillory time and again, went on to set the tone for the Government of India Act of 1935 that would become the basis for Independent India’s constitution.

Her biggest criticism was reserved for the draft constitution presented by Ambedkar. She stood up on 8th November 1948 to declare that she found the draft constitution “barren of ideas and principles”. The blame she pointed out had to be shared by all members of the constituent assembly who in spite of their lofty ideals, illustrious backgrounds and prodigious speeches could not come up with an original constitution. Her criticism like many others centered around the idea of maintaining a strong center without much decentralization and the idea of a slightly reworked adaptation of the British India government act of 1935. She expressed dismay about carrying over the idea of governorship and centrally administered areas from British system and in the lack of originality in the framing. One fascinating idea that she suggested was to have the draft constitution put to vote during the first general elections and to test its mettle with the people who would ultimately use it. A democratic test of the document that would make India a republic, she felt would ensure the process of constitution making was fair.

Unlike many of her peers and fellow women members, she moved away from direct electoral politics into creating groups that worked towards the upliftment of Harijans. She saw untouchability being abolished by a constitutional article and lived to see reservations last longer than the 10 years the members agreed upon. Her final foray into electoral politics was an unsuccessful contest for a Lok Sabha seat in 1971. Her husband’s cousin K.R Narayanan went on to serve as India’s first Dalit President.***

Corrections

*The post previously mentioned K.P Vallon as her brother. Corrected after a relative contacted with accurate details.

**The post previously mentioned that she was elected to the assembly from the cochin legislative assembly

***Correction: K.R Narayan was mentioned as her cousin. Post reflects correction.