Excerpts from an ongoing online project on the 15 women who were part of the constituent assembly that shaped our country's laws
Isn’t it a curious thing that in the initial years of Indian politics, the idea of women as political equals of men was the norm and not a deviance? Even when stuffy ideas threatened to seep in and undermine equal suffrage, Indian polity stood united on the fundamental ideas about equal rights.
Almost a century after Indian provincial legislatures voted for equal suffrage—the women’s movement in India had been fighting for suffrage since 1917—we’re still debating the number of women in our state legislatures and Parliament, who belongs and who does not.
In December 1946, a newly formed constituent assembly came together to debate and draft a constitution for a soon-to-be independent India. The debate took place over two years, 11 months and 17 days. It was an extraordinary project—an experiment that would determine the ability of a country to govern itself. Among the 299 members of the assembly, 15 were women who had either been voted or chosen to represent their provinces, who left their mark on the making of the republic. The assembly was a platform from which they could assert their equality and craft a politically balanced republic.
Very little is known about these 15 women. They were freedom fighters, lawyers, reformists, suffragettes and politicians. Many of them belonged to women’s organizations and had taken part in feminist movements since 1917. They had been to jail during the Dandi March, and the protests against the Simon Commission. In the assembly, they raised their voice for minority rights, against reservation, and for an independent judiciary.
The ongoing “Women Architects Of The Indian Republic" project aims to look at the lives of these women. It’s an attempt to create a conversation about this extraordinary moment in our republic. For a watered-down, gendered reading of history perpetuates the idea that equality, reservations and women’s rights are modern Western constructs.
The goal of this project—which started in January and will continue as a series of blogs, culminating with a piece on 15 August—is an inclusive study of our constitutional history.
The women whose speeches can still be found in archives are Durgabai Deshmukh, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Begum Aizaz Rasul, Renuka Ray and Purnima Banerji, as well as well-known names like Sarojini Naidu and Vijayalakshmi Pandit. Ammu Swaminathan, better known as the mother of Captain Lakshmi Sahgal, expressed her disappointment about the length of the constitution, wishing they had made one which could be easily converted into a pocketbook. Sucheta Kriplani led the assembly in singing Vande Mataram, Saare Jahan Se Achcha and the national anthem.
The other women that the project will research on are Annie Mascarene, Kamla Chaudhri, Leela Roy and Malati Choudhury.
As a disclaimer, I need to point out that I’m neither a professional historian nor a lawyer. “Women Architects Of The Indian Republic" 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 debates in the Lok Sabha archives, Rajya Sabha’s selected speeches of these women, Granville Austin’s books, and online publications.
Two women that the project has looked at so far are Dakshayani Velayudhan and Hansa Jivraj Mehta. In some ways, they symbolize the diversity that this group of 15 women represents.
She 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 from 1946-52. At 34, she was also one of the youngest members of the assembly.
Velayudhan’s life was shaped by the upheavals in Kerala society in the early 20th century. Before her birth, two of Kerala’s biggest reformers, Sree Narayana Guru and Ayyankali, had begun movements to end Kerala’s virulent casteism. They organized civil disobedience movements that defied restrictions on movement and entry to school for the depressed classes.
One of the more novel forms of protest was led by an organization called the Pulaya Mahajana Sabha in 1913. Founded by Kallachamuri Krishnaadi Asan, Pandit 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. The meeting that took place on a catamaran in Vembanad lake 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 king".
Velayudhan was the niece of Krishnaadi Asan, and the sister of K.P. Vallon.
She was one of the first girls in her Pulaya community to wear an upper cloth. Growing up at a time of radical social change, 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. She was part of movements that called for the democratization of public spaces, education, work security, equality and abolition of caste slavery.
She was the first Dalit woman in the state to earn a degree. With a scholarship from the Cochin State government, she went on to get a bachelor of arts degree and a teachers’ training certificate from Madras University. The stigma and institutional discrimination she faced as an educator in a government school pushed her to reconsider her career. She followed in the footsteps of her brother K.P. Vallon, and was nominated to the Cochin legislative council in 1945. The council elected her to the constituent assembly in 1946.
Velayudhan’s term in the constituent assembly was defined by two objectives, both inspired and moulded by Mahatma Gandhi and Bhimrao Ambedkar. One was to make the assembly go beyond framing a constitution and offer 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 a speech delivered on 28 August 1947, she said: “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 separate electorates and reservations hailed an independent India based on a strong, common national identity.
Velayudhan was scathing about the draft constitution presented by Ambedkar. She found the draft constitution “barren of ideas and principles". The blame, she said, had to be shared by all the members of the constituent assembly who, in spite of lofty ideals, illustrious backgrounds and prodigious speeches, could not come up with an original constitution.
Unlike many of her peers, she moved away from direct electoral politics to creating groups that worked for the uplift of the so-called untouchables. Her final foray into electoral politics was an unsuccessful contest for a Lok Sabha seat in 1971. Her work was an inspiration for her first cousin, K.R. Narayanan, who would become India’s first Dalit president.
Hansa Jivraj Mehta
Hansa Jivraj Mehta served in the constituent assembly from 1946-49. She was a member of the fundamental rights sub-committee, the advisory committee and the provincial constitutional committee. On 15 August 1947, a few minutes after midnight, Mehta, on behalf of the “women of India", presented the national flag to the assembly—the first flag to fly over independent India.
Her appointment to the constituent assembly was from Bombay, where she was a member of the legislative council. In 1946, she was also serving her one-year term as president of the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC). She had started a two-year term at the SNDT Women’s University in Bombay, as India’s first woman vice-chancellor. Internationally, in the same year, she served as a member of the UN sub-committee on the status of women, and vice-chair, with Eleanor Roosevelt, on the committee which drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the UN.
Mehta’s background—daughter of Manubhai Mehta, the diwan of Baroda state—her education at Baroda university and in London, and her list of accomplishments would have been out of place in any other period of Indian history. In the constituent assembly, she fitted right in with the other women. Sarojini Naidu 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 Indian Women’s Charter of Rights and Duties and fought for the uniform civil code (UCC); with Vijayalakshmi Pandit, she worked on women’s equality and human rights in the UN. Before her stint in the constituent assembly, Mehta was an educationist, feminist and reformist. A prolific writer, she wrote children’s books in her native Gujarati and in English, and translated books into Gujarati.
Mehta played an integral role in a women’s movement that pushed for the abolition of child marriage (the Sarda Act) as well as the devadasi system, for better educational opportunities for women, and personal law reforms.
Mehta’s most significant contribution to the constituent assembly debates was in trying to make the 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 justified not making the civil code a right, Mehta hoped the advisory committee would reconsider its decision. The UCC went on to become a non-justiciable directive principle.
While welcoming the reforms suggested by Ambedkar in inheritance laws, divorce, property rights, and adoptions, Mehta said: “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."
She was appointed to the UN Human Rights Council after Nehru recommended her for the position. She piloted a change of 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".
She served on the board of Unesco and was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1959. Her husband Jivraj Narayan Mehta became the first chief minister of Gujarat in 1960.
Priyadarshini Ravichandran is a member of The Takshashila Institution, a think tank. Her project, “Women Architects Of The Indian Republic", can be followed at 15fortherepublic.wordpress.com. She tweets at @binaryfootprint.