15 remarkable women who helped shape India’s future

The demand for a body to form the Constitution was an old one but the absence of universal adult suffrage meant that the representation of marginalised groups, especially women, was low.

By 10.45 am on December 9, 1946, the Constitution Hall in New Delhi’s Rafi Marg was filled with towering political figures from across the country.

Wearing overcoats and shawls, they sat in neat rows and applauded when Sachchidananda Sinha — one of the oldest parliamentarians at the time — took the chair to inaugurate the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly. Thunderous applause followed after Sinha, quoting Urdu poet Iqbal, exhorted all to be guided by “wisdom, toleration, justice and fairness to all”. Then, all of them shuffled into lines to sign the register against their names: 192 men and 15 women.

The demand for a body to form the Constitution was an old one but the absence of universal adult suffrage meant that the representation of marginalised groups, especially women, was low.

Most of the 15 women who made it to the CA were upper caste, upper class and literate – only one was Muslim and another Dalit. The then United Provinces sent the highest number – four – followed by Madras state with three. Together, they contributed around 2% of the total volume of debate in the CA, according to an analysis by the PRS Legislative Research, with G Durgabai (Madras), Begum Aizaz Rasul (United Provinces) and Renuka Ray (West Bengal) speaking the most. “Their interventions were about varied freedoms, non- discrimination, equality, liberty, core principles underlying the Constitution and about citizenship in a new nation,” said Meera Velayudhan, president of the Indian Association for Women’s Studies and daughter of Dakshayani Velayudhan, the only Dalit woman member.

At 34, Dakshayani was one of the youngest and most remarkable members of the CA.

Hailing from the oppressed Pulaya caste in Kerala, Dakshayani was the first in her community to attend school and college – she was India’s first Dalit woman graduate — and to wear an upper cloth.

A close associate of MK Gandhi, she married her husband Velayudhan – also a CA member — in Wardha’s Sevagram Ashram. But her inspiration also lay in the writings of Bhimrao Ambedkar, and she edited an Ambedkarite publication in Madras.

Her most powerful intervention came on the abolition of untouchability in November 1948. “The working of the Constitution will depend upon how the people will conduct themselves in the future, not on the actual execution of the law. So, I hope that in course of time there will not be such a community known as Untouchables,” she said.

Another remarkable member was Rasul, born to a branch of the ruling family of Malerkotla who became one of the few women to win in the 1937 election. Rasul was key in pushing Muslim members to give up the demand for a separate electorate.

“If that principle that the majority should not discriminate against any minority is accepted, I can assure you that we (Muslims) will not ask for any reservation of seats,” she said in November 1948.

The debates provide a glimpse of the concerns of the time. Constitutional scholar Madhav Khosla points out that the issue of representation was one that the Assembly debated a great deal about. While reservation on the basis of religion was rejected, reservation on the basis of caste was adopted.

On the issue of reservation for women in elected bodies, the sentiment seemed to be unanimously opposed.

Hansa Mehta, a member from Bomabay, categorically rejected reserved seats, quotas or separate electorates. “We have never asked for privileges. What we have asked for is social justice, political justice and economic justice,” she said in December 1946.

Niraja Gopal Jayal, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, pointed out that while the section on fundamental rights was meant to be gender neutral, matters pertaining to social rights of women were placed in the chapter of Directive Principles – which is not enforceable in courts.

Many of the women, including Ray, Mehta and Rajkumari AmritKaur (Central Provinces) were in favour of a Uniform Civil Code, which nevertheless did not get passed. The issue of a civil law that overrides personal laws in favour of a common set of rules remains a contentious one, even today.

Many of the women members went on to have illustrious political careers after Independence. Rasul became the social welfare minister in Uttar Pradesh and was also elected to the Rajya Sabha. Durgabai was elected to Parliament and later became a member of the Planning Commission. Ray served as a member of both the West Bengal assembly and the Lok Sabha.

Sucheta Kriplani went on to become the country’s first woman chief minister, when she succeeded Chandra Bhanu Gupta in the 1960s in Uttar Pradesh. Other well known members included Sarojini Naidu (the first woman to be appointed as the governor of a state), Kaur (who founded the All India Institute of Medical Sciences) and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, (who was elected as president of the United Nations General Assembly in 1953). Dakshayani concentrated on social work, organising a conference of Dalit women in 1977 and working among sweepers in Delhi.

(Courtesy Hindustan times)

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